The story of Cooper Johnson: impoverished, unfortunate, and (almost) rich and famous
3/19/17, Oxford Eagle
Growing up just north of Chicago, there was poverty, there was death, and there was Cooper Johnson.
When offered a way out with a professional baseball contract and a life of fame and riches, Johnson declined, and instead ventured to Oxford.
The Mundelein, Ill. native and Ole Miss baseball starting catcher now possesses one of the SEC’s best young arms behind the plate, is a nightmare matchup for opposing baserunners, and is also a vocal leader for his team and the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. But as a child, he was more familiar with the adversity encompassing him.
Baseball was Johnson’s first love, but his first companion was his sister, Sophie. She was always a loving friend for Cooper, but as a young girl, she was taken by leukemia. Though she is no longer with him, Sophie remains in Johnson’s heart every time he takes the field.
“I got this tattoo on my wrist of her, and that’s my biggest remembrance of Sophie,” Johnson said. “That’s what I keep with me every day, and that tattoo is special to me.”
As Sophie’s medical bills racked up, the family’s money diminished. With his dad’s acting profession as the primary source of money, Johnson became accustomed to growing up in a low-income household.
“I mean my family gets by, we get by,” Johnson said. “By no means will you see us driving around in a brand new Mercedes or anything like that. I’m very thankful for what I have and my parents give me everything that they can and I’ll always love them for that.”
Johnson’s devotion for baseball began as a method to get away from all of his off-the-field issues.
“I can’t even describe how much I love baseball and how much it means to me,” Johnson said. “Obviously people say its just a game, and at the end of the day it is just a game, and I’m not sure how other people feel about baseball, because for me, it’s therapy.”
As baseball became more than just a hobby for Johnson, he was still struggling with problems away from the diamond.
“During middle school and into high school, I gained some weight, wasn’t playing, wasn’t social, playing video games and eating too much,” Johnson said. “I took a big look in the mirror and asked myself, ‘What do you really love?’ The thing that I love to do is play baseball, and so I flipped the switch and started to work hard.”
And work hard he did, because following his freshman year, he immediately became one of the nation’s most sought-after young catchers, and a must-have recruit for programs across the nation.
The summer after his junior year even took him across the globe with the USA National Team. Johnson won a gold medal with his teammates, and he transitioned from becoming a hot recruit to a potential MLB Draft first rounder.
“That summer was the best time of my life. It was a dream,” Johnson said. “I went back to school for my senior year and spent the whole semester meeting with professional teams that basically just come into your house.”
Early on in the recruiting process, Johnson committed to the University of Mississippi, and he credits assistant coach Mike Clement with helping him fall in love with Oxford and Ole Miss. However, his commitment wasn’t solidified, and the prospect of playing major league baseball continued to loom in his mind.
As the draft approached and the hype built for the catcher, Johnson and his draft adviser set his monetary number - the figure that would allow him to bypass Oxford and head straight to the pros - at two million dollars.
“As draft day came around, I told myself I was going to stick to that number, and I wasn’t going to drop it down,” Johnson said. “I knew what I was worth as a player, but scouts had a different idea.”
Johnson fielded offers from multiple MLB teams almost all the way up to his goal of two million dollars, but no team fully met his number, and the No. 1 high school defensive catcher honored his commitment and headed to Ole Miss.
“That’s what led me to come to Ole Miss, which was really a tough decision because I could’ve had a lot of money for me and my family,” Johnson said. “My mom was there for the whole process, and she told me ‘I don’t need for you to go play professional ball, so make the decision based on what you think is right.’”
It’s been Johnson’s dream for as long as he can remember to play professional baseball, and though a contract nearing two million dollars would have given him and his family a relief from, Johnson believes that his time will come, and his years at Ole Miss will only strengthen his cause.
Head coach Mike Bianco believes that with his work ethic, Johnson can continue to improve his game with every practice.
“He’s worked so hard and one of the things that we love about Cooper is how hungry he is to get better, how coachable he is,” Bianco said. “A lot of kids come in that have all the notoriety. For a lot of guys, its hard for their ego to take, but he’s been terrific and he’s embraced trying to get better.”
As Johnson and the Rebels work towards their goal of another lengthy postseason, a potential birth to Omaha continues to be a motivating factor in their young season. A trip to the College World Series, in Johnson’s mind, would compensate for choosing Ole Miss over the MLB.
“The MLB is going to be there forever,” Johnson said. “It will be there in ten years, it will be there in three. If I hadn’t come to college, I feel that going to Omaha would have been a notch in my accomplishments.”
Bianco certainly thinks so as well, and with his latest No. 1 recruiting class, Johnson and the Rebels have the potential to go all the way.
“Without a doubt,” Bianco said. “When you look at this team, with Cooper and the entire class, it has an excellent shot to not only go once but multiple times.”
While Johnson is committed to help deliver the Rebels to Omaha, he is also keen to leave Oxford better than when he arrived.
“I want to be the best catcher that’s ever played,” Johnson said. “I know that with my work ethic and the talent I’ve been blessed with that I’m going to able to make it. I want to come out in three years and show them that they made a big mistake.”
Kessinger, transfer Dillard show out on highest pedestal
10/2/15, Print & Online
If any Charger critics had any doubt about the top contender for a preseason ranking of No. 1 in the country, they don’t now.
The annual Under Armour All-American Baseball game featured two Charger baseball players, seniors Grae Kessinger and Thomas Dillard.
The selection committee for the nationally-televised game – which features the top 40 baseball players in the country – selected the childhood friends from a tryout in Memphis, and the two showcased their talents for the nation to see.
“It’s rewarding to know that you can play with the best in the country, and the fact that we made it together is unbelievable,” Dillard said.
For the first time in history, the game featured a duo hailing from the same high school. Chargers coach Chris Baughman was overcome with emotions following the announcement.
“It’s just crazy,” Baughman said. “On any day, we have four players that can play with anybody in the country, but to have two All-Americans is such an honor. I was awestruck.”
For Dillard and Kessinger, who grew up as childhood friends, the feeling is mutually ecstatic.
“Having a pair of teammates there is unprecedented,” Dillard said. “Having grown up together, we got to experience something we always dreamed about.”
The pair showed out at Wrigley Field and on the MLB Network, and Dillard even made a name for himself throughout the Twitter world.
While Dillard was catching, a ball was thrown behind the catcher. A dropped relay and a few more errors around the diamond resulted in three runs scored. The play was tweeted by more than 10 official baseball accounts, and seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans.
“I’m kinda infamous,” Dillard said.
Kessinger also had his moment in the spotlight. His grandfather, baseball legend Don Kessinger, is heralded as a Cubs hero and a Chicago icon.
Grae Kessinger was regarded as such with an emotional ovation from the crowd.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Kessinger said. “It was incredible for the whole family. Getting a picture with my grandad on Wrigley Field was something that can never be forgotten.”
The similarities between the two were blatant, and many see Kessinger as a younger version as his grandfather, one with inhuman defensive skills and a God-given knack for the sport.
“Running out to shortstop at Wrigley Field and looking up at my grandad was so special,” Kessinger said. “I was told many times of the resemblance between us.”
The two also tremendously increased their personal stock, but they are set on their team goals, as they have one more year to win a state championship.
“It’s kind of a reward that all of your hard work has paid off, but it’s not over yet,” Dillard said.
Baughman reiterated the fact that both ballplayers are crucial to the Chargers’ success, and he hopes that their talent continues for at least one more year.
“Obviously, they both bring an exceptional amount of talent to the team,” Baughman said. “They’re special ballplayers.”
He hopes that with the help of the two All-Americans, at least one more state championship is soon to come. However, another run doesn’t rest on their expertise alone.
“Talent alone didn’t win us 33 straight games last year,” Baughman said. “Their leadership will provide our team with the ability to make another run this year.”
The two seniors will have one last opportunity to solidify their place in the history books, and the first time that Dillard, who transferred to OHS from Briarcrest Christian School (Tennessee) over the summer, will have a solid chance to win it all.
“Before we worry about anything in our personal careers,” Kessinger said, “I believe another state championship is near in the future.”
Gatlin has found starting role as senior
4/29/16 Print & Online
At long last, Oxford baseball’s head coach, Chris Baughman, has finally found a man to fill his “black hole.”
Following a season-ending shoulder injury to junior Ben Bianco, Oxford’s rock solid lineup experienced a turn for the worst.
“Obviously, when Ben went down, offensively, we lost a huge player, who provided a great average and tremendous pop,” Baughman said, “and helped Thomas with that three-four punch we had in the lineup. I felt like we had to replace some really great numbers.”
The lineup that was once so daunting finally showed a weakness, and Baughman needed a filler for his eight-hole spot.
“Anybody we put there just got sucked in to the black hole,” Baughman said. “Anybody who we chose, no matter how well they had performed in practice or a JV game, the eight hole was just going to suck them in to a bad game.”
It truly was like being sucked into a black hole, for the Chargers’ eight-hole spot, no matter the man, was averaging below .150 at the plate, with 20 strikeouts through 50 at bats, as well as boasting merely one RBI, according to Baughman. That is, before the Chargers found their man – senior Tag Gatlin.
After six men made their case for a spot in the lineup, namely Carson Stinnett, Korbin Harmon, CJ Terrell, Reed Markle, Jack Clemons, and Tyler Smith, Gatlin made his mark.
“I knew there was a spot for me, and I knew there was a chance for me to earn it,” Gatlin said. “You never want to see someone in your team get hurt by any means, but obviously there was a spot to take advantage of, and I wanted to be the one to take it.”
On a damp Friday evening in Saltillo, Gatlin was finally granted his chance to prove himself, and he earned his first start of the year.
“I was battling at Saltillo that night between Carson and Tag, and my gut went with Tag”, Baughman said.
Following that game, he managed to solidify his role in the eight-hole, more than two weeks after Bianco’s injury.
“That first at-bat at the Saltillo game, it finally clicked for me,” Gatlin said. “I’d gotten a few hits throughout the season, but that first double in the gap did it for me, and then I went two for three on the day.”
Since then, Gatlin boasts seven hits, four RBI’s, and a .429 on base percentage, but more importantly, a rock in the lineup that has provided the Charger baseball team with its formidability that it once possessed.
“I felt like it was great for the team,” Gatlin said. “After I found it for myself, I felt that there was never going to be a weak spot in the lineup, much like last year.”
The road has never been easy for Gatlin, however, who spent his first three and a half years as a Charger on the bench.
“My first three years, my goal was to push the people in front of me, and fight for a spot,” Gatlin said. “But really, it was to make the people in front of me better, because I didn’t have a huge chance for a spot in the lineup. It was a grind for three and a half years to get here.”
Though he didn’t provide Oxford with a spark on the field, his actions before this season have not been in vain.
“I’m kind of the person that rallies the people in the dugout,” Gatlin said. “I took it upon myself to keep the bench rowdy and help the people out in the field.”
Along with his dugout fanatics, Gatlin has always worked his hardest throughout many long practices as well as the offseason. He is widely regarded throughout the Charger locker room as one of the best batting-practice hitters on the team, and it has begun to show results on the field.
“Before this year, he knew what his role was,” Baughman said. “It was hard for anybody to crack the lineup, but with Ben’s injury, it was time for somebody to step up and prove themselves. He hits the ball great in batting practice, and it’s line drives all over the field.”
“I don’t ever take a day off, and I always work my hardest,” Gatlin said.
Although Gatlin’s baseball days may be numbered, as he is continuing his college career on the football field at Mississippi College, for now, his primary goal is to aid Oxford in whatever way possible in returning to Pearl and repeating a state championship.
“No doubt we had found our man after the Saltillo series,” Baughman said. “Hopefully he’ll keep up the consistency, and I am confident that he will. At least for now, we’ve definitely found our guy.”
Bianco tears labrum, season at risk
3/18/15 Print & Online
Depending on the upcoming days, junior Ben Bianco’s season as baseball standout could be in jeopardy.
Bianco suffered a dislocated shoulder on Wednesday’s game vs. Lafayette while sliding back into first, and an MRI later revealed a “small tear” in his right labrum.
“It was kind of shocking,” Bianco said. “I heard it pop, and I tried to move it, and I tried to put it back in place myself, but then I realized there was nothing I could do.”
Bianco’s throwing-arm injury is highly significant due to his multi-position talents, including playing catcher and third and first base, as well as hitting cleanup on the other side of the ball.
His course of action surrounding the labrum tear can be faced with different paths, but Bianco has wished to keep his options confidential. According to Charger athletics trainer Justin Ware, his type of injury can keep him out of the game anywhere from two weeks to six months, depending on the significance of the recovery.
“A torn labrum can be handled two ways,” Ware said. “A shorter rehab, where there are more risks but a quicker return to the game, or surgery, where one could be out for three to six months.”
Bianco plans to consult with his family and top doctors before making his decision, but he will be rendered to an arm-sling and placed on the bench for at least the next two weeks.
He was replaced with sophomore Tyler Smith in the game following the first inning injury, and Smith as well as junior Carson Stinnett are expected to share his roles at third base, while senior Thomas Dillard and junior Duncan Graeber will attempt to fill in the catching and first base duties, respectively. It is currently unclear how his absence will affect the hitting lineup.
“Tyler came in and got the job done in his first varsity appearance,” Bianco said. “I am confident that our guys can fare well without me in there with them, especially because we all rotate positions so much.”
The Chargers will take on division rival New Hope next week on Tuesday and Thursday without Bianco, who helped eliminate the Trojans in the playoffs last year with a walk-off home run in game one of the North Half series.
Although Oxford will miss his offensive firepower against New Hope, Bianco hopes to be back on the field as soon as possible, and help Oxford carry on with their repeat of the Class 5A state champions.
OHS student, lifelong Cubs fan witnesses history with
World Series visit
11/3/1,6 Print & Online
The Chicago Cubs, former victims of baseball’s longest title drought, recently made history with their first World Series win in 108 years, and one OHS student was there to be a part of it.
Lifelong Cubs fan and junior Drew Bianco was surprised early Monday morning by his dad with a pair of tickets to Game Six of the series in Cleveland, and he was able to check a World Series trip off of his bucket list.
“I was really, really excited,” Bianco said. “I kinda thought he was kidding with me at first. It’s every kid’s dream to watch the World Series, and here I am getting to watch my favorite team in the World Series.”
While fans across the country poured thousands of dollars into tickets to see the historic event, Bianco and his father, Ole Miss Baseball head coach Mike Bianco, were given the two tickets by Coach Bianco’s former player and current Cub, Chris Coghlan.
“I’m really grateful,” Bianco said. “I’m happy that he (Chris) is a part of the Cubs, and I’m thankful that he is gracious enough to give his former coach a pair of tickets to the biggest event in baseball. I can’t be thankful enough.”
The Biancos arrived in Cleveland early Tuesday afternoon in time for pregame festivities at the stadium, and had the chance to meet with Coghlan and watch the teams take batting practice.
The real treat for Bianco, however, began later that night, when his lifelong dream was fulfilled, and he was able to see the Cubs play in the World Series.
“My favorite part was being there with my dad, and getting to see the game in person,” Bianco said. “It’s a lot different than TV, especially because it meant so much for the Cubs.”
Though the tickets were a one-game only perk, Bianco did manage to see the Cubs into game seven with a chance to rewrite history. The Cubs, plagued by dozens of curses since their last championship, were finally within striking distance of their first title since 1908.
“I was thinking the entire time that they had game seven in the bag,” Bianco said. “Though we couldn’t be there again, me and my dad had a pretty good feeling that they were going to win the next game.”
They made it back to Oxford in time for the first pitch of game seven, and Bianco was prepared for history to be made. 10 innings, 15 runs, and one rain delay later, the Cubs were finally able to put their tortured 108-year history behind them, and clinch the World Series in spectacular fashion.
“Me and my mom started dancing around the house while waving the “W” flag, and singing ‘Go, Cubs, Go.’ I couldn’t believe it happened. 108 years later, and they had done it. It was unbelievable. We don’t suck anymore!”
Bianco’s football career likely over
9/30/15, Print & Online
An injury that rivals Cooper Manning’s brutal story just ended Oxford’s starting back’s career, likely for forever.
A right shoulder injury that sidelined sophomore Drew Bianco last week against West Point turned out to be his demise. An MRI and a trip to a neurosurgeon confirmed Oxford’s worst fears concerning their young star.
Although the preliminary reports are informal, Bianco’s nerves in his neck have deteriorated his shoulder muscles to the point that it could permanently render his right arm useless.
“To sum it up, the neurosurgeon told my family and I that if I were to continue playing football, I could basically lose my arm,” a devastated Bianco said. “He told me that if he was in the position of my dad, that he would never let me play football again.”
Bianco’s current status is not entirely known, because he just received the information today. However, he confirmed that he is likely to never play football again.
“Obviously, it’s a sad time anytime you lose a guy like Drew,” senior offensive lineman Will Swindoll said. “Both on the field and off, he is a great guy, and a great athlete. We wish him all the best.”
Through four games, Bianco had built up 371 rushing yards and six touchdowns. In fact, through three, he had surpassed former running back Kenzie Phillips’ record of yards through three games.
He will surely be missed to the Charger offense, but with Phillips’ suspension still in the air, the load will be shared between sophomore Hiram Wadlington and the speedy senior, Josh Patton.
While his career in football is everything but finished, Bianco’s future in baseball is still very promising. As of now, he has been cleared to play baseball and continue his tenure on the diamond.
Bianco will still travel with the football team and continue to be a powerful leader in the locker room, and the No. 8 jersey will endure.