HAVELOCK, N.C. — Fighter jets are everywhere, and that’s before you look to the sky. There’s one on the city seal, a Harrier arrayed before eight American flags, displayed on the welcome signs outside town. There’s one life-sized version on a pedestal outside city hall, and another outside a local hotel, still another outside the main gate to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
And every now and then you hear a low rumble, which builds to a shriek, and suddenly the real things are screaming into the sky one after another, skirting the treetops as they begin their climb. The air base was founded during World War II and predates the incorporation of the city by almost two decades. The two entities are so intertwined that high school football players doing summer drills barely notice as a line of jets streaks overhead from the base across the street.
This is the environment in which Pharoh Cooper was raised. His grandfather was a Marine, his father was a Marine, his brother is a Marine. He grew up with those jets whooshing overhead, playing at a high school from which the base’s beige buildings and checkered water towers are plainly visible. The service and his family are almost as interconnected as his hometown and Cherry Point. On the rear windshield of her sedan, his mother Tanya has two decals — a South Carolina helmet and the U.S. Marine Corps seal.
“Being raised in a military town, a lot of the parents are kind of strict when it comes to discipline and the kids,” said Pharoh’s father Glenn, who served six years in the Marines. “I always told him, ‘You do the same thing when people aren’t looking that you do when they are looking.’ That makes a difference. He’s lived by that, and so far, so good.”
His son has taken those lessons to heart. It was Havelock, built not on corn and tobacco but on duty and discipline, which molded Cooper into a football player who won two state titles at two different positions.
It was Havelock that created the breakout star who scored touchdowns in three different ways last season at USC. And it’s Havelock, a military outpost surrounded by tourist towns, which shaped the mindset that made it all possible.
His legacy here remains evident. Havelock High School is a Class AAA powerhouse, compiling a 100-3 record the last three seasons and producing NFL players like guard Guy Whimper, linebacker Bruce Carter, and recently drafted South Carolina offensive tackle Corey Robinson. When the school held its annual legends dinner in March, featuring a dozen alumni from the NFL or Division I college football, it was Cooper’s jersey that raised the most money at auction.
Proceeds from that night helped Havelock renovate its locker room, which now features college-style lockers with helmet cubbies, name plates and shoulder pad racks. “He’s helped put our program on the map,” said head coach Jim Bob Bryant.
Even now, entering his third season at USC, he’s still a hero here. Locals ask his mother Tanya whether Pharoh will speak to schools. They ask whether Pharoh will conduct football camps. They ask if they can buy the gold cleats Pharoh wore in the state championship game as a senior.
“People are asking me to sell them on eBay,” she said with a laugh. “People who know him from high school are asking for them. I’m like, ‘nope. I’m not selling my baby’s shoes.’ ”
The name was his father’s idea. Tanya Cooper had named Pharoh’s older brother Christian, so when their younger son was born two years later, Glenn Cooper drew inspiration from the Egyptian pharaohs. His mother offered one suggestion — drop the second “a,” which she felt looked strange in print. Either way, their son would share a name with ancient kings.
It became rapidly apparent he would live up to it. Pharoh was a sports-mad tyke who wouldn’t nap at daycare because he was trying to pull balls down from a shelf. “Came out of my stomach playing with a ball,” his mother said. At 5, he started Pop Warner football, with his father as coach, and the time together afforded Glenn ample opportunity to impart sports and life lessons to his son.
“I tried to treat him like I treated all my players, but of course me being his coach, not only did he have to hear it on the field, but he heard it off the field as well. On the rides back to the house, I’m sure he was getting an earful,” Glenn said.
“That was a big deal,” Pharoh added. “It was kind of easier. He didn’t treat me any differently than he did anyone else. I was still the type of player I am now, so I played everything there. But it was kind of easier. We could go home, he could talk to me about stuff, do drills in the backyard. From a father-son standpoint, we could talk about anything, really.”
It wasn’t just football. Tanya’s father served in the Marines, retiring as a master sergeant. Glenn served at Cherry Point in logistics and supply. At a very young age, both Pharoh and Christian — currently in the Marines, stationed in Beaufort — learned discipline and adaptability, not just from sports, but also their family’s connection to the military. On those rare occasions when the kids acted up, their father needed only to give them a certain look.
“He always taught me to be disciplined, to do the right thing on and off the field,” Pharoh said. “Being from a military background, it was ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ I was raised on a lot of that. If I said ‘yeah,’ he’d say, ‘Excuse me?’ He taught me a lot of manners that will carry me a long way in life.”
And in the process, help craft an exceptional athlete. Even in Pop Warner, Cooper was all over the field, foreshadowing a college career in which he would generate touchdowns by catching, throwing and rushing the ball. “My husband had him everywhere,” Tanya said. “He played every position. He was the best. He was a pipsqueak, just a little thing.”
Pharoh embraced his versatility early on. “Any position I put him at, he was fine,” his father said. “He might have that little look on his face at first, but after a while, he would straighten up and fly right.”
Cooper was still wispy years later when he joined the junior varsity at Havelock High School, where Bryant was rebuilding a program that hadn’t won a title since 1971. “As a freshman, he was a little dude, man,” Bryant remembered. Everything changed Cooper’s sophomore year, when he grew five inches, developed his body in the weight room and made varsity as a safety.
And the Cooper who would one day thrill USC fans emerged in earnest. The breakout moment was a game against West Carteret his sophomore season, when he returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown, breaking nine tackles along the way. “Greatest high school run I’ve ever seen,” Bryant called it.
Soon enough, Cooper was playing receiver, where he starred as a junior when Havelock claimed the first of three consecutive state championships. He had 10 combined returns for touchdowns and broke the school record for receiving yards in a season. “He’s the best overall football player I’ve ever coached, and I’ve been coaching for 20 years,” said Bryant, who runs summer workouts in a Gamecocks bucket hat.
So the following season, when Bryant had a young quarterback not ready to run the varsity, he turned to Cooper. “If I can’t throw it to you, I’ll snap it to you,” he told his senior receiver. In Bryant’s spread offense, they designed a simple system — Cooper would choose which side of the field to read, go through two progressions, and if no one was open, tuck it and run.
It generated 4,500 yards of offense and 60 touchdowns. “He broke every all-purpose record we’ve ever had here,” Bryant said.
Cooper oversaw an offense that overwhelmed opponents en route to another state championship. Along the way, it became quite clear he had a football future beyond high school. And as a proud native of the Old North State, he knew where he wanted to play in college. Pharoh Cooper yearned to be a North Carolina Tar Heel.
Pharoh Cooper and Derrell Scott were best friends and teammates who shared the same dream — to play in Chapel Hill. It seemed one step closer to reality when both received offers from North Carolina as underclassmen at Havelock, and then again when they were invited to UNC’s biggest recruiting weekend — which coincided with the annual home basketball game against Duke.
That’s what Bryant said an assistant to UNC head coach Larry Fedora told him at a clinic. “We call the kids and tell them, and they’re putting it on Twitter, they’re putting it on Facebook,” the Havelock coach said. “They were going to commit to (North) Carolina that day.”
Plans changed 24 hours later when Bryant encountered the same UNC assistant, and the offer to attend the basketball game was rescinded. “He said, ‘Coach, I overstepped my bounds. We aren’t going to be able to bring them. ... We ran out of tickets,’ ” Bryant said. And then, the kicker — Bryant said he was told the weekend was reserved only for North Carolina’s top recruits.
Clearly, that didn’t go over well in Havelock. “That’s fine,” Bryant said he told the UNC assistant, “but I need you to understand one thing — there ain’t no need for you to recruit them anymore. Because they’re going to scratch you off their lists. ... What they’re going to hear is, if they’re not good enough to go to the Duke-Carolina basketball game, they’re not good enough to play at (North) Carolina.”
An offer was extended to host Cooper and Scott — the latter a running back one year younger than his teammate — at a weekend in conjunction with a basketball game against Clemson. Fedora called Bryant to try and smooth things over. UNC “recruited the hell out of them the next two years,” the Havelock coach said. “Derrell and Pharoh wouldn’t even talk to them.”
All along, South Carolina lurked in the background. Like many schools, the Gamecocks went to Havelock originally interested in Scott and came away smitten with Cooper. Former assistant Brad Lawing, who has deep North Carolina ties, recommended USC offer a scholarship to Cooper following his sophomore season, based solely on his game film and Bryant’s endorsement.
Soon enough, Cooper received a phone call from defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward with a scholarship offer from USC. “Never met them,” Cooper said of the Gamecocks coaches. It was the first college offer Cooper received, coming when recruiting services had him listed as just a three-star prospect, and it was enough to keep USC in play even throughout the drama with North Carolina.
Cooper ultimately committed to USC and stayed true to his word even as his recruiting stock rose through a high school career that concluded with another state title and a trip to the Shrine Bowl. He attracted plenty of interest from colleges, but received just four offers — USC, East Carolina, N.C. State and the Tar Heels, the latter of which kept up the full-court press to the end.
“Whoever they sent, I remember him sitting right in that chair,” Tanya Cooper said, motioning to the couch in her Havelock home. “I remember him trying to convince Pharoh to go to UNC. But he had already chosen South Carolina.”
Scott chose Tennessee, then transferred to East Carolina. While Cooper isn’t one to air grievances publicly, it’s clear his recruitment by North Carolina did not sit well. And he relishes the opportunity to begin his anticipated junior season at South Carolina against North Carolina on Sept. 3 in Charlotte. He could have easily ended up on the other side.
“UNC, I kind of liked them before I got offered,” said Cooper, who came to South Carolina as a safety before switching to offense. “They were talking to me still. But I kind of didn’t have a good feeling with their coaching staff, so I kind of turned away from them. I kind of take that game personally. They kind of did some things I didn’t like. I’m ready for that game.”
Each year, Bryant calls his Havelock players into his office one by one and asks them to vote on captains for the upcoming season. As a junior and a
senior, Cooper was a near-unanimous choice to serve in that role. Both years, he received every vote but one — his own.
“I said, ‘You can vote for yourself,’ ” Bryant told Cooper. “He said, ‘I know, coach, but a good leader doesn’t do that.’ A kid like that comes along once in a lifetime.”
Cooper earned his time in the spotlight, both during his stellar high school career and a breakthrough sophomore season at USC where he caught 69 passes for 1,136 yards. But he never sought it. When his mother posted a fan page on Facebook, he asked her to take it down. When a restaurant manager mentioned USC and she introduced her son who plays for the Gamecocks, he requested on the ride home that she not do it again.
“He’s a very humble child, let me tell you,” said Tanya Cooper, who works as a director at a health care facility in nearby Morehead City. “He doesn’t like to brag or boast about anything. I’m momma, and I’m going to brag. However, when we’re out in public, he does not like us to mention who he is. He really does not like it.”
For all his accolades on the football field, the discipline instilled in him during his upbringing in a military family has held fast. When USC head coach Steve Spurrier begins to praise Cooper, he doesn’t start with the receiver’s play. “He’s a wonderful young man,” Spurrier said. “Does everything the coaches ask, and a little bit more.”
Bryant can relate. “It’s a blessing to coach a kid who’s that good, and is that humble, and that’s a good kid, too,” he said. “Sometimes some of your better players feel entitled, they don’t have to do what everyone else does. And they think they can get in trouble in school, and the teachers are going to let them get away with it. Pharoh wasn’t like that.”
No wonder, then, in both Havelock and Columbia there’s a belief that Cooper can fill the leadership void on a USC offense that said goodbye to captains A.J. Cann and Dylan Thompson after last season. Positions along the offensive line are in flux, the quarterback will be a first-year starter, the other receivers are all unknowns. Then there’s Cooper, with both the talent and the production to back up everything he says.
Not that he will say it loudly. “He’s not naturally a loud guy,” said Gamecocks receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. “But he understands his role as a player is to help this team win games, and that means being a good leader for us.”
Cooper will likely lead at USC the same way his father did at home — by example. “You don’t really have to say too much to get your point across sometimes,” said Glenn Cooper, who works in Charlotte managing a warehouse for a wire and cable company. His son showed the first vestiges of that in the spring, when he rounded up quarterbacks and younger receivers for throwing sessions, and made sure teammates were lined up properly in practice.
Redshirt freshman receiver Terry Googer said Cooper has been texting the other wideouts, offering support and areas of improvement. “He tells us to keep our heads up,” Googer said. His father isn’t surprised to hear it.
“I’ve heard many stories of him being in the weight room, and he’s the first one in there and the last to leave,” Glenn said. “And he’s very competitive. That competitive nature kind of rubs off on other kids. I always tell him, you can be a leader or a follower, and sometimes followers get left. And you can’t lead from the back. You want to lead, you be at the front.”
Spoken like a former Marine. His son has never shied from an assignment, whether it’s playing multiple positions in Pop Warner or doing the same at USC. The roar of fighter jets over his hometown has been replaced by the din of the crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, but the mentality remains the same. He may not have worn the uniform, but coming from a family that boasts three Marines, Pharoh Cooper knows how to improvise, adapt and overcome.
“He’s always been able to adapt,” his father said. “He’s always been up for the challenge.”