Northwestern, a Chicago-area institution with strong recruiting ties in the Midwest, extended an offer when no other school, not even nearby California University, chose to do so.
While other programs hesitated, the Wildcats, working off game tape evaluation and pure, gut instinct, took the initiative with the 2013 Concord, CA, prospect. The gesture stuck with Hooper, gave him confidence in his abilities, and the Wildcats have since maintained a high status among his lengthy list of suitors.
"It really meant a lot," Hooper said. "For them to offer some California kid before any local schools did. It showed that they really care."
The bond formed between player and school was a strong one, and Hooper wasted no time researching NU, its history and the illustrious playing career of the man who offered him.
Fitzgerald, he learned, was a two-time recipient of the Nagurski and Bednarik awards, two prestigious distinctions that annually recognize college football's best defensive player, and the leader of NU's back-to-back Big Ten championship-winning teams in the mid-90's.
The Wildcats' vibrant, animated head coach was someone Hooper not only wanted to battle, work and play for but also emulate. Joining a coach with such a decorated playing history and a program on the rise made sense for competitive reasons as much as it did developmental ones. Hooper sees the best of both worlds in a potential future with the Wildcats.
"He knows what it takes to play at a really high level, and he was the best defensive player in the country twice. Learning from a guy like that would take my game to the next level," he said. "I can tell he has the team going in the right direction, they're getting better every year."
The Wildcats may have been the first school to discover Hooper's unique pass-rushing talents, but he's now a highly-coveted prospect with offers from more than 15 schools, including Washington, Oregon, Cal, Boise State, Notre Dame and Purdue. Hooper talks regularly with offensive coordinator Mick McCall and Fitzgerald over Facebook and appreciates their clear, detailed description of his potential future role with the team.
Though he often played tight end in high school, most every school that's shown interest in Hooper views him as a defensive end, and the Wildcats are no exception.
"Different schools tell me they want me on offense, or defense and some say I'll figure it out later on," he said. "Coach Fitzgerald wants me at defensive end, and I have no problem with that."
While Hooper is intrigued with many of the schools on his list, he hopes to avoid a "football factory" where playing time is limited, and personal development nonexistent. In NU, he sees an opportunity for a truly constructive experience under the guidance of a role model where he can learn and compete with the knowledge that playing time is earned, not given.
The junior from De La Salle high school, a traditional football powerhouse, has yet to construct a list of favorites, but admitted NU is on his list of five schools he plans to visit in the coming months. He hopes to wait until after his senior season to make his decision.
"The option to play for a school like Northwestern speaks for itself," he said. "The academics, the coach, there's a lot that I like about it."