Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Each week, Land of 10 will introduce the Iowa fan base to one of the new Hawkeyes. Up this week is 3-star receiver Max Cooper.
WAUKESHA, Wis. — Catholic Memorial had not beaten Arrowhead in a decade.
Two of southeastern Wisconsin’s best programs slugged it out for three quarters on a rain-soaked Friday night with Arrowhead notching the only points on a field goal. Early in the fourth quarter, Catholic Memorial called on its biggest playmaker to make a big-time play. And as he did throughout 2016, Max Cooper delivered.
Catholic Memorial quarterback Ben Nimz tossed to the right flat, where Cooper beat Michigan State recruit Noah Harvey to the boundary. Cooper shook one tackle, then burst up the sidelines the remaining 30 yards on a 45-yard touchdown. The play proved decisive in the Crusaders’ 7-3 midseason win against Arrowhead.
“They shut Max down,” said Catholic Memorial assistant football and head track coach Matt Bergan, the school’s future athletic director. “They doubled him the whole game. Fourth quarter, he runs a 3-yard out. The ball’s on the money. He catches it at the sideline, he makes two guys whiff and then right down the sideline for a 45-yard touchdown. We won the game 7-3 because of that move. He can juke you out of your boots.”
All season long, Cooper came up with big catches at key moments for the Crusaders. He finished with 50 catches for 1,024 yards and 17 touchdowns in a senior season that netted Catholic Memorial a 14-0 record and the Wisconsin Division 3 state championship. A few weeks later, the 6-foot, 175-pound Cooper accepted a scholarship to play football at Iowa this fall.
Cooper was known for his burst, his acceleration, his route running and his hands. He made multiple one-handed catches and regularly caught contested balls. With a strong work ethic and grade-point average (3.93) coupled with his athletic ability and Iowa’s depleted receiving corps, Cooper could vault into playing time almost immediately this fall.
“He can run the vertical route. On a bubble he makes guys miss,” said Catholic Memorial coach Bill Young, a member of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame with six state titles and 325 victories. “Either you can do it or you can’t do it. You don’t coach that. When (Iowa) coach (Kirk) Ferentz saw tape on Max, that’s the thing that he said, (Cooper has) ‘got a lot of shimmy. He’s got a lot of shake, he makes guys miss.’ That’s an innate ability that Max has and that was absolutely huge for our team.”
“Max Cooper is an extremely productive, successful player, played on a state championship team,” Ferentz said on signing day. “I don’t want to call him nifty; the guy looks like a football player. I’m not saying he’s (current Iowa wide receiver Matt) VandeBerg, but he looks like a football player, so I’m excited about that.”
En route to the state title, never was Cooper needed more than in a second-round playoff game against Wisconsin Lutheran. After giving up a touchdown with less than 6 minutes remaining, the Crusaders trailed by 14 points. On the first play from scrimmage, Cooper hauled in a 63-yard strike to pull Catholic Memorial within seven points.
After a three-and-out, Cooper grabbed a 56-yard touchdown pass but it was called back. Later in the series, Cooper raced past two defenders up the left sideline to tie the game with a 42-yard touchdown catch.
“He ran an out-and-up, and two guys bit,” said Steve Cooper, Max’s father. “They came in, and he turned it up. When he caught that ball, I’m not kidding you, parents were jumping on top of each other. We were just ecstatic. As a parent, it was cool. As Max’s parent, it was even better.”
The Crusaders picked up another defensive stop and won 30-27 with a 51-yard field goal on the game’s final play.
“We were pretty worried about that game,” Max Cooper said. “Wisconsin Lutheran is an incredible team. It just showed what kind of team we were to come back down 14 with 5 minutes left. We just had to fight. We wanted to win the state championship this year.”
In the Division 3 state title game, Cooper put Catholic Memorial ahead by two scores with a 62-yard touchdown reception. The Crusaders avenged their 2015 title-game loss with a 24-14 win against Notre Dame.
It was a series of important plays that capped Catholic Memorial’s season and defined Cooper’s career with the Crusaders.
“His ability to focus on the ball, a one-hand catch, fade-stops, vertical balls, 50-50 balls … he’s the guy that always gets that ball,” Young said. “I’ve coached 39 years here, I’ve had over 31 Division I athletes coming out of our school, but he’s by far the best wide receiver that I’ve ever coached.”
Sprinting ahead of the competition
Max Cooper was born in Indianapolis but moved all over the Midwest before settling in the Milwaukee area in middle school. He opened his high school career as a 5-foot-7, 134-pound quarterback. Cooper shifted to wide receiver as a sophomore but he still had a smaller frame. It was at that point when Young considered Cooper’s potential at a crossroads.
“My concern was, early in his sophomore and junior year, weightlifting was going to be crucial to his development,” Young said.
With the move to receiver, Cooper initially was concerned with whether he had enough quickness to beat press coverage. Then he spent much of his time in the Catholic Memorial weight room. He fashioned a work ethic that continues to this day.
“I’ve got him in weightlifting two times or three times per week,” Young said. “Then he does his Iowa workout at the end of practice. So he’s bought in: hook, line and sinker. Being physical (is important) because now you’re playing against guys in this league (the Big Ten) that are going to be playing on Sundays. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to know how to get off press coverage.”
Beyond football, Cooper has enjoyed success in most of his athletic ventures. He started at point guard for the Crusaders basketball team this year. As a sophomore, he started for the lacrosse team and led Catholic Memorial to the state title.
Then in his junior year, Cooper shifted from lacrosse to the track squad, partly to showcase his ability to college football coaches, and became one of Wisconsin’s best sprinters.
“The first time we put him in the long jump he jumps 21 feet, 7 inches,” Bergan said. “I’m going nuts at Brookfield East (Wis.) High School because I’m fired up. At that time it was the best jump in Division 2 in the state. I’m going nuts and he comes up, ‘Coach, is that good?’ From then on we knew we had a big-time jumper.”
Cooper ran the second leg on Catholic Memorial’s state champion 4×100-meter relay in 2016.
“The race was over when he got the baton,” Bergan said. “If you watched him run, it was like watching the parting of the seas watching him run past everybody else in that race. When he handed off to our third guy there’s nobody else even close. He’s just a jet.”
Last Saturday, Cooper won the 55-meter dash at the Classic 8 Indoor Conference championship in 6.69 seconds. It’s not a surprise to Bergan, who said he consistently times Cooper in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash. In spring track, Cooper will compete in the 100-meter dash, a few relays and the long jump.
Cooper developed a fondness for Michigan-area teams, in part because much of his extended family lives there. His parents, Steve and Sharon, met at Central Michigan, where his father played as a walk-on quarterback. So when Max — an only child — received a scholarship offer from the Chippewas before his senior season, he was ecstatic.
It also proved beneficial to the Crusaders’ football season. Without recruiting distractions, Cooper focused primarily on the task at hand. Every major program in the country overlooked Cooper, who was satisfied with the Central Michigan offer. But once the season wrapped up, he drew interest from Iowa, which was in need of wide receivers.
Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace, who recruited Wisconsin, met with Young and other Catholic Memorial coaches to discuss multiple players. Wallace asked if Cooper would consider looking at Iowa.
“It was three weeks before they offered him,” Bergan said. “(Wallace) said to me, ‘What do you think Max would say if we told him we were going to have potentially a scholarship offer for him in a couple of weeks?’ I said he would jump all over it. Because (Wallace) didn’t want to recruit a kid that was already committed. But we said (Cooper’s) dream was to play in the Big Ten.”
Officially a hawkeye!?⚫️ pic.twitter.com/iu3fwxF4Tz
— Max Cooper (@max_cooper5) February 1, 2017
Steve Cooper told his son to be upfront with Wallace about his commitment to Central Michigan but relay his interest to Iowa. Wallace asked Max Cooper if Iowa were to offer him a scholarship, would he consider it? Cooper said he would. A few days later, Young called Cooper into his office and told him an offer was likely. Cooper called coach Kirk Ferentz later that night and received a scholarship offer.
The following day, Cooper informed Central Michigan’s staff about the situation, though he wasn’t yet de-committing. But Cooper was excited, especially after his previous encounter with Iowa football.
“I went to the Iowa-Michigan State Big Ten championship (in 2015),” Cooper said. “That really gave me a new perspective on Iowa because I had never been to a game where Iowa was playing. Their fans were just awesome.”
“There were a ton of Michigan State fans; it seemed like they weren’t even there,” Steve Cooper said. “Iowa fans were just, it was incredible. Both Max and I, after we left that game, we said, ‘What a cool school, what a cool fan base. They are just so excited for that team. That would be a neat place to play.’
“Man, oh man, were they were enthusiastic. I thought the fans were going to carry them to a victory. They were just fantastic.”
While Iowa lost that game in the final 30 seconds, the Hawkeyes gained admirers in the Cooper family, which rooted for Michigan State that night. As Cooper thought about the Iowa scholarship offer, he remembered that game. He called it “living in a dream.”
“It really was an honor to talk to (Ferentz),” Cooper said. “It was surreal having a Big Ten team talk to me, especially Iowa, because they’re so awesome with their fan base and such a rich tradition.”
“Even though my parents went to Central Michigan and I love Central Michigan, it’s a great place down there in Mount Pleasant, but playing for Iowa is something I couldn’t turn down.”
Cooper accepted Iowa’s offer in mid-December, and he has a chance to play right away. Wallace told Steve Cooper if Max gained 10 pounds, he could see the field. Cooper weighed 165 last track season, then bumped up his weight to 174 by the end of basketball season. He now weighs 182.
Wisconsin’s state track championships are held June 2. Cooper reports at Iowa on June 10.
“I expect him to show up and when they say, ‘jump,’ you say, ‘how high,’ and be respectful to the ‘T’ in everything they ask you to do,” Steve Cooper said.
“A lot of kids like football; Max Cooper loves football,” Young said. “He’ll win the Father Smith Award, as our most outstanding athlete. His football abilities are going to elevate him to the next level.”
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.