How Broncos rookie Jonathon Cooper overcame a heart defect to make NFL

Rookie Jonathon Cooper had three heart procedures following April's draft, but is on the verge of making the Broncos after getting two sacks in a preseason game against the Seahawks. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos rookie Jonathon Cooper believed, really believed, he had the heart to succeed in football.

But there were moments in May, like every moment during three eight-hour medical procedures, when his heart wasn't a symbol of determination or a description of effort. It was the life-giving organ behind his ribs that might, or might not, allow him to play the game.

"And right now I don't take a second of it for granted," Cooper said. "... Really, I just think about everybody who supported me and just go."

The Broncos selected Cooper in the seventh round of this past April's draft -- 239th overall out of Ohio State -- with eyes wide open. They knew Cooper had been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in high school. Doctors later said it was Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome -- a congenital heart defect a person is born with that results in irregular or rapid heartbeat.

Cooper had two ablations in high school, procedures in which catheters are threaded through blood vessels to the heart as tissue in the heart is then scarred to block abnormal electric signals, restoring a normal heartbeat. Cooper then played through the remainder of his prep career and through five seasons at Ohio State.

But in the medical checks leading up to this past April's draft, it was discovered Cooper needed another ablation. He received the news, he said, roughly 48 hours before the first round of the NFL draft.

Broncos general manager George Paton said the Broncos understood Cooper was facing another procedure, but they liked his approach to the game, maturity and athletic ability. The Broncos' medical information said he would likely play in the coming season and beyond.

"But the doctors, they had a hard time getting to the right spot," Cooper said. "It ended up being a little more difficult than I thought it would be."

In all, it took three separate, eight-hour procedures in May before Cooper was cleared to return to the field for the Broncos. Cooper said before the third procedure corrected the problem, the use of a pacemaker had been discussed, which could have ended any thought of his playing in the NFL.

Three months later Cooper's high motor has landed him in the Broncos' plans for the season. He has played 62 snaps in the Broncos' two preseason games combined and has six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and knocked down a pass.

That's the kind of productivity/impact that gets you noticed, even in a defense that has plenty of talent.

"He's natural at it and he's a tough guy," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. "[He has a] very, very high motor, very, very strong. He just gets it. He gets it at an early age. He's shedding guys. I don't like giving them coaching tips because he's doing such a great job. Whenever you give him any type of tip or any type of pointer, he picks it up right away. That's the quality of a great player. You can coach him one time and you're not coaching him on the same thing over and over and over. He just gets it."

It's plenty early in Cooper's NFL career, but that is much the same description Miller gave about Shaquil Barrett, the NFL's sack leader in 2019, when he arrived to the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2014, and third-year Broncos linebacker Malik Reed, who was an undrafted rookie in 2019.

"I mean, I'm never going to say that I doubted myself, I knew what I was capable of," Cooper said after his two-sack performance last Saturday night in Seattle. "I didn't know that the journey to get here would be so hard. But at the end of the day, I just have confidence in myself and I just want to go out there and play the best that I can."

"He naturally plays hard," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "You know, some guys have to push themselves to play hard; it comes naturally to him."

The Broncos have made significant investments in their defense, but Cooper figures to squeeze his way into a crowded linebackers room when the roster cuts to 53 are made Tuesday. Miller was on injured reserve last season as Bradley Chubb, Reed and Derrek Tuszka, a seventh-round pick in the 2020 draft, were all on the roster at outside linebacker last season.

Cooper would be the fifth outside linebacker, a manageable total for the Broncos if they keep four inside linebackers.

"That's up to the coaches, obviously," Cooper said. "I just want to go out there and show them that whatever they ask me to do, whatever it is, I'm willing to do it. ... I've learned a lot from [Miller and Chubb]. They've been great mentors to me. Any question I have, they always come with a great answer. Whether it's coaching me up on my stance, whether it's coaching me up on some pass rush. And with Malik Reed, too, all three of those guys I look up to as big brothers and just trying to gather as much information as I can from all of them to make myself better."

As for that heart, Cooper said following this season he will have an exam that will likely include an EKG, just as a "checkup to see how it all is, but I feel great."