The last time Demetrius Cooper really played in a football game, he wasn't old enough to drive a car.
So as Saturday's spring game looms, the Michigan State redshirt freshman is excited to play in front of a crowd and in a game for the first time since his sophomore year.
"It's really exciting just to get out there and play in front of a lot of people," Cooper said. "The high school I come from, there's barely 20 people coming to games.
"To come out there for the spring game and play in front of thousands, my adrenaline will be running but I'll be ready for it."
It has not been a quick road for Cooper, after playing in just one game in his final two years of high school. From injuries to things beyond his control, obstacles kept being thrown in front of him after he played himself into a Division 1-caliber recruit as a sophomore.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end exceled his sophomore year at Morgan Park in Chicago, but suffered a knee injury prior to his junior year and missed the entire season.
At the time, schools stopped calling like they had before when he had 89 tackles – 40 for loss – as a sophomore.
"I called them and they would say, ‘Who is this?'" he said. "It was hard. Everything just went dark. I was like, I'm done with football."
But Michigan State was not among those schools as the Spartans stuck by him and kept recruiting him, led by then-offensive coordinator Dan Roushar.
"They stayed around, Michigan State did," he said. "They knew I was hurt, but they said they are still sticking with me and they aren't the type of school to just walk away."
Hitting the camp circuit after his junior year, schools started paying attention again as Cooper put on a clinic from camp to camp.
"I went to a camp in Indiana, I went to a camp in Detroit, they were all there surrounding me, saying that's the kid from Morgan Park," he said. "They didn't remember my name, they just knew who I was."
But coming back after turning their backs was not going to work with Cooper.
"Why would I come back to sign? You might give up on me again," he said.
The Spartans sticking by his side paid off, as they secured his commitment in August 2012. Then, after sitting out games because of transferring to Julian High School and missing more because of a Chicago teachers' strike, his knee acted up against after playing in one game.
"I was just stretching and I heard my knee pop," Cooper said.
He knew he had to tell Michigan State about the knee, but after the coaches stuck with him the first time, they did it again.
"People had said if you tell the school, they might take it," he said. "I took the risk and told them because I didn't want to go out there and play hurt. …
"They just said rehab and we are going to stick with you."
So Cooper signed to become a Spartan in February 2013 and arrived on campus a few months later weighing 198 pounds. After summer camp, he had bulked up to 208 pounds and was being told he could see the field.
"I had to prepare around week two," he said. "They told me I had the ability to play last year. They weren't really worried about size."
Around the trip to Notre Dame, the coaches asked Cooper if he wanted to play or redshirt, and he picked the latter. Seeing how physical the practices were and seeing the need to get bigger and more physical, he felt it was the best decision.
He worked with strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie to add necessary weight.
"Every time they told me you gotta put on weight by next spring," he said. "Coach Mannie said come on, Coop, you gotta get big. I'm like there is no way, I'm only 219, how am I gonna get to 240 by next spring?"
Cooper stuck with it and each time he stepped on the scale, he saw his weight going up and up. He was at 230 at the start of winter conditioning and up to 240 by the end of it. Now, he is at 245 pounds and looks the part of a Big Ten defensive end.
He also cut down his 40-yard dash time to 4.6 and added three inches to his vertical leap in the process.
"As long as I get to keep my speed and athletic ability, I don't care how big I am," he said.
Bigger, stronger and faster – and nearly four years later – Saturday will be a big occasion for Cooper. Thankful for Michigan State sticking with him and ready to prove to others they made a mistake, he is just for the opportunity he has and to be excited to be back on the field.
"The majority of kids play high school football for four years and don't get a scholarship," he said. "I didn't play since 2010 when I was 15 years old. I'm around 19 now."