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June 5, 2009"It's a long stretch from Edina, Missouri, to Springtown, Texas, " Deanna Cooper said with a slight laugh.
Cooper, and her family, know the distance - 770 miles, to be exact - well. Barely two years ago, the Coopers moved from the small northeast Missouri hamlet, nestled close to the Illinois and Iowa borders, to the central Texas town, a stone's throw away from the bustling Dallas- Ft. Worth metroplex.
By population standards, Edina and Springtown aren't too dissimilar.
As of 2007, the Missouri town had a population of just over 1,000. Sure, Springtown is nearly three times bigger, but at that level, it's like comparing a liter of Schlafly to a gallon of Shiner Bock:
Either way, it's not a whole lot.
By other standards, however, the two towns are light years apart. The largest city - St. Louis - is nearly four hours away from Edina. Springtown, on the other hand, is only twenty minutes northwest of Ft. Worth.
But, to the Coopers, the most glaring difference between Edina and Springtown was also the most important. That difference became most obvious on Friday nights.
That difference convinced Clayton Cooper that he needed to play Texas high school football.
A ticket to the next level
As a freshman, Clayton Cooper started, and starred, for Knox Coutny High School. But, he quickly realized his dream was to gain a scholarship to college.
"Playing college football is something I always wanted," Cooper said. "I wanted that opportunity."
Unfortunately, Knox County isn't a hotbed for high school football. The Eagles play in the smallest classification in Missouri (1A). Lambert- St. Louis International Airport is three and a half-hours a way.
Those factors don't make Edina a destination spot for college coaches.
While Cooper was already succeeding as a wide receiver and defensive back for Knox County, he knew it would be an uphill battle to gain the attention of coaches from schools across the nation.
Understanding their son's dream, Deanna Cooper spoke with her sister, who is a teacher at a school in the Dallas- Fort Worth area.
"She told me, 'Deanna, he's doing well academically and athletically, but he should really get in an area with lots of exposure,'" Deanna Cooper explained. "In that area, it's common for college scouts to be at every game and practice. Plus they have a great selection of honors and AP classes to help him get ready for college."
Before Deanna and her husband, Mike Cooper, made any decision, Clayton Cooper traveled to Texas to participate in a football camp held at his aunt's school. The Coopers had to pull some strings, but their son was able to see if he could stand up to the rigors of Texas high school football.
"Before he went down, he told us how he had to work and wasn't sure he could get off," Deanna Cooper said. "But, after a week down there, he called us up and said, 'Mom, can you ask Tony if I can get another week off of work?'
"I guess you can say he was baptized into Texas football."
It still wasn't an easy decision for the family, however. Mike and Deanna Cooper asked their son to consider every consequence of the move, and to pray for guidance.
"We left it up to him, though," she explained. "If that's what he thought was best, we were ready to fully support his decision. As parents, we had a responsibility to do what was best for our son. But, the move would also be good for job opportunities for us, so it wasn't just for football."
The first consequence of Clayton Cooper's decision came early on: He had to say goodbye to his life in Missouri.
"He had to leave a tremendous amount of friends," his mom said. "We had a farm, which we sold, but at his going away party, we had twenty-some kids there, all with tears in their eyes."
"It was my ticket to playing in college," Clayton Cooper said, reminiscing on the event. "I had to make sacrifices."
A Leap of Faith
Saying goodbye to Missouri looked easy compared to what Clayton Cooper had to do next.
Leaving behind a starting spot in Edina, Cooper enrolled at Springtown High School for the 2007-2008 school year. He had no guarantees he would see meaningful playing time for the Porcupines.
"I had to learn 85 plays in a week when I got here," Cooper explained.
"And the hand signals that went along with them," his mom made sure to add later.
Luckily for the Porcupines, Clayton Cooper is self-driven. He quickly picked up on Springtown's spread offense, and saw plenty of playing time. By the season's end, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound receiver hauled in 34 passes for 507 yards and five touchdowns.
"Coach Brad Turner told us when we first got there that Clayton was just a raw athlete," Deanna Cooper said.
Clayton Cooper said he felt a big initial shock when he started to practice with the Porcupines.
"In Edina, we had three coaches, and two of them were just volunteers," he explained. "But when I got there, they had coaches for every single position group. Our head coach was our quarterbacks' coach, and I had two coaches at receiver."
He went on to saw how it took some time to get used to the increased competition in Texas, but football is a common enough game to translate the same everywhere.
"It wasn't a new game and it wasn't like people were hitting harder all of a sudden," Clayton Cooper explained. "The competition and seriousness went up, but I adjusted."
Off the field, Clayton Cooper took as many honors and AP courses as he could, and excelled in each of them. After a year in Springtown, the Coopers were adjusted to their new lives, and their son took off during his junior season.
A shift to slot receiver utilized Cooper's speed (his PR is around a 4.40 second 40), and by season's end, he had 78 catches for 814 yards and seven touchdowns.
"It was a leap of faith to move down here," Deanna Cooper said, "but Clayton held up his end of the bargain. He showed tremendous focus, and we didn't have to push him at all. He's very self-motivated."
His junior season caught the eye of college recruiters. And, with a little help from former teammate and 2009 Vanderbilt signee Al Owens, letters began to trickle in.
The long road home
One school that started showing interest in Clayton Cooper was Missouri.
"It would be phenomenal if he ended up there," Deanna Cooper said, stretching out "phenomenal" almost as long as the drive between Edina and Springtown.
Clayton Cooper admits he's a big Missouri fan, and said there's a lot to like about the school.
"I'm very familiar with Columbia, and I think it's a great college town," he said. "My sister goes to school in Columbia, so I've been there quite a bit. The campus is beautiful, and I like how everything is put together. Plus, I want to enter the medical field, and I know Mizzou has a great medical program.
Jessica Cooper, Clayton's older sister, is currently in basic training for the National Guard, but will return to Columbia College for either one or two more years of school, depending on her program. Deanna Cooper barely hides her excitement when she talks about her children living in the same city.
"If it happens, it'd be wonderful," she said. "But, of course, we want Clayton to make the best decision for himself."
At this point, the Tigers and Oklahoma State seem to be showing the most interest in Cooper's services. Coaches from those schools, as well as Colorado State, Texas A&M and Tulsa, visited his spring practices during the first two weeks of May, as well.
On Monday, the Coopers drove eight and a half hours to Springfield, Mo., for their son to participate in Missouri's first Black and Gold camp of the summer.
"I feel like I did really well," Clayton Cooper said. "I ran my best 40 time ever, and I competed with the best athletes there. Last year, I thought I did OK, but this year I think I was one of the best there."
Cooper said Missouri is interested in him as a defensive back, but he said that would have no bearing on his final decision, should the Tigers offer.
"I'll play wherever," Cooper said on Monday. "I just want to play in college."
And, if all comes full circle and her son does pick up an offer from the Tigers, Mike and Deanna Cooper would be left smiling.
"How many kids get the opportunity to go back to their home state and play for their dream team?"