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Friday, July 16, 2010
Updated: July 14, 3:38 PM ET
Jailen becomes a Raider

By Kory Kozak
Special to ESPN.com

 Jailen Cooper tackles Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden
Jailen Cooper tackles Raiders RB Darren McFadden after tackling something far more dangerous.

What did you wish for today? More money? A better job? To win the lottery?

Two years ago, Jessie Cooper wished for time. She wanted more time with her 8-year-old son, Jailen. He was going in for surgery because of a tumor on his pituitary gland -- brain surgery on her 8-year-old boy.

"I don't think my brain was able to grasp that we were talking about brain surgery," Cooper said.

Cooper is a strong woman. A single mother, she raised Jailen and his sister, Lanaizha Ampley, while she earned her degree at East Carolina. There was never any thought of dropping out of school.

"It just wasn't an option," she said. "You just have to do it. I have to do it."

At that time, they lived with her mother, Mary May, and stepfather, Linwood May, in a trailer in Farmville, N.C., a small town about an hour east of Raleigh. With three ladies in the house, Cooper relied on Linwood May to be the male influence in Jailen's life.

May was a big football fan and took "Little Man" (his nickname for Jailen) under his wing. They watched games on Sunday and talked sports all week long.

"My stepfather -- he was [Jailen's] partner for everything. They did everything together from a very young age," Cooper said.

May's manly influence on Jailen even extended to bedtime.

"He used to sing him the theme song to 'Cops,'" said Cooper, shaking her head from side to side in disbelief. "I don't know why, but it actually worked."

May was a fan of some other "bad boys," too, bleeding silver and black and pledging allegiance to Al Davis' "Commitment to Excellence." There's a famous Raiders poem that reads, "The Autumn wind is a Raider," and so was 6-year old Jailen.

"It's just in my blood," Jailen said.

On a Sunday afternoon in fall 2006, grandfather and grandson watched football and later played catch in the backyard. After the game, May gave Jailen his traditional farewell.

"They'd give each other a pound before they'd leave each other and [May] would say, 'Raiders forever,'" Cooper said. "That was the last thing he said to him."

May suffered a massive heart attack and died about an hour later.

"He was my best friend," Jailen said.

The "Little Man" was now the man of the house. He wanted to hold his family together like his grandfather did, but he was still a kid. He started playing Little League, mainly spending his time in the outfield. After a tournament one day, Jessie and Jailen were on their way home when they got a flat tire. It took about 30 minutes before help arrived. Being a little boy, it wasn't odd that Jailen had to use the restroom. But then he had to go again. And again. And again. And again. "How is he using the bathroom when he hasn't drank anything?" thought Cooper.

She knew something was wrong with her boy. In the weeks that followed, Jailen wet the bed, something he hadn't done since he was 2. Cooper took Jailen to Chapel Hill, N.C., to see a specialist. He was diagnosed with diabetes insipidus. His body doesn't produce the hormone that controls bladder function. If he doesn't keep drinking, Jailen could dehydrate and die.

"I told my mom that I was going take [my chemo medication] for my granddaddy," Jailen said. "That was the only reason I was taking it. It was for him."

The doctors did further tests on his pituitary gland and found a growth. At first, they weren't overly concerned. From July 2007 to July 2008, Jailen was put on medication and underwent MRIs to monitor the tumor. But it was getting bigger.

In October, they went back to the doctor and it had grown even larger. This was serious now. His mother was in shock.

"I'm just like, wow, how did this happen?" she said. "Where did this come from? Is it something that I did? Was there something that I should have done differently?"

Jailen needed an operation on his pituitary gland to remove the growth. In other words, brain surgery, on an 8-year-old.

Jailen wanted to know everything that he was going to go through and his mom helped keep him informed. Together, they researched the surgeon on the Internet and the surgical procedure he was facing.

In December 2008, "Little Man" traveled with his mom nearly two hours to Chapel Hill for his surgery.

"At first, I was kind of scared," Jailen said. "But then I thought that I knew God was going be with me, so I shouldn't be scared."

Jailen was a trooper throughout the operation and the doctors were able to remove most of the tumor, but not all of it. Radiation and chemotherapy awaited him. Jailen remained in intensive care from mid-December through New Year's Day, spending Christmas at the hospital.

Cooper remained strong until Jailen face swelled up beyond recognition. The high levels of salt in Jailen's body dehydrated him.

"He said, 'Mommy, just open my eyes so I can see you.'" Cooper said. "And I couldn't do it. There was nothing I could do."

The swelling eventually went down and he was moved out of intensive care. From his new room, Jailen liked that he could see Kenan Stadium, where the Tar Heels played football. On Jan. 2, his birthday, they celebrated with a Transformers cake. In the months ahead, Jailen went through radiation and chemotherapy. He suffered seizures and lost his hair, but the tumor was shrinking.

In May 2009, he started the second round of chemotherapy. It was only four weeks long, but he had treatment every day for 20 minutes. There were days when he didn't want to take his medicine, but he found a motivation.

"I told my mom that I was gonna take it for my granddaddy," Jailen said. "That was the only reason I was taking it. It was for him."

Now 10 years old, Jailen's prognosis is a good one. Even the scar on his head is OK with him. When he returned to school, Jailen loved that he caught a girl's attention because of it.

"She said, 'Awwww' and it was funny," he said. "I came home to tell my grandma and my mom that I got sympathy from a girl."

Jailen always wanted to work out with the Oakland Raiders. He wanted to be big and strong-- strong enough to train with the Men in Black, to be one of them for a day. He also wanted to meet his favorite player, running back Darren McFadden.

"It would be fun to tackle a pro football player," Jailen said.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation made all of that come true, starting with a phone call from coach Tom Cable. Jailen was going to make the trip to meet the Raiders. Somewhere, Linwood May must have been smiling.

When Jailen and his family arrived at the Raiders practice facility in Alameda, Calif., Hall of Famer Willie Brown was at the front door to greet them.

"You're ready to beat up on some Raiders today, huh? Don't hurt 'em, OK?" Brown said to Jailen.

He took Jailen to see the Raiders' three Lombardi trophies.

"Wow, I get to touch the Super Bowl trophy," Jailen said.

All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha gave Jailen a quick tour of the facility, walking him through the secret corridors of Al Davis' empire. This was definitely a rare event in Raiderland. Asomugha wanted to make sure Jailen was ready for practice, so he brought him to the training room to get taped. He received a special tape job on his fingers that the trainers called the "Nnamdi Special."

Jailen with Raiders coach Tom Cable
Jailen learns plays with Raiders coach Tom Cable.

Asomugha then surprised Jailen by introducing him to his favorite player, McFadden. McFadden took Jailen to the locker room, where Jailen found out that he had a locker of his very own, complete with jerseys, T-shirts, gym bags, backpacks and a real Raiders helmet signed by every player on the team. At 22 years old, McFadden is still a big kid. He threw in some special gifts he got just for Jailen -- gospel CDs, a remote control spider to "scare his sister" and a night light. He also gave Jailen some brand new cleats.

As they headed out to the practice field, the other Raiders players leaned down to shake Jailen's hand or gave him a pat on the back. He was a Raider, and they treated him as such. A banner hangs under the canopy on the way out to the field. It reads "1-0," the team's slogan to remind them to take things one game at a time. Every player touches it on the way out to the field. McFadden lifted Jailen up to hit it.

"We're ready for practice now," McFadden said.

With that, they ran onto the field.

Immediately, Jailen was taking part in drills. He took a snap from center -- he was almost able to walk under 6-foot-3, 300-pound Samson Satele's legs to grab the ball. Looking like a seasoned pro, he dropped back and hit McFadden with a pass. He did some drills with McFadden and the running backs, showing off his quick feet and toughness. He even learned some plays with Cable and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.

The team was fully aware that Jailen was going to get to tackle McFadden at the end of practice, and they were really looking forward to the big moment. First-round draft pick Rolando McClain gave him advice on how to take the 210-pound McFadden down: "Look right in that No. 20 and just hit him. Run as fast as you can and just hit him." Hard-hitting safety Mike Mitchell said, "I think you might be able to get him. You got a big heart, too. That's what I've been told." Even quarterback Jason Campbell showed Jailen a perfect-form tackle. Everybody was chiming in.

The end of practice came. It was time for the moment of truth. Jailen was going to tackle his hero. They stood about 10 yards apart and Cable lined the team up on both sides of them, making a human tunnel. Nowhere to run but at each other.

The Raiders chanted "Jailen! Jailen!" and it was on.

As McFadden started towards him, Jailen charged. Taking McClain's advice, he aimed for the "20" and put his head right there, wrapping McFadden up with his arms. A collective "Oooooh!" could be heard by the Raiders players at the moment of impact. The team gathered around him, high-fiving and patting him on the back. Langston Walker, who measures at about 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, picked Jailen up in the air and put him on his shoulders.

At this moment, Jailen was no longer the swollen kid in the hospital. He was big and strong, able to take down a pro football player all by himself.

Linwood May would be so proud. Jailen was a Raider.


Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @korykozak. Chris Connelly also contributed to this story.