EAST LANSING, Mich. — Jerry Cooper paused.
He had a lot to consider. How highly did he think of Michigan State Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor? The question wasn’t asked; he just felt compelled to offer his opinion.
Cooper has coached hundreds, maybe thousands of players at the high school level. He’s been a head coach since the ‘80s, has been at the helm of five different programs and won a state championship with Columbus Grove (Ohio) in 2003.
There’s a lot to consider, right? Well, Cooper took but a brief moment, maybe a half-second, before answering.
“This is my thirty-third year being a high school football coach,” the current Seymour (Tenn.) coach said of O’Connor, who played under him at Lima (Ohio) Central Catholic. “He might be the best kid that I’ve ever coached as far as being a real quality person and teammate.”
O’Connor didn’t have to wait as long at Lima to get his first start as he did at Michigan State. In high school, a season-ending injury to the presumed starting quarterback thrust him into the role as a freshman. Already a sturdy kid at 6-foot-1 and about 175 pounds, he didn’t look that young. And having played with much of the team at the young level, he was ahead of the game mentally, too.
He trotted out as a 14-year-old for his first game and had to take on Delphos St. John’s, the eventual state champions. LCC got clobbered 20-0 and would eventually finish 5-5, but Cooper knew he had something special in O’Connor.
“He could really throw the ball,” Cooper said. “He had a really good throwing motion, and we knew that he would be a good quarterback of the future. With the kid that was starting getting hurt and being out for the season, we just knew it was his time.”
The Thunderbirds ended up losing fewer games in each of O’Connor’s successive seasons: from 5-5 to 9-3 to 12-2 to 9-1. It seemed like a lot of fun, leading an offense that put up more than 40 points almost every game.
But Cooper had to remind O’Connor to enjoy it sometimes. He would be tougher on himself than the coaches felt they needed to be on him. He wanted to be able to make every throw and became frustrated when he couldn’t.
“Tyler,” Cooper would remind him, “you are more than good enough. Just relax and have fun playing the game.”
The first thing O’Connor did when he got home from Spartan Stadium on Sunday was plop on the couch and take in the replay of the game he had just played.
He watched it once, took a 15-minute break, and then repeated the process by watching it again. As a perfectionist, he was irritated by what he viewed when his team won. So you can imagine his first loss as a starter, one in which he threw three interceptions and took things up a notch.
“I don’t usually watch it and want to throw my iPad across the room,” O’Connor said, “because usually there’s a ‘W’ in the column.”
He “really wanted to Frisbee it” when he re-watched the play where he threw a costly interception with receiver Donnie Corley wide open in the end zone. He was dwelling on that and his other mistakes when a friend on the golf team called and told him to go to Buffalo Wild Wings.
He didn’t want to get up, but the cab had been sent. “All right, fine,” O’Connor said. “I’ll go eat some wings.”
You can bet he kept thinking about the game. He shared a few texts with coach Mark Dantonio, whom he told he had watched the game twice. No surprise there. Dantonio was well aware of his redshirt senior quarterback’s work ethic.
“Never make a bad play worse,” Michigan State co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner often says. Those words stuck in O’Connor’s mind after the loss to Wisconsin. In watching the film, he saw plays where he needed to trust the protection and wait for something to open. And if all else fails, throw the ball away.
Watching those three interceptions, 20 incompletions and four sacks, O’Connor didn’t even want to get up until the next morning. Fortunately, his friends made sure he did. But that’s just who he is.
“My coaches have always said I’m too hard on myself,” O’Connor said. “Maybe it’s true, or maybe that’s just how I am and how I think it should be, to be honest. I’m very critical of myself, and I can’t help but go and try to get better at it right away.”
Most everybody in Allen County, Ohio, knows about Mulch Madness.
Lima Central Catholic had an athletics budget of somewhere around $300,000, Cooper recollects. About a quarter of those funds came from this one annual project, during which volunteers disseminate 40,000 bags of mulch throughout the county for about $2 a bag.
O’Connor’s parents led the operation when he was in school – and they still do. As a freshman, O’Connor went with Cooper, took a truck and a trailer from school boosters, and delivered about 10,000 of those bags. He couldn’t drive, but he could do the heavy lifting.
“I knew then by his work ethic and his attention to detail and how much we could trust him that he was going to be a great kid,” Cooper said.
He learned it from his parents, Mike and Barb, who have remained very active in the community, all while heading an internet service provider and running multiple apartment complexes.
Anything for the good of the team, he would do. That’s what Cooper remembers. He showed it in basketball, where he was an All-Ohio honoree and four-year starter who made sure to get his teammates involved en route to a 2010 state title.
The same went for football. He didn’t stick to quarterback because that’s where his future lay. He also handled all kicking and punting duties and ran the ball as well.
“Even though he was the star of that high school football team, he was really good at getting other people involved, giving other players credit and doing whatever he could do to prepare to be ready to play at the next level,” Cooper said. “But it was never always about him, and I think that’s the same way he thought at Michigan State.”
In Cooper’s mind, that’s why O’Connor stayed. He redshirted and then served as the backup for three years, just waiting for his chance. Now, it has finally come along.
Dantonio insisted the starting job is not in jeopardy after Saturday’s loss, maybe because O’Connor doesn’t need any more motivation to improve. This season serves as his first and last chance to be the permanent starting quarterback at Michigan State.
O’Connor received a text after Saturday’s game from Drew Stanton, former Michigan State quarterback and current Arizona Cardinals backup.
“We deflect all credit, and we take all the blame as quarterbacks in a situation like this,” it said.
“I knew all along that this is what comes with it,” O’Connor said. “There’s always going to be ridicule.”
He tries to tune it out. He knew his Twitter mentions and Instagram messages would not be pretty, so he didn’t look. He had bigger things on his mind, especially considering his role on the team.
Following a loss, O’Connor feels the onus lies with the leaders and the captains to boost morale. Rather than feeding off the energy of others, he feels the responsibility to create it. So the day after the loss, he asked his teammates how they were feeling and making sure they were OK.
This was especially important when news broke of former Spartans defensive back Mylan Hicks’ death on Sunday. It hit O’Connor hard, as he and Hicks were locker partners, No. 6 and No. 7.
“Him and I would be the first people to say we didn’t come from the same walk of life,” O’Connor said. “But when you’re here, you become a family. You become best friends, and you love the guy next to you. That’s exactly how it is. It’s just a tragedy, and you always just wish for one more conversation with those people.”
This team has a lot on its minds going into Saturday’s game at Indiana. Still, the focus has to return to football. No one on the current Spartans squad had ever been beaten at home in the fashion that Wisconsin did.
O’Connor has his own struggles to worry about, but, as a captain of a team in a fairly unprecedented situation, he can’t just look out for himself. He has to make sure everyone else rises with him. And it’s nothing new for the kid who got shut out in his first high school game.
“It’s easy when everything’s great and dandy and you’re 3-0 and everybody’s talking great about you,” he said. “But you really get closer and you have to come together and get even stronger as a unit when your backs are against the wall.”