Once on heavier side, Harlem's QB could always throw. Now he's breaking NIC-10 records.

Harlem QB was once overweight but could always throw the football

Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star
Harlem Quarterback James Cooper Jr. is just 148 yards away from breaking the NIC-10 record for career passing yards. He already holds the record for career touchdown passes.

MACHESNEY PARK — James Cooper Jr. grew up a little heavy and looked more like a lineman than a future record-setting quarterback.

And he really was a lineman at first. For two games.

“James played center in his first two games of flag football, just because that’s what I did and I thought my son should do the same thing,” said James Cooper Sr., who played center for an NCAA Division III school in Indiana. “Then, at practice, he threw the ball to his coach and they changed his position from that moment on.”

He still didn’t look — or play — like most youth quarterbacks. Cooper weighed 140 pounds in sixth grade. As an eighth-grader, he was 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. “I was a big old quarterback,” he said.

In youth football, most quarterbacks run more than they pass. Not James Cooper Jr. He was a passer, from his very first start as a 5-year-old playing flag football.

“I was on the heavier side; all I could really do was throw,” said Cooper, a Harlem senior who has a NIC-10 record 62 career touchdown passes and needs just 148 yards Saturday against Hononegah (2-1) to also break former Belvidere North star Jace Bankord’s record of 5,608 passing yards. “It sucked to the point teams knew all I could do was throw, but it also helped because all I could do was throw. That’s all I ever worked on. Being a heavier quarterback when I was younger was tough, but when I started thinning out and got taller and faster, I could add more to my game. Now I can run and do everything else.

“But growing up, I was a throwing quarterback. No one ever saw me as a running quarterback. And not being able to run, all that repetition and throwing made my arm that much stronger. Even now after games, my whole body hurts. The only thing that never hurts is my arm. I think that’s because I threw so much when I was young. I was never able to run because I was always heavier, so I just threw.”

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He also throws in baseball, where he plays third base and pitches, with a fastball clocked at 86 mph. “I’m hoping to hit 90 this year,” he said.

And he threw the shot put and discus well enough to place at state in junior high meets.

“It’s always been his arm that set him so far apart from everyone else,” Harlem receiver Dominic McCarren said.

“Anything that had to do with throwing something” his dad said, “he was very good at it from a very early age.”

And he was a better athlete than his weight indicated, doing well in football, baseball and basketball. Just not in wrestling.

“He was not good; he was bad,” his dad said of James’ one year of wrestling at age 6. “He was probably 20 pounds heavier than most kids his own age, so he typically wrestled 8-year-olds and got beat up. That was our least-favorite sports season of all time, but it was a character builder.”

Cooper, who has 11 TD passes and only one interception this year, had another tough sports season in ninth grade. It didn’t start out that way. He threw for 505 yards in four games, alternating with senior Troy King as Harlem’s quarterback and joining former Belvidere great Troy Vandenbroek as the only freshman to get significant time at quarterback in NIC-10 history. But he broke his wrist in that fourth game of the season trying to catch himself after getting shoved to the ground after throwing a screen pass.

“My freshman year was detrimental,” Cooper said. “I was so excited about getting in and I was doing so well, then I broke my wrist. It hurt a lot because I was making myself known. But it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me a year to sit back and watch and learn, especially with a leader like Troy."

As a junior, Cooper threw for 2,340 yards, just 43 shy of the league record by Belvidere’s Austin Revolinski. He had a lot of help from Brandt Hixson, who had 900 yards receiving in only 6½ games and likely would have broken the NIC-10 record if he hadn’t missed 3½ games with injury.

This year Cooper has two stars to throw to. McCarren (347 yards on 20 catches) and Dezzion Jordan (206 yards on seven catches) rank 1st and 3rd in the conference in receiving yards after seven games and helped Cooper throw for 440 yards, second in league history, in last week’s 45-42 comeback win over Belvidere North.

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Junior halfback Adrian Palos also has two catches this year, both for touchdowns, averaging 39 yards a catch.

“They are all close friends,” Cooper said. “We all understand each other really well. It’s like a brotherhood. That goes a long way with chemistry and timing.”

Harlem (3-0) at one point trailed winless Belvidere North 21-6 before Cooper threw TD passes of 73, 50 and 38 yards. He finished with six combined touchdowns, running and passing, for the second consecutive week.

“It’s crazy playing with him,” said Jordan, a Jefferson transfer who had only two catches in Harlem’s first two games before having the third-greatest receiving game in school history with 178 yards Saturday. “I have never had a QB like James who can roll out right and throw back left.

“James hadn’t thrown to me, so he didn’t know how fast I was and where to put it. We had to put in a lot of extra time after practice to get that chemistry going. It clicked. Now we’re up and rolling.”

“We knew what we could do,” McCarren said. “We have the talent all around. We were just waiting for the game to show it. We can go far with what are playmakers are doing right now.”

“They have to worry about our short plays turning into 70-yarders,” Jordan said. “We have speed and we have height.”

And they have the right man throwing to them.

A man who may have been taught by a girl. Cooper has five sisters but no brothers. Only one of the sisters — Jada, a four-year varsity cheerleader who now cheers at Ball State — played sports at Harlem.

“I couldn’t tell you how James has such a good throwing arm,” his dad said. “Our oldest daughter, Amanda, claims to be the one who taught him how to throw, and she could have been the one. He has always been able to throw hard.

“Usually in youth football, you see quarterbacks running sweeps and counters. They don’t learn how to pass until they are older. James learned how to pass from when he was 6 years old. That really helped with his understanding of the game and of defenses and helped with his accuracy.

“He’s been 12 years in the making. You can see the benefits of him starting early, especially throwing. It’s pretty neat to watch.”

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge