COLUMBUS, Ohio – At a place as steeped in history as Ohio State, it is especially impactful when a new tradition is started – especially when it has a direct connection to the past. And that’s exactly what happened on Saturday inside Ohio Stadium as the Buckeyes continued preparations for their season-opener vs. Nebraska on Oct. 24.
Following practice, head coach Ryan Day called his team together with an important message. It wasn’t about blocking or tackling, however. He talked to his players about Bill Willis, who was a defensive end at Ohio State from 1942-44 and was an All-American and national champion during his time with the Buckeyes. He later went on to break the color barrier in the National Football League as a member of the Cleveland Browns and was induced into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as the College Football Hall of Fame.
Willis’ No. 99 is retired at Ohio State, and what he stood for – toughness, accountability and the highest of character – are values that the current-day Buckeyes strive for every day. And nobody better exemplifies those traits than fifth-year senior Jonathon Cooper, which is why Day presented Cooper with the No. 0 jersey, or as it will be referred to in Ohio State tradition: the Block “0”, in honor of the great Bill Willis.
“This honor stands out from the rest,” said Cooper. “Being a captain, all the great things that have happened here at Ohio State, this one stands out a lot more to me personally. It doesn’t just represent me, it represents a great man, a great player who played here. I know when I put that jersey on I’m representing him and I have to go out there and be my very best, and I have to do that every single day. This one really means a lot to me.”
“Jonathon Cooper represents everything that an Ohio State football player should be,” Day said. “He’s tough. He’s accountable. He loves this university and this state. He’s someone who continually embodies our culture of ‘fight.’ And that’s in everything that he does, on and off the field. I’m proud of Coop; he’s the perfect person to wear the Block “0” for the first time.”
Cooper, a native of Gahanna, has navigated a long and winding road during his career with the Buckeyes. He arrived as a highly-touted five-star recruit, worked his way onto the field and became a starter by the time he was a junior in 2018. After having his best statistical season, he was primed as a senior in 2019 to go out on a high note.
But just days after being named a captain during preseason camp, an injury derailed his plans. Like only “Coop” knew how, he worked to get back. And he worked. And he worked. By the time the fifth game of the 2019 season rolled around, he gave it a go and played vs. Nebraska. But Coop wasn’t himself, and after appearing in contests vs. Michigan State and Northwestern, he was faced with a decision: continue to try and play through the injury or think about using a redshirt to give it another shot – a fully healthy one at that – in 2020.
The decision was made on the eve of the Buckeyes’ Senior Day contest vs. Penn State. Cooper would play in one more game and then shut it down for the rest of the season and come back as a fifth-year senior in 2020. The game he chose to play in came as no surprise to anyone: Cooper started and finished with three tackles and a sack in a 56-27 win over Michigan on Nov. 30.
In March, another obstacle appeared in Cooper’s way. This one, however, effected everyone. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, players and coaches retreated to their homes and away from their daily routines. Cooper was in the midst of his rehab, and as the weeks turned into months and more uncertainty prevailed, Cooper’s final season was in doubt. But Cooper did what all great leaders do: he focused on what he could control, stayed positive and encouraged his teammates to do the same. In two weeks, Cooper gets the reward for that when he puts on the uniform – with a brand new No. 0 – to begin his final season.
When he does that, however, he’ll be trading one number with special meaning – 18 – for another. Cooper chose to wear 18 because his birthday is January 8, and he’s worn it well. But 0 – and the legacy of what Bill Willis stood for – is an honor that means more to him than one person can represent.
“I will wear No. 0 because it’s not about me,” said Cooper. “No one understood why I wore No. 18; it’s because my birthday is January 8. That represents just me. When I wear that Block 0 it’ll be in honor of a great Ohio State Buckeye and it will represent Ohio State University and all my teammates and coaches. I know I have to play at my very best and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”