JOHNSTON, Iowa — Monday was far from business as usual for Johnston High School Athletics Director Joe Nelson. “I still can`t believe this happened. It`s crushing. My life changed,” said Nelson.
On Sunday he learned one of his closest friends, former colleague and 21-year veteran Major League Baseball umpire Eric Cooper, passed away from a blood clot while recovering from off-season knee surgery at age 52.
“This completely blindsided all of us. He was feeling great. We were just texting back and forth like we do on Saturday,” Nelson said.
It wasn`t too long after Nelson and a group of friends took a weekend trip to see Cooper on the big stage. Nelson said, “Just one month ago, we went up to Milwaukee to watch him work the Cubs and the Brewers.”
Cooper recently umpired the American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and Twins, but the sudden death took away more than an umpire. “Coop may not have been my biological brother, but he was a brother to me and a brother to many of us,” Nelson said.
Nelson umpired alongside Cooper at Iowa Cubs games in the 1990s. “He`s taught me more about life and being a good person than anything he taught me with umpiring,” Nelson said.
Cooper mentored Nelson, who has now umpired 12 Iowa high school state championships. A game worn Memorial Day game umpire cap from Cooper sits proudly in his office. Nelson said, “I didn`t think I’d be showing this hat on Monday morning as something I`d keep forever from my friend, but I`m glad Coop gave me this.”
Cooper was a 1985 Hoover High School graduate and will forever be enshrined in the school`s hall of fame. Whether calling games in the 2014 World Series or 2005 MLB All-Star Game, those who knew him said the bright lights never blinded him from finding his way back home to his roots.
“Every time he was back, he was always looking for people he could help. His benevolence in this town is well known, and I`m just one of many people he`s helped. He will be forever missed,” said Nelson.
Cooper was a great umpire and an even better husband, father, son, brother and friend to many. Nelson said, “It`s a huge hole for me and many of us right now. We are heartbroken that we lost him and heartbroken for his family.”
MLB plans to honor Cooper during the first game of the World Series on Tuesday. Funeral arrangements are still pending.