Jada Cooper, now 22-years-old and in Ball State University’s Master’s program for education, has been a Ball State student and cheerleader since she was 18. She’s been a second grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Muncie since she was 21.
She’s been a mother since she was 20.
Cooper found out she was pregnant in July 2021, heading into her junior year at Ball State. On the first day of the fall semester, she told her classmates and professors she was pregnant. Although she felt embarrassed at the time because she had never seen anyone on campus pregnant, she wanted to be as upfront as possible with her professors and classmates.
She was determined not to let her pregnancy affect her workload for class, nor would she let it affect her attendance, never missing a class until the day she gave birth to her daughter, Emersyn, in March 2022.
Cooper said the only support she has received from Ball State is maternity parking, and even that resource is lacking with just six spots on the entire campus.
Regardless, she attended every Zoom she could while on two-week maternity leave, even when professors told her it wasn’t expected.
Cooper remembers joining class Zooms a few days after giving birth, struggling to listen to her instructor because of her newborn daughter’s crying.
During the first year of Emersyn’s life, Cooper said she would take her daughter to Emersyn’s grandparents’ house before she could afford daycare. This made navigating her work, school and athletic life even harder because she was determined to become the first member of her family to graduate college.
“Every day I would drive her to Hartford City, drive back to campus, go to class, work a shift at the YMCA, go pick her up at Hartford City, her dad would come back home and then I would go to cheer practice,” Cooper said.
While Cooper and Zach Tarr, Emersyn’s father, are no longer together, Cooper consistently praised Tarr’s effort as a dad. She said he has always been supportive of Cooper’s quest to continue to cheer and finish school on time, even if it leaves him with added responsibility.
“You feel like you’re missing out on stuff, but I have to step back and tell myself that I’m doing what I need to do to be a good example to her and to set her up to be successful in the future,” Cooper said. “I’m showing her you can still do what you want to do even though these things happen.”
Former Ball State football outside linebacker Sidney Houston Jr. had his first daughter, Si’nyka, when he was 18, heading into his first year of college at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois. His second daughter, Si’reya, was born two years later.
At the time, Houston was just 40 minutes away from his hometown of Cahokia, Illinois, and his former partner, Ree’vyn Sanders, was in close proximity to help raise their daughters.
However, Houston transferred to Ball State, nearly five hours away from his daughters, to chase his dream of playing at the Division I level. While Houston and Sanders are no longer together, he acknowledged the increased workload she has had to take on in order for him to continue to play football at his highest level.
“I applaud her. She's been very supportive, and I wouldn't be able to do what I do without her,” Houston said. “Even though we're not together anymore, that hasn't changed.”
Houston said the key for he and Sanders to continue to be great parents is communication. Although they live two states apart since Sanders moved to Missouri, he said the two have been able to work through problems together and reassure each other about their parenting.
During the season, Houston said his grandmother, Antionette, helps out with the kids to take some of the load off Sanders. Houston’s mother died in 2017, so for a few years, his grandma even raised him.
Houston and his former teammate, defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts, have found common ground in their young parenthood and the lack of time spent with their children. During the season when he can’t help raise his young son, Braylen, Potts’ partner of more than six years and Braylen’s mother, Londyn Johnson, does the heavy lifting.
“I just love my little boy,” Potts said. “It takes a village to raise children. To know that I have support and to know that me and his mother are on the same page, it just gives me relief.”
While Cooper gave a lot of credit to Tarr for helping raise Emersyn, Cooper also attributed her new partner, Dylan Maternowski, and her best friends, Alyssa Burgess and Abby Deno, with helping her balance all of her everyday responsibilities on top of parenthood.
“I can’t do any of this without my people,” Cooper said. “I feel like I’m doing a lot, but they’re holding me up and they don’t know that they’re holding me up.”
Cooper said she is a proud mom, so she seemed apprehensive to admit she doesn’t want her role as a parent to become her entire personality.
“Being an athlete is who I am, being a teacher is who I am, being a mom is who I am, but I’m not going to limit my personality to be one thing,” Cooper said. “I shouldn’t have to put my life on pause just because I have a kid; she should live her life with me, and we should grow up together.”
Cooper regrets she has missed key events in Emersyn’s early life, like her first words and first steps. Emersyn often stays with her dad, or Cooper won’t be around to put her to sleep on the nights she stays with her mom because Cooper often has cheer practice or schoolwork to do.
Cooper said having a toddler makes a simple task like driving to the gas station an event.
“It is impossible to do anything when you have a toddler,” Cooper said. “She has so many toys, but it doesn’t matter what is in front of her, the second I open my laptop, she wants to be on my laptop. So, I can’t do anything until she goes to sleep.”
Cooper said her first break of each day comes once Emersyn is put to bed around 7:30 p.m., and by that time she doesn’t want to have to do more work; so her grades have slipped during her Master’s program.
“When you have a newborn you don’t even brush your teeth or shower or eat – you just forget about things like that,” Cooper said.
An additional responsibility as an Illinois native and one of seven children, Cooper has had to pay for her schooling at Ball State herself.
She had to pay out-of-state tuition for her first three years on campus before becoming an Indiana resident but was helped by scholarships and FAFSA loans and grants. However, she estimated that she owes approximately $40,000 in loans.
Now, as a parent, most of her income from teaching goes towards groceries, baby supplies, a car payment and gas for her car, supplies for her classroom at Longfellow, Emersyn’s daycare fees, and more.
Due to the ongoing issues between Cooper and Tarr at the time of conception, Cooper clarified that Emersyn was not planned. She said she wrestled with thoughts about not having Emersyn, but after some deliberation, she decided to go through with the pregnancy.
“I’ve always wanted to be a mom, and maybe this is my one chance to be a mom, so maybe I should take it,” Cooper thought.
Nearly two years after Emersyn’s birth, Cooper has no doubt that she made the right choice.
“I hate that we had a kid, but she’s the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Cooper said. “She’s also the hardest thing that has ever happened to me, but what gets me through is that at the end of every single day, regardless of what happens, I know for a fact there is at least one person who counts on me and one person who is going to love me no matter what I do. I need that.”
Once she found out she was pregnant and had to take a year off from cheerleading, she thought she would never come back. She said Tarr’s sisters were aspiring cheerleaders so she began to give them the equipment she used for cheer.
“It was the first time in my life I wasn’t an athlete,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know what to do with my free time, so I wasn’t a happy person when I was pregnant.”
Cooper called her pregnancy a period of isolation, especially being a young adult.
“You can complain, but nobody gets it,” Cooper said. “I remember walking through campus one day, and it was the day of the bed races, I saw the cheer team and my heart just broke into a thousand pieces.”
She thought to herself, “You should be out there, but here I am walking around and I’m freaking pregnant! I wouldn’t even be able to fit into a uniform.”
Suddenly, just a couple of weeks before she gave birth, Cooper experienced a change of heart, and she talked to head coach Lynde Richards about going back out for the team before her senior season.
Cooper went from May 2021 to March 2022 without cheerleading at all. On top of that, she gained around 50 pounds during her pregnancy, seriously jeopardizing her role as a flyer. And to add more fuel to the fire, tryouts began six weeks after Emersyn was born.
“I just got my stitches out that day, and I brought Emersyn with me,” Cooper said. “It was so hard. Oh, my God.
“I couldn’t jump, I was slow, I felt heavy. I just felt so lethargic.”
She said the hardest part of cheerleading since giving birth has been regaining her tumbling skills, even going as far as to work with a trainer in Pendleton, Indiana, to help speed up the process. Once the day of official tryouts came, she almost didn’t go for fear of being cut from the team.
Despite not having her standing tuck, something most Ball State cheerleaders are required to do, Cooper made the team. However, Richards told her if she didn’t complete a consistent standing tuck by football season, Cooper may lose her spot.
Cooper did regain her full tuck by football season, and even made the roster for Nationals in Orlando, Florida, for the first time in her three seasons at Ball State.
“I worked my ass off every day,” Cooper said. “I fell a bunch of times, I was in pain a bunch of times, but I think I’m a better flyer now than I was.”
Cooper now uses her identity as a mother as a source of inspiration for struggling teammates, often telling discouraged teammates if she can be a Division I cheerleader as a mother, they can do it too.
Yet, Cooper still deals with thoughts of inadequacy as a parent. She feels like a bad parent around 90 percent of the time because of all the external factors pulling her away from time spent with Emersyn.
“There are days I tell myself she doesn’t need me,” Cooper said.
Cooper perseveres through her job and her Master’s program because she knows she has to provide for not just herself, but Emersyn, too. She perseveres through cheerleading because she knows it is the one thing in her life she does solely for herself.
“I’m miserable most of the time, but I would rather do this hard stuff now and love what I’m doing than make it this horrible thing,” Cooper said. “It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”
But perhaps Cooper’s biggest struggle, she said, has been her mental health. Both before and during her life with Emersyn, Cooper has battled diagnosed depression and anxiety, even attempting suicide twice before her pregnancy and taking antidepressants before and after her pregnancy.
During the summer between her freshman and sophomore year of college, while Cooper was back home in Illinois, she nearly crashed her car into a median on purpose. She said she went to her scheduled therapy appointment the next day, already crying before she walked in the building. Her therapist asked her what was bothering her and Cooper told her about her suicide attempt the night before.
Immediately, her therapist told Cooper she needed to go to the hospital. Once Cooper did, she remembered feeling worse than ever before.
“This is rock bottom,” Cooper thought. “I’m in a room with a painting of the outside instead of a window.”
During the next 10 days, Cooper had to go to the hospital every day for group therapy. As an 18-year-old, she was initially apprehensive. However, she ended up growing close with her group members and said her time spent in therapy and on anti-depressants helped her deal with suicidal thoughts.
Cooper even got a tattoo that reads “I am enough,” in one of her former group member’s handwriting.
She said cheerleading helps with her mental health too, because it’s the one thing she knows she is good at and that she does for herself. However, if she has a bad day as a cheerleader, Cooper said that can make her struggles even worse.
“Sometimes you can’t leave it at the door, as much as I try sometimes I just can’t,” Cooper said. “Then instead of using it as fuel, it just drags me down.”
Potts called his one-year-old son, Braylen, his “ultimate motivation.” Although Braylen lives in Columbus, Ohio, Potts was able to see him at the Kentucky, Indiana State and Central Michigan games throughout the 2023 season.
“When you got a child every day who you got to feed and put clothes on his back, there ain’t nothing else to talk about really,” Potts said. “You know why you’re here.”
Along with Houston and Potts, Marquez Cooper, John Harris, Damion Charity and Vaughn Pemberton, each have a child or are expecting one within the next six months. Potts admitted being a father, whether living three hours away or under the same roof, is a challenge, but he called parenthood the best job in the world.
Cooper, who talked about the joy she feels when Emersyn recognizes her from the stands, agreed. Houston said he was even able to see his daughters at a few of Ball State’s home games during the season, something he likened to Christmas Day.
“Every time I see them, they have these big ‘ol smiles and they’re running up to jump in my arms,” Houston said. “Every other thing I've been thinking about goes out the window, and I can just think about hugging my kids and kissing my kids and playing with them and seeing them smile and laugh. It's like nothing else matters at that moment.”