Gustie Athletics Unique Path Series—Gary Cooper: A Journey To Finding Balance

Posted on January 20th, 2015 by

While Gary Cooper’s road to college was anything but traditional, the Gustavus Adolphus basketball player has found balance in his life as an athlete, student, husband, and father.

Saint Peter, Minn. — In the middle of the fallout after pulling a particularly serious prank involving a publication in his high school’s yearbook, Gary Cooper was driving to school with his mother. Frustrated with her son’s recent behavior, she had a clear message that Cooper still recalls to this day.

“I remember her saying, ‘you’d better be in somebody’s college by the time you graduate high school. You’re not staying with me,’” Cooper said. “I think without directly saying it, she wanted me to find a place away from Detroit, and that’s what I wanted too.”

His mother’s forward statement acted as a sort of wake up call. Although Cooper was only in tenth grade at the time, his mother’s exasperated declaration sparked thoughts of what his future held. The mischievous youth did not have any idea where he would be after high school, but he was sure of two things: he needed to get out of Detroit, and he had a dream of playing college basketball.

Cooper with his mother, who he credits as the one to spur him to think about his future after high school.

Cooper with his mother, LaTanija Davis, who he credits as the one to spur him to think about his future as a teenager.

Growing up on the east side of Detroit in an area where basketball is the equivalent of football in Texas or hockey in Minnesota, Cooper acquired a love for the game at a young age. However, given Cooper’s trouble-causing tendencies that led to attending four different high schools in four years, he was never able to fully develop and establish himself through the advantage of belonging to one team and working under one set of coaches.

“Since I never went to the same high school for more than a year, I’m not sure there were many people who actually knew who I was,” said Cooper. “I wanted to get out of Detroit and start fresh.”

When a coach from Wayne County Community College of Detroit approached Cooper during his senior year of high school, Cooper jumped on the opportunity to continue his basketball career and start a new chapter. However, his life as a student-athlete at the community college was short-lived. Due to conflicts of personality between the coach and player, the coach ultimately dismissed Cooper from the team. The Detroit-native decided not to return to Wayne County Community College after his first semester, since basketball was the main reason for his attendance.

Shortly before his high school graduation, Cooper ran into a military recruiter who talked to him about the possibility of going into the Air Force.

“He caught me at the right time,” said Cooper. “If he had spoken to me two months earlier I would have blown him off and not even thought about it. He just happened to be there at the right time.”

Given that Wayne County Community College did not work out, Cooper turned to the military as his next option. The recruit departed to San Antonio, Texas for basic training as a new member of the United States Air Force in March of 2006. For the next seven years, Cooper was an active member in the military, working at a base in Montgomery, Alabama for three years before being deployed from Fort McCoy, Wisconsin to bases overseas in Balad, Iraq, Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Qatar.

“It was an experience,” said Cooper of his time in the military. “I’m not going to say it was a good time—it wasn’t a good time. Just an experience. It certainly made me a better person and helped me mature from my youth in Detroit.”

Having had previous exposure to being placed in new situations with new people, the fear of loneliness and losing contact with loved ones was not a major factor in Cooper’s involvement in the Air Force. Because he was able to Skype with and make phone calls to with family and friends during down time while overseas, Cooper rarely felt homesick.

“You’re talking to a guy who went to four high schools in four years,” said Cooper. “I was used to it. It wasn’t a big deal to me.”

Cooper graduated with an Associate Degree in Logistics from the Community College of the Air Force  (CCAF) in May of 2012.

Cooper graduated with an Associate Degree in Logistics from the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF) in May of 2012.

While at the Air Force base in Montgomery, Cooper met a woman named Jacqueline Jones at a homecoming concert at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. At the time, Jones was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The pair made a connection and stayed in touch while Cooper was overseas. Following her graduation from Vanderbilt, Jones moved to Dallas for work. Conveniently, upon his return from deployment, Cooper was stationed in Wichita Falls, Texas, a city approximately two hours north of Dallas.

It was around this time that Cooper was confronted with a life-changing twist, causing him to consider leaving the military: he fathered two children six months apart, one of which was with Jones’. Becoming frustrated about his position, Cooper struggled through a trying period filled with several difficult conversations and decisions.

“I had no clue what I was going to do,” said Cooper. “I was just frustrated. I was mad. It wasn’t the greatest of times.

Through the entire ordeal, Cooper and the mothers of his children maintained strong and amicable relationships. He cites his faith as the factor that allowed everything to fall into place.

“I think all the praying that I did took a bad situation and made it as good as it probably could have been,” said Cooper.

After giving birth to Cooper’s second son, Jones wanted to move closer to her hometown in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. She got a job at the Minnesota Security Hospital in Saint Peter, and Cooper began the process of ending his enlistment in the Air Force so that he could join her. Being that Cooper still had three years of active duty left to fulfill, it was resolved that he could move to Minnesota with his new family if he served six years as a member of the reserves

“Since I still had time on my contract, I had to and still have to do reserve time,” said Cooper. “But my wife encouraged me to leave and finish up school, and since the military pays for my education, the financial aspect of it was pretty straightforward.”

Cooper moved to Saint Peter in 2012 and enrolled in Minnesota State University, Mankato for a semester, before needing to leave for reserve training in Florida from April to October of 2013. Throughout those seven months Cooper and Jones maintained consistent contact and continued to discuss Cooper’s education.

“[Jacqueline] told me that although I liked MSU, I should check out Gustavus because it had a stronger academic reputation,” said Cooper. “And I promise you I had never heard of Gustavus before.”

In Cooper's second season with the Gusties the junior guard averages 8.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.

In Cooper’s first season as a starter with the Gusties the junior guard averages 8.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.

Upon returning to Minnesota, Cooper toured the Gustavus campus. During his visit, Cooper ran into the head basketball coach Mark Hanson. Cooper asked if there would be any type of position for him on the team, whether as a member of the practice squad or otherwise. Hanson said that Cooper could begin by playing on the junior varsity team. In hearing this response, Cooper was thrilled that he would have the opportunity to play basketball and be part of the team in any capacity.

“January [2014] came around and I played a couple games with the junior varsity,” said Cooper. “I assume I did well, because Coach eventually bumped me up to varsity.”

On January 29, 2014, Cooper suited up for his first game as a Gustie against Augsburg College, wearing the number two and grateful for the opportunity to play college basketball. Cooper went 1-of-4 from the floor and scored just two points in his first game against the Auggies, but broke through in his next game against St. Olaf College when he shot 7-for-11 for a total of 17 points, brought down five rebounds and dished out eight assists.

A large part of Cooper’s decision to continue to play college ball had to do with the importance of being a role model for his two young boys, Trenton and Gary Cooper III. In the eyes of Cooper, relaying the value of following dreams and committing fully is an important lesson to teach his children. Having both his sons remember watching him play basketball is a way that Cooper feels he can demonstrate how he embodies that value. Coming to Gustie basketball games allows his boys to see that their father followed his dreams, regardless of the complicated situation.

“I’ve always wanted to play college basketball, and though it did not happen the way I planned, I followed through,” said Cooper. “That’s a lesson that I can teach them. People may look at you funny…people may talk about you, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to be able to tell him that as long as you’re happy and doing what you want to do, it doesn’t matter.”

A large part of Cooper’s decision to continue to play college ball had to do with the importance of being a role model for his two young boys, Trenton and Gary Cooper III.

The emphasis that Cooper places on commitment and making goals happen is present in multiple other aspects of his new life in Saint Peter. Take, for example, the juggling act Cooper took on last May during he and Jones’ wedding weekend. Cooper had a final exam scheduled on the day of his wedding, so he made arrangements to take the test a day early. The soon-to-be husband completed the exam on a Friday, drove up to the Twin Cities for the wedding rehearsal immediately after, got married at Fort Snelling on Saturday, spent the weekend in Minneapolis, and returned to Saint Peter on Monday to take his last final. Cooper credits the ability to balance the multiple roles in his life to Jacqueline Cooper.

“She’s very supportive, and she’s teaching me how to manage my time,” said Cooper. “If she feels like I’m slacking in my role as a father and husband, or with work, school or basketball, she helps me with that.

Although Cooper says that managing a marriage on top of his studies, basketball, and his children requires constant work, he knows it’s worth it.

“There’s never going to be a point when we’re on auto-pilot. There’s no happily ever after. Happily working-at-our-marriage ever after…that’s what it is,” said Cooper.


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