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Ridley’s Cooper keeps mom’s memory in his heart and on his helmet

RIDLEY >> Even if he wanted to, Jimmy Cooper couldn’t untangle lacrosse from the memories of his mother.

The day Kathy Cooper was diagnosed with leukemia, seventh-grade Jimmy was on the lacrosse field with his Ridley teammates (they beat Strath Haven that day, on the way to a Southeastern Pa. title, inspired in part by the Cooper family’s strength). As Kathy fought the disease for nearly a year, Jimmy remembers the refuge provided by another Ridley family afflicted by the scourge of cancer, the Colleluoris and their Headstrong Foundation dedicated to healing through lacrosse.

And the day Kathy Cooper lost her battle to cancer — April 4, 2013 — Jimmy went to school and was on the lacrosse field that afternoon (another Ridley win).

“She passed away in the morning before I went to school,” Jimmy said. “I went to school because I knew I had a game and that’s what she wanted me to do.”

Four years later, Jimmy is still doing what his mother would’ve wanted him to, in a way that teammates and coaches who’ve known him for more than a decade attest Kathy would’ve wanted.

With Kathy’s name embossed on a yellow and white wristband, and “Mom 4-4” scrawled in Sharpie on white tape on his green helmet, Cooper and his classmates embark on their final playoff march, which starts Tuesday night against Council Rock North in the first round of the District 1 Class 3A playoffs. The defenseman, lining up next to classmates sporting “KC” helmet stickers, will get yet another illustration of how intertwined his two families are.

“They’re pretty much my brothers,” Cooper said. “They’ve been there for me since Day 1. They’ll always be there my whole entire life. We’re lifelong friends that bonded through lacrosse, and lacrosse has kind of built me up from the bottom.”

The next step on that pathway entails a long road trip to Newtown for the 17th-seeded Green Raiders (10-8), with the right to play top-seeded Avon Grove in Thursday’s second round on the line. And for as long as Cooper and his teammates have traveled together, it’s a trip he’ll relish.

While Cooper may never have guessed how pivotal Ridley lacrosse would become in his life, he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a part of it. Though he grew up in the Interboro School District, he had family ties to Ridley lacrosse through cousins, and his father, Jim, coached in Ridley (one of his pupils was the late Nick Colleluori).

When it came time for high school, the Coopers relocated Jimmy and younger sister Emily, who plays soccer and runs track, to Ridley.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’d be sitting up in the bleachers wishing to play Ridley lacrosse,” Cooper said. “And now I’m doing it. It’s definitely awesome.”

Lacrosse was always central to the bond with his mom. Cooper estimates his parents attended 95 percent of his games; even now, Jim takes time off work to see his kids play. Members of Kathy’s extended family played lacrosse in Maryland, and that helped get Jimmy hooked at a young age.

“Anything I ever needed for lacrosse or life, she was there,” Cooper said.

“She’s always been there for us, whether it was hanging out at their house or youth sports,” said Ridley midfielder Brock Anderson. “She was an outgoing, loving person. She was always there, always smiling, always laughing. When we used to hang out there, she would be there, make us food when we were kids.”

Justin McQuaid was the head coach at Interboro and has long been active in the youth lacrosse community. He’s known the Coopers since Jimmy was in second grade, and since McQuaid joined first-year coach Rory Friel’s staff at Ridley this season, he’s gotten to travel the last leg of Cooper’s high school journey apace.

“Jimmy has had to deal with so many different things,” McQuaid said. “He’s resilient and he’s quirky and he’s different, and the way he deals with it is different than other people. But he gets through it with his smile and in his own little way.”

Cooper’s way involves giving back, including volunteering with the Headstrong Foundation. But it’s also the smaller gestures, like showing gratitude every day to the players who supported him through tough times.

The members of Ridley’s class of 2017 nucleus — a group that includes Anderson, Cooper, Cade Stratton, Mike Cowan, Cade Heverly and others — trace their friendship back a dozen years or more. Many have fond memories of Kathy Cooper, and the strength that Jimmy radiates and channels into his own brand of humor benefits them all.

“He’s just one kid that you just love being around,” Anderson said. “The way he is, if you know Jimmy Cooper, you know when you hear that name, you kind of smile. He’s an outgoing personality. He’s his own breed. He’s one of those kids that always puts a smile on your face.”

That’s why, when the calendar flipped to April and the four-year anniversary of Kathy Cooper’s passing arrived, Anderson and the team’s other leaders wanted to mark an occasion that impacted them all. In eighth grade, the team decided to don cancer awareness ribbons through a long playoff run. Others have since gone the homemade helmet decal route.

But when Anderson got Cooper’s helmet in the impromptu pregame decoration session, he designed a memorable embellishment — for Jimmy to show his love, and for the team to show its appreciation of their most resilient teammate.

“It just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t honor his mom like that,” Anderson said. “So people were passing around the helmets, and I got passed Jimmy Cooper’s helmet. And I didn’t want it to be the same as everyone else’s; I wanted it to be different. …

“You know that he has been through some stuff, and he doesn’t let it hold him down. He lives off the strength that what happened to him was tragic. But he pushes himself to be better. He pushes himself to be someone that his mom would love him to be.”

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