NEW CANAAN — Last Friday in New Canaan’s Dunning Stadium, Jason Cooper was in his element.
His larger-than-life personality on display whether he was talking football with old friends or offering advice to the current New Canaan players.
Cooper’s personality was matched by his physical presence, standing over 6-feet-3 inches tall with a gladiators’ frame, one always knew when Cooper was around.
He was hard to miss and for those who knew him, hard to forget.
The last four years, Cooper has been with New Canaan as a wide-receivers coach and last weekend the annual Grip It and Rip It passing tournament was taking place at New Canaan High School, showcasing local quarterbacks and receivers.
Saturday, the receivers Cooper has been working with for four years at the school, were instrumental in leading the Rams to their first championship win in the tournament.
It was joyous time for the team that has been hosting the tournament for over a decade, but Cooper was not there to celebrate with his Rams.
That morning he had texted New Canaan coaches saying he did not feel well and would not be making it to the tournament.
A couple of hours after the celebration, the phones of New Canaan coaches began ringing.
Coach by coach they all heard the worst news imaginable.
Cooper died in is home Saturday afternoon of a heart attack at roughly the same time New Canaan was winning the championship.
He was 52.
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, who also coached Cooper in the early 80s, had driven to Rhode Island with his wife, Fran, when he got the call as he was waiting on line at a restaurant.
“It was like a ton of bricks falling right down on top of me,” Marinelli said. “(Cooper) had a really good relationship with Frannie, since he was in high school. She was a wreck, we were both standing there in line, crying. It’s just shocking and you’re just numb. It still hasn’t really hit me yet.”
Cooper and Mrs. Marinelli had formed a friendship after Cooper presented her with a necklace during his senior-football banquet in 1983 and she kept in touch with him almost as much as Lou did.
Cooper was a captain and named All-FCIAC and All-State for the New Canaan his senior season.
In 1982, his junior football season, Cooper was the leading scorer on the Rams football team that won Marinelli win his first state championship when the Rams defeated Naugatuck, 20-12, in the CIAC L-II final.
It was the first state championship in football for the school in over a decade and an amazing turnaround for a team that lost 29-straight games going into the 1981 season, Marinelli’s first at the school.
In the 1982 state final, Cooper scored the final touchdown of the game, hauling in a 24-yard pass from Pat Shouvlin.
Paul McConnell was a senior on the 1982 football team and stayed in touch with Cooper over the years, especially when Cooper returned to coach for the Rams four years ago.
McConnell is also an assistant for the Hall football team and spoke with his old friend Friday at Grip It and Rip It.
Nothing special, just a nice chat where McConnell said Cooper was the same as he always was.
“Everybody who knows him knows the world got robbed of an angel among us,” McConnell said. “On the field, he was hard-nosed, hard-working, selfless and an inspirational leader. He was tough as nails on the field and just as gentle off it. He had an amazing smile and was genuinely interested in other people. He won the affection of all who knew him.”
McConnell said despite Cooper being a junior on the state championship team, he played a large part in the metamorphosis of New Canaan from perennial loser to perennial contender.
“He was such an instrumental part of that team in terms of being a good player, but also what he brought off the field,” McConnell said. “Before you win championships, you have to build a championship culture. At that time, we had to invent a championship culture and Jason was a big part of that. That was the beginning of everything that happened with New Canaan football since.”
Cooper was also named All-FCIAC and All-State as an attackman on the 1984 New Canaan lacrosse team playing for legendary coach Howard Benedict, reaching both the FCIAC and state finals his senior season.
After graduating from New Canaan in 1984, Cooper went to Duke on a four-year football scholarship, starting three seasons at tight end and becoming a team captain for coach Steve Spurrier in 1987.
He amassed 986 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns for Duke.
He continued playing two sports in college as a two-year starter for Duke’s highly-ranked lacrosse team.
After college, Cooper played on the practice squad for two legendary NFL coaches, Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys and Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins.
He and Matt Kelly are still the two players coached by Marinelli to make it closest to an active NFL roster.
Cooper is a member of the New Canaan High School Athletic Hall of Fame and a 2017 honoree of the New Canaan Old Timers Association.
As outstanding as Cooper was on the field, his return to coach at New Canaan four years ago after a career in finance in Chicago, seemed to be his calling.
“The kids loved him. He had that big grin every time you saw him and the kids all really responded to him,” Marinelli said. “How could you not love a guy like that? He was the same way as a coach as he was as a player and a guy. Sometimes you get caught up when you are in the grind of the season, he was always upbeat and positive and would bring you out of that. He was always that guy who would spend extra time with a player or a coach and try to pick them up.”
He was not only the wide receivers coach for football, but also an assistant to Kristin Woods and the New Canaan girls lacrosse program.
Players and fellow coaches describe Cooper’s approach to coaching as him always being the “good cop” and never yelling at a player or talking down to any athlete.
New Canaan wide receiver Quintin O’Connell said Cooper was much more than a run-of-the-mill coach.
“The last couple of days have been really tough. I found out Saturday night and broke down. I was with a few guys and we were all in tears. Football is a man’s sport and we are all tough, but Coop was our family,” O’Connell said. “Coop was more than a coach, he was my friend and I know he always wanted the best for me as a person, not just as a player.
“He made everyone feel like his friend. It’s funny but the last few days I have been talking to people and everyone talks about the special bond they had with him,” O’Connell said. “If you asked 100 different people they all would tell you that they had the most special bond with him. That’s the way he was. He made everyone feel like they were his favorite. He cared about us and we all cared about him.”
O’Connell caught a touchdown late in the championship game Saturday and said, looking back, he feels Cooper was there.
“I am pretty religious and it is amazing the power of that sometimes in these situations,” O’Connell said. “We are there winning the first championship for New Canaan and I can’t help but wonder if the big man was watching? I think he was. He meant so much to so many of us and he deserves to have his legacy carried on for a long time.”
O’Connell said it is too early to say now, but the team will certainly pay tribute to Cooper this upcoming season.
For now, the players and coaches and his friend and family are left wondering how to fill the void of a personality as impressive as Jason Cooper.