Cooper Ross was in a hospital bed when he was told by doctors his newfound dream of playing football may not be possible.
Ross, a freshman at Heritage Academy in downtown Mesa at the time, had just started playing tackle football for the first time. His love for the game grew quickly when he put on a helmet and shoulder pads. But he was in a dire situation.
Doctors said if he hadn’t arrived in the emergency department when he did, not only would his football career be in jeopardy but his life, too.
Ross nearly entered Ketoacidosis, a reaction to Type 1 diabetes that can lead to a diabetic coma. Up until that point, he and his family were unaware of him having Type 1 diabetes. His sugar levels were so high it was at the point the machine used in the hospital could not physically give him and his family a reading. But as he recovered his determination to get back on the field grew. So, that’s exactly what he did.
“I had to stay in the hospital for three or four days but after that it was kind of just a lifestyle change,” Ross said. “I don’t really think about that much. I kind of just got used to it and didn’t let it stop me from doing what I love.”
Ross still reflects on those worrying hours in hospital. It’s a constant reminder to never take life or football for granted. He has also used it as a motivator to keep working toward his goal, which he can now officially say he will achieve.
Now a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior tight end for Heritage, Ross recently competed at a BYU football camp in Provo, Utah. His frame, athleticism and pass-catching ability opened the eyes of the Cougars’ coaching staff, who extended a scholarship offer for Ross to attend and play football at BYU.
It was his dream offer. Without hesitation, he committed and shut down his recruitment.
“I’m still kind of in shock that it happened,” Ross said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I’m super blessed and happy that I got it. This is something I never imagined was even possible until my sophomore year.”
Ross’ ability to receive an offer from a Division I program isn’t unheard of at Heritage Academy. Basketball players have done so in the past. However, they don’t often come for football players.
The Heroes play in the Canyon Athletic Association, a smaller and often viewed as less competitive conference compared to the Arizona Interscholastic Association — where the likes of Chandler, Hamilton and nearby Mountain View play. Given the small size of Heritage Academy — about 705 total students from grades 7 through 12 — the Heroes play 8-man football.
Ross and the Heritage coaching staff have a more difficult time receiving offers due to the style of football they play. Traditional 11-man football programs typically receive the most interest from college programs, especially at the Division I level. But Ross proved there are always diamonds in the rough. And he hopes to bring more attention to programs like Heritage, which has won two straight state championships – eight overall – and is coached by former University of Arizona and NFL player, Jose Portilla.
“It’s been a work in progress for us,” Portilla said. “When he first came to us, I told him he would have an opportunity to move on. Being an 8-man, we aren’t on the map. But we have a great coaching staff and are teaching these kids a high-level skillset.
“If our kids have a goal to play at the next level, we do what we can to help them move on.”
Ross caught 34 passes for 637 yards and 15 touchdowns in six games on an offense that averaged 44 points per game in 2020. The Heroes went undefeated for the second straight season and has a 26-2 overall record since Ross joined the varsity program.
There was a point in time in which Ross and his family thought about transferring to an 11-man football program nearby.
However, he said prayer helped lead him to sticking at Heritage Academy for many reasons. He has already established himself in the football program and trust Portilla and the rest of the coaching staff. He is receiving one of the best educations in the state at Heritage, where students receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships on an annual basis.
Not to mention, the land in which the school sits on in downtown Mesa was once owned by his grandfather. After committing to BYU, he learned his great grandfather helped build LaVell Edwards Stadium, where the Cougars play on Saturday nights in the fall.
“It was kind of meant to be,” said Stephanie Ross, his mother.
Stephanie was brought to tears thinking about how far her son has come since laying in the hospital bed three years ago. Being proud is an understatement.
“To see this kid come from a hospital bed his freshman year and telling us after he got out of the hospital, ‘I’m not going to let it stop me,’ and he had coaches and everyone else tell him it would be hard to play football while being diabetic and he should just quit, he wouldn’t let that stop him,” Stephanie said.
“He just kept going. As a mom, I’m just so proud he’s willing to tackle obstacles. That’s a great life skill.”
Ross will go on his two-year church mission before joining the BYU program. He will officially enroll when he returns.
But before then, he aims to once again help put Heritage Academy on the map. He isn’t so focused on his own accolades. Personally, he wants to see his team win one more championship before he goes on to the next level.
Maybe even more than that, however, he wants to further help Heritage Academy Mesa gain the respect he, the coaches and the rest of the players feel they deserve.
“It means a lot to me to kind of represent this school and other smaller schools. There’s still kids out there that, just because they don’t go to a Chandler and Hamilton, they can still go out there and play. Don’t overlook them, they’re still there.”