The NFHS honors a select few each year for their unwavering dedication and lomg-lasting contributions to the world of high school sports and activities.
Among this year’s winners recognized July 1 at the annual NFHS Summer Luncheon was longtime MHSAA official Harold Cooper of Jackson. To simply call “Coop” grateful would likely be an understatement.
Mr. Cooper is the NFHS Official Citation recipient for 2016, a prestigious award given to only 12 individuals among the thousands working in all avenues of extracurricular competition.
“It means a whole lot because I know how far I’ve come — from chopping cotton when I was young in the Mississippi Delta to receiving this award in front of all these people in Reno, Nevada,” Mr. Cooper said. “Goll-lee. You have to be blessed to get this far.”
The perenially easygoing Mr. Cooper (“I’m 68 now … and a good-looking 68,” he said with a laugh), got his start as a Mississippi official in 1969 — four years after his graduation from Brinkley High in Jackson and around the same time mandatory school desegregation was implemented across the state.
Back then, the pay was just $12.50 to call a football game and $12 per basketball game.
“The night we merged the (MHSAA and Magnolia High School) associations, a lot of officials walked out because they didn’t want to work with us,” Mr. Cooper said. “Then move ahead to 1997, for me to be the first black official in charge of the Middle Mississippi Officials Association, that’s a blessing considering where I had come from.”
Mr. Cooper’s striped shirt and whistle also carried him to several conferences from NCAA Division I to NAIA. He remains involved at the college level, working as an instant replay official and evaluator for the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
His first love — high school sports in Mississippi — remains close to his heart, however. Although he stopped calling prep games a number of years ago, Mr. Cooper is not hard to find at football stadiums and basketball gymnasiums in Central Mississippi. There he keeps a watchful eye on Mississippi’s next crop of officials.
“I’ve got 300 combined officials in football and basketball (in the Mid-Mississippi Association),” Mr. Cooper said. “I can sit down and write an evaluation on each and every one of them because I know what they can do.
“When I first started traveling the country to attend officiating camps, when you stood up and said you were from Mississippi, sometimes they wouldn’t give you a chance to show your skills. They would automatically assume you were from the backwoods and couldn’t referee. I wanted to start something where they would respect our officials. Now we have some in the NFL, in the SEC, in the Mountain West Conference … We have officials working everywhere.”
Catherine Cooper, Harold’s wife of 47 years, knows that fact better than anyone.
“When I talk to the new guys wanting to be officials, I tell them first thing that they better have is that support at home,” Mr. Cooper said. “I once was gone 23 nights in a month calling games. I worked in 13 different conferences one year.”
“My wife took care of two kids and did a great job raising them. I give her all the credit for this award.”