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Wood linebacker no raging bull on defense

Jake (as in LaMotta) Cooper has used boxing to help his play on gridiron, but also likes mental challenges of playing football.

BEFORE THE BALL is snapped, Archbishop Wood junior Jake Cooper lurks at middle linebacker. His eyes dart side to side, reading offensive keys he picked up from film study. He gesticulates furiously, playing maestro while his teammates move to the rhythm of his hands.

Opposing running backs must also see this from the backfield. The irony is thick, because both ballcarrier and defender must decipher where the line will fracture. What happens next comes down to something else.

And, only one outcome is on Cooper's mind.

"Blow him up," said the 6-3 230-pounder, sitting outside the gymnasium on the school's Warminster campus as a fountain splashed rhythmically in the background.

"First thing that comes to mind as soon as that hole opens up," he continued. "There's nothing better than that. Flowing down the line and you see a big hole open, and you know immediately that back will come right through there, and it's just, like, buckle down, because it's gonna be a big pop."

Football is a team game, which is part of the reason the 18-year-old loves it, but what happens in that hole between back and 'backer is, at times, one-on-one.

Friday night's 7 o'clock matchup at J. Birney Crum Stadium in Allentown against the power-running Berwick Bulldogs (14-0) could certainly be a challenge.

However, that makes no nevermind to Cooper, who picked up boxing and wrestling at age 3, because his father, Mike, a former professional boxer, hoped those solo sports would teach his son how to stand on his own two feet.

With Wood (11-2) in the PIAA semifinals and scholarship offers already in, the strategy seems to have paid dividends.

"Being gloved-up, in the dressing room, waiting for the fight to come, bunch of things going through your mind, it's very much mental," Mike Cooper said over the phone, his cadence, accent and passion unmistakably Philadelphia. "You don't have anyone else to help you. It's just you against that guy. And, in my opinion, there's no comparison."

Jake, who's named after boxing icon Jake LaMotta, remembers his first sparring session at age 11.

"It went well," the Plumsteadville native said with a smile that suggested there was more to the story. "It definitely went really well."

An early-season meeting with St. Joseph's Prep did not. After giving up a 14-point halftime advantage, Wood fell, 31-21, to the eventual AAAA city champs.

In six wins that followed, the Vikings outscored opponents, 269-66; they also lost to Archbishop Ryan, 22-7.

The team's response was not dissimilar to Cooper's after he took his first punch back in his pugilistic debut.

"I got stunned, I'll never forget it," he said, grinning. "I got stunned, and I saw stars. I actually got pretty mad that I got punched in the face, and the next round I kind of came out and handled some business."

At around age 12, Jake told his dad, a former quarterback at Abraham Lincoln, he wanted to focus on football. A few years later, he was starting at Wood as a freshman. Now, the 4.0 student is a captain, an honor head coach Steve Devlin said he never before bestowed upon a junior.

"He's just able to take things that we teach on the board and put them on the field and then make sure everybody else is in the right spots," Devlin said. "He makes a lot of our calls for us. He's like our quarterback on defense."

Cooper isn't only a run-stuffer. For proof, Devlin referenced a one-handed pick-6 against Bonner-Prendergast, and an open-field tackle of speedy West Catholic QB Antoine McCollum just short of a first on third-and-long (Wood won, 54-6).

Cooper said some of the boxing mentality and ring skills, especially footwork, translate well on the football field.

Colleges have taken notice. Syracuse, Pitt and Temple have offered. Devlin said others, including Penn State, are interested. Cooper mentioned he has a girlfriend who is a freshman at Happy Valley, but he declined to spill a preference.

Despite the attention, Mike Cooper, who regularly trained the younger Jake in Germantown at Derrick "Bozy" Ennis' famed boxing gym, dubbed "Bozy's Dungeon," glows more over his son's off-the-field demeanor.

Cooper is in honors chemistry and also has an aptitude for biology, though for college he's eyeing communications and a post-playing career in broadcasting. He is also committed to an anti-bullying after-school group, and another that helps children with special needs.

"I tell him the other stuff will come," Mike said of accolades. "You have to be a very humble, passionate person and things will work out for you."

It's a message also espoused by Yolanda, the family matriarch, to all of the Cooper children, each of whom is named after a boxer: (Jack) Dempsey Cooper, 19, who played girls' basketball at Germantown Academy and is now a freshman scholarship player at Rhode Island; (Harry) Greb, a seventh-grade hooper at Tohickon Valley Elementary School; and (Joe) Gans, an 8-year old following Jake's football and wrestling paths.

Jake is also accomplished in wrestling, having qualified for the PIAA state championships as a freshman. A torn labrum cost him all of last season, but he plans to compete this year.

Unfinished football business remains, however, after Erie Cathedral Prep plundered the Vikings, 24-14, in the AAA state final last season.

Cooper has one season remaining, but wants to give seniors such as Kendall Singleton, Josh Messina, Luke Spahits and Larry Mangan, among others, title memories.

"We have one final goal," Cooper said, "which is to go to Hershey and win a state championship, and I want that more than anything for those guys."

Next year? Cooper said he'd like to commit by early summer, so he can enjoy a distraction-free senior year. And, running backs beware. A stronger version could be lurking in holes next season.

"In the offseason I want to hit [the weight room] hard," Cooper said. "As soon as wrestling's over, I'm just going to get as big as I possibly can. I just want to turn into a monster and come back my senior year and hopefully have a great season, like we're having now."