MEDINA, N.Y. (WIVB) — Medina head football coach and athletics director Eric Valley knows one of his athletes isn’t like the others.
“We don’t see many like him around here,” he says. “If ever.”
Junior Jalin Cooper is a member of the Mustang football, basketball and track teams. His football career promises the most; at the very least, a scholarship offer from the University at Buffalo. It will not be the last offer Cooper receives.
“Some of these coaches are telling us things we never considered,” assistant football coach Eric Hellwig says. “Such as playing in the NFL.”
“He’s 6-foot-5 and can fly. That’s kind of an anomaly,” Valley says. “You don’t see that very often.”
Division 1 football recruits don’t exactly grow on trees.
But, somehow, they still must grow.
Cooper grew up primarily in Chicago, where he was raised by his father, a drug dealer.
“He was a powerful man,” Cooper says. “He could get his way.”
His father, Roscoe Chambers, is now serving a 30-year prison sentence for drug-related activity. In the sixth grade, Cooper moved from Chicago to Medina with his mother and six siblings. It was a few years later, in Cooper’s freshman year at Medina High School, that he and the community were truly introduced to each other.
“His freshman year, they had a house fire,” Valley recounts. “The house burned down.”
Cooper said his family ‘pretty much had nothing’ after the fire. That’s when the Medina community rallied around the family with an outpouring of donations, including new couches, TV’s, washers, driers and more.
“It’s a community that helps people and that’s what I like,” Cooper says. “That’s what I want to do with my career, is to help people.”
Later that year, Cooper’s mother was set to move the family again, this time to nearby Lockport. Jalin’s grades were suffering and his situation at home – in his mind – wasn’t putting him in a position to be successful. He needed a change, but he also wanted to stay in Medina.
“I just can’t understand how some people can stay in an environment like that,” Cooper says, “when they have the opportunity to do more with themselves.”
Cooper reached out to Coach Valley and stayed with him initially, before eventually staying a few nights with the Hellwig family. He had been teammates his freshman year on the basketball team with Jason Hellwig, now a student-athlete at Brockport.
“I remember in the 7th grade,” Hellwig says with a smile, “[Jalin] was just not very good at basketball.”
It’s true: Up until his move to Medina, Cooper had never played organized sports.
“He was still kind of raw and learning,” says Cooper’s freshman year football coach and brother to Jason, Adam Hellwig. “I wasn’t sure how much he really liked it or if he was going to continue.”
Cooper had begun to build up a connection to the Hellwigs and to their parents, Eric and Sandie. It initiated his staying with them for a few nights.
“What actually we thought would turn out to be a couple of days has grown beyond that,” Eric Hellwig says, “and we are very happy about that.”
For the past three years now, Jalin Cooper has lived with the Hellwig family. They have become his legal guardians, another support system for him. They credit their willingness to house Cooper with Cooper’s willingness to look out for himself.
“It was clear to us that a major factor in his staying would be his desire to do better in school,” Eric says. “He picked up after himself, he would do chores, do the dishes… a lot of things other kids won’t necessarily do.”
“They took me in because I had heart,” Cooper says. “Every time I feel like giving up, I think about that. They changed their whole lives for me.”
“He taught me that just because you’re down, you don’t have to give up,” Jason Hellwig says. “I’m as close to him as I am with my older brother, [Adam].”
Jalin’s relationship to the Hellwig family struck a personal cord with Sandie upon Jalin’s arrival.
“He came into my life at a very difficult time,” Sandie Hellwig says. “I was very close to my parents and two months to the day my mother had passed, Jalin stayed his first night. I knew it was a sign, that it was just meant to be.”
Jalin’s grades have improved significantly since moving in with the Hellwigs. His commitment to athletics and to working hard has increased as well, leading to his most recent scholarship offer from UB, with interest from Boston College and Washington State as well.
“One thing to note in all of this is that Jalin has a family,” Eric Hellwig says. “He loves his brothers and sisters very much. What happened is, his family just grew. And not just with us, but with the entire Medina community. It is incredible to see the amount of people willing to help him because he’s willing to help himself.”
Jalin says he still maintains contact with his family in Lockport, especially with his brother Josh, who plays basketball for the Lions. Of course, he also still talks with his mother.
“I love her and I just forgive her,” he says. “It wasn’t all her fault. I’m so proud of how much she has improved as a mother, you can tell the difference in everything.”
Cooper still has another year to decide where he will play college football. Until then, he’s soaking in the success he’s had, still trying to get better before he leaves.
“I always say he’s a one-in-a-million kid,” Eric Hellwig says.
“How did someone like me get so lucky?” Cooper says. “I must be one-in-a-million. Just lucky.”