Staff Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson Johnny Cooper, father of UTC senior wide receiver Blue Cooper, has not missed a single game of his son's career and he wears the number 18 jersey to every game.
The first time you meet Johnny Cooper, you don't know quite what to expect.
There's the gray beard that flows down to his chest, the tattoos, the motorcycle boots -- it all screams Tough Guy. That was him at one time, before his son Blue came along.
For the past 23 years, Johnny might have had the look of the motorcycle-riding wild man he was in his younger days, but along the way he traded in his Freedom Seekers motorcycle club colors for whatever team colors Blue was wearing.
"I just kind of dropped back (from the motorcycle club), retired and started devoting all my time to him, and we just got to building a relationship and it just grew and grew and grew," Johnny said. "And now, we're just like best friends."
Saturday, when the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team hosts The Citadel in the Mocs' home finale, Johnny will be in the stands at Finley Stadium in his blue No. 18 jersey.
When Blue, a fifth-year senior wide receiver, is one of the 15 seniors honored before the game, Johnny might even shed a tear.
"I hate to see it end," Johnny said earlier this week. "I've followed him since he started playing ball in first grade, and I've enjoyed it so much."
Johnny raised Blue by himself in Rome, Ga., after Blue's mother left when he was an infant. He said he's been a full-time dad since he retired from the General Electric plant in Rome in 1995.
"From 3 months old, when I went to Florida to pick him up, we've been together ever since," Johnny said.
Blue said he's seen his mother twice in the last 12 years. She and her family, including Blue's half-sister, attended the Western Carolina game in which Blue had 16 catches for 143 yards.
Johnny was 45 years old when Blue was born, 22 years older than Blue's mother. He'll be 70 in July, yet it seems he hasn't lost a step. Even though he hates seeing Blue's career come to an end, Johnny is excited about the free time it will give him -- time he intends to spend on his Harley-Davidson.
"I got the bike back out and I rode it up here today," he said Monday. "I said, 'Man, this is what I've been missing.'"
Johnny bought his son a motorcycle in 2002, when Blue was a 16-year-old football and basketball star at Coosa High School. But it sat in the garage for a year. Blue never took to motorcycles -- he didn't start driving until a few years ago -- but he does have his father's appreciation for facial hair.
While Johnny goes the long route with his beard, Blue -- who has never seen his father clean-shaven -- tends to go for the more exotic look with designs in his beard.
"I just know he can't say anything about it," Blue said, laughing. "No matter what I did to it, he can't say anything."
Blue, who has 68 catches for 678 yards this season, said he and his father talk daily, and Johnny comes up to see him once a week. Every time he talks about his dad, Blue smiles. Every time Johnny talks about his boy, he beams through the gray beard.
"It's always just been me and him," Blue said.
"I don't know of anybody that's got a better relationship than what we have," Johnny added.
Blue is hoping Saturday will be a special day on a number of levels. With a win UTC will have its first winning season since 2005, with 20 receiving yards he'll move into the top 10 all-time at UTC in career yards, and with nine receptions he'll move ahead of Terrell Owens and Jeremy Grier to fifth place on UTC's all-time catches list.
"It's been a great year," he said. "I'm happy, both as an individual and for what the team has done, and it's really good when both can go together."
Mocs linebacker Joseph Thornton suffered a high ankle sprain during Thursday's practice and is questionable for Saturday's game. Kicker Craig Camay (groin) didn't practice but is expected to play. Wide receiver Clint Woods (shoulder) didn't practice and is not expected to play.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...