Fred Cooper probably would have played basketball at Columbus High School when he was growing up, but with no available ride home from practices after school, that wasn’t an option.
Instead, he and his older brother, Teford, joined the wrestling club. The two were on the team together in 1936, when Teford was a senior and Fred was a freshman.
“It was a different wrestle then than it is now,” Fred recalled. “We got a partner, a guy to wrestle, and we’d get into place, and we’d wrestle until one of us got pinned.”
The rules have changed, but the Coopers are more immersed in the sport than ever.
Now just weeks from his 95th birthday, Fred has watched his grandson, Chris Cooper, turn Columbus East into one of Indiana’s top wrestling programs. The Olympians, ranked 10th in the state, are among the favorites going into today’s sectional meet at Jennings County.
An accidental history
Though the Cooper family history in wrestling goes back about 80 years, Chris was hardly predestined to make a career for himself in the sport. His father, Randy, didn’t pick up wrestling until his senior year at South Decatur, and Chris never wrestled until he was a junior at East.
Neither even knew of Fred’s history with the sport until just a few years ago, when an old yearbook photo surfaced — so it’s not like the sport was something being passed down from generation to generation.
It just sort of happened.
Football had always been Chris’ first love, he said, but it didn’t take long for that to change. Frustrated by team sports, where someone else’s mistakes can cost you a win, Cooper decided to try a sport where he only needed to worry about himself.
As soon as he hit the mat, he was hooked.
“From the first day that I was there at practice, I was like, ‘Man, this really just fits my personality,'” Cooper recalled. “Just kind of hard-nosed and go hit somebody.”
After finishing high school in 1997, Chris went off to Purdue to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. He graduated and was on the waiting list to join up with a major airline, but his plans were forced to change by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Cooper instead took a job at Cummins and worked as an assistant wrestling coach in his spare time — but his side gig quickly wound up becoming his passion. He was driven to improve himself as a coach and to help grow the Columbus East program.
“He realized that all these other schools had better teams than Columbus,” Randy Cooper said. “So he talked to the coaches, and all of the coaches that had really good teams said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be a coach, you’ve got to be a teacher.'”
That’s exactly what Chris did, going back to school at Indiana University. During the summers, he became a student of wrestling, mastering technique and learning from different high school and college teams.
“I just looked at all levels, what successful programs did,” he said, “and tried to copy them.”
Chris got a job as a math teacher at East in the fall of 2003 and became the head wrestling coach.
When Cooper took over as the Olympians’ coach, one of his top wrestlers happened to be his youngest brother, Kyle, who was a sophomore during Chris’ first season in charge of the program.
Things didn’t always go so smoothly at first, especially with Chris still trying to establish a system that worked.
“My age group, we kind of went through the trial and error phase,” Kyle said.
That phase was a bit tougher for Kyle than it was for his teammates, Chris concedes.
“It was different,” the coach stated. “I could do a lot better job of it now, I think, treating him more just like one of these other guys.
“He didn’t have it easy, that’s for sure.”
That tough love did pay some dividends, though. Kyle Cooper rewrote the East record book during his career, and he still ranks first in school history in single-season wins (48) and career pins (92). He racked up 159 career victories, still second on East’s all-time list, and finished sixth in the state at 135 pounds as a senior in 2006.
The East program as a whole has flourished in the years since. Most of the current Olympians have been wrestling since grade school, and that head start has paid off.
“That’s kind of why we started the youth program,” Chris Cooper said. “We just wished we had the opportunities that these kids have now.”
The next generation
Now that the Coopers have caught the wrestling bug, it has become fully contagious. Both of Chris’ sons wrestle in the Olympians’ elementary program, and Chris’ other younger brother, Adam, another former wrestler who graduated from East in 2000, has a son in the program as well.
Additionally, Chris’ cousin, Michael Craig, is a wrestler on the Mooresville team that competed at East earlier this month.
Craig is Fred Cooper’s great-grandson, putting the family four generations deep on the mat. Don’t expect that history to stop anytime soon.
“As soon as we all got a part of it, we all knew that was the sport that we were meant to be in,” Kyle Cooper said.
Jennings County Sectional
When: 9 a.m.
Teams competing: Brown County, Columbus East, Columbus North, Greensburg, Jennings County, Madison, Scottsburg, Seymour, Southwestern (Hanover), Switzerland County
Some of the top local competitors to keep an eye on at today’s Jennings County Sectional (state rankings in parentheses):
106 pounds: Cayden Rooks, Columbus East (1)
113: Dalton Craig, Jennings County (15); Jake Schoenegge, Columbus East
120: Graham Rooks, Columbus East (3); Isaiah Peetz, Columbus North
126: Dawson Combest, Columbus East
132: Evan Bullock, Brown County; Corban Pollitt, Columbus East
138: Brooks Wathen, Jennings County; Jacob Martindale, Columbus East
145: Zane Beineke, Jennings County; Alex Davidson, Columbus North
152: Andrew Herrin, Jennings County (7); Ben Wilkerson, Columbus East
160: Cole Chandler, Jennings County (14); Andrew Chapman, Columbus North
170: Coy Park, Columbus East; Evan Stavnheim, Columbus North
182: Bristen Dial, Brown County; Lane Goode, Columbus East; Josh Larson, Columbus North
195: Christian Redmond, Jennings County; Cortez Bandy, Columbus North
285: Sean Galligar, Columbus East (5); Brendan Sutton, Jennings County (8); David Redding, Columbus North