By Megan Walsh, GoHeels.com
Growing up, Jonathan Cooper and his older brother spent hours making players on one of his favorite video games - NCAA Football. While his brother always created a quarterback, Cooper chose a running back time after time. Each did their best to win every award possible for their respective players.
Now in his redshirt senior season as an offensive guard for North Carolina, Cooper is seeing that unfold in real life.
A 2012 Midseason All-America selection by SI.com, ESPN.com, Phil Steele and the Sporting News, Cooper is racking up national recognition for his play on UNC's offensive line. He is also up for the 2012 Outland Trophy and is a candidate for the Lombardi Award.
"Coming out of high school I wasn't very highly touted," Cooper said. "I had a few offers and a few of those things, but these awards mean so much to me. It shows that hard work has finally paid off and never giving up and trying to do the best I can. It's good to be finally noticed."
Those awards and honors all factor down to a difficult decision Cooper had to make at the end of last season. When faced with the possibility of entering the NFL Draft a year early, Cooper was nearly swayed.
At the last second, offseason shoulder surgery and a promise to his mother to get his degree kept Cooper a part of the UNC football brotherhood for a final season. After Carolina's long-awaited victory against NC State last weekend, Cooper was named the ACC Lineman of the Week for the second time this season.
"I never thought that I could possibly be All-American, never thought I'd be up for all these awards," Cooper said. "It was really revealed once I came back that a bunch of opportunities have been afforded to me by coming back. I feel like I've improved so much over the past year, so I'm glad I did come back."
And so are his coaches and teammates.
In a standout season of his own, running back Giovani Bernard showers praise on the offensive line, and Cooper in particular, whenever he makes a notable play on the field.
"He's just one of the top guys, always there and always has that happy attitude," Bernard said. "There's so much that I can say about him, but the biggest thing is that he's like a big brother. Everything that a big brother is, he's that type of guy. Hands down, he's just an amazing guy. Words can't describe what he means to me, especially on the football field."
That brotherly love all stems from Cooper's upbringing in Wilmington. As the youngest of five siblings, Cooper learned about sharing and working through problems very early on in life. Along with his toughness, Cooper gives his all the credit surrounding his leadership abilities to the strong male role models in his life, especially his father.
Quarterback Bryn Renner added: "He is just the man. Honestly, if I had to pick one kid on this team to be like, it'd be him - very humble, always smiling. Every time someone's down in the dumps he's there to raise their spirits. He's just a great guy. I just can't say enough about him."
Countering his personality off the field, the self-proclaimed momma's boy is still working on his aggression on it. Often called "too nice" on the field by his coaches and dad, Cooper is making strides to continue improving his toughness in beating the men across from him.
All of that work is now leading up to his goals: enjoying the rest of his time at UNC, hopefully winning recognition as an All-American and taking the next steps after his December graduation and entering the NFL Draft.
Those who see him everyday, like offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, already know his potential. Anderson said Cooper can run, has power and is great in open space. He also added that Cooper is as talented an offensive lineman as he has ever been around.
And now those outside of Chapel Hill are taking notice, as well - Mel Kiper Jr., an ESPN analyst, included.
"If you had to look at the offensive guard in college football, he would be without question one of the top two in the country," Kiper said. "He's a high pick, late first round or early second round. His measureables are exactly what you are looking for in a guard. He's athletic, physical and his game day grades are top notch."
Despite all of the attention and the hype surrounding what's to come, though, Cooper knows one thing will be certain about his future. Cooper will stay true to the values his father taught him, the same ones that helped him grow so much at UNC.
"Give your best and don't let anybody influence you or sway you from your beliefs - that's what I've stuck to," Cooper said. "I am different. I try not to be like everybody else. He always told me to do my best and be who I am, and finally people are understanding who I am and are taking that in."