As a college football player in a football-mad state, Cooper knows what an impact he can have on kids. That's because he remembers how it was for him growing up. He went to the same church as former Westmoore High and OSU standout Billy Bajema and lived in the same town as former OU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jason White.
“I remember how much they meant to me and how if they just came over and gave me a high five or remembered my name, it was so big,” Cooper said. “I hope I can be that person for other kids.”
He was trying to be that person the day he met Taylor.
Cooper and Taylor were smitten with each other right away.
They met at during an event for Coaches vs. Cancer, a national college basketball movement that raises awareness and money for cancer research. At OSU, the events also bring together cancer patients and athletes. Back in February 2011 when Cooper was paired with Taylor, she was a year into her cancer treatment. She was bald and frail. She was a little bashful, too, but he was quick to make her feel comfortable.
“When he sees her, he immediately gets on his knees or picks her up so they are eye level,” said Kendria Cost, who's long overseen OSU's Coaches vs. Cancer efforts.
Taylor's mom said, “He's so big. But with her ... he just gets down on her level and it's just the two of them.”
Their relationship deepened through the spring and summer. Even though Taylor had to be hospitalized a couple times with bad headaches or high fevers, she and Cooper talked on the phone. Texted, too. Elicia was occasionally mortified when she'd discover Taylor had swiped her cell phone and was texting Cooper one word at a time.
Taylor wanted to hear his voice so badly that Elicia asked Cooper if he'd provide the voice for a “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” audio book. He jumped at the chance, and Taylor nearly wore out the batteries listening to it.
Cooper and his folks bought a special No. 80 jersey for Taylor a year ago with “BRANDT” instead of “BASSETT” on the back. Before the season started, Cooper and his mom took the jersey to Taylor's house. Everyone there said it was hard to tell who had a bigger smile — Taylor or Cooper.
A week later, Cooper got a new picture from Elicia. Taylor was sleeping in the jersey.
It became a security blanket last fall when Taylor started having complications. She was in the maintenance phase of her treatment, which sounds tame enough but still involved chemotherapy. The drugs were staying in her system too long. Her immune system went down again. Her hair, which had grown back, fell out again.
“Nothing major,” her mom said, “but she'd gone from fragile to looking almost normal with hair and then she went right back down again.”
But regardless of how Taylor was feeling, she would always put on her jersey every Saturday and watch the Cowboys.
She even had the folks at The Children's Hospital rearrange a fundraiser when she found out it was the same night as a game. She was scheduled to appear on stage with an OSU item during the auction, but she told them the only way she'd do it was if she could go first, then head home for the game.
Taylor had to see her Cooper.
“Their relationship was — and continues to be — a true bright spot for Taylor,” her mom said. “To see your sick, tired and frustrated child get so happy about something is a huge deal.”
Cooper Bassett sits in the back of the Cowboys' nearly empty postgame interview room. The game against Louisiana-Lafayette is long over, and most of his teammates have gone to meet family and friends. His family is waiting, too, but Cooper doesn't rush.
Not when he has a chance to talk about Taylor.
He remembers the day this summer when she came to Stillwater with her mom and older sisters, Hayley and Addison. They took him to lunch at Eskimo Joe's. When they were done, Taylor gave him a big hug.
“I wish you were our brother so you could come home with us,” she said.
He nearly teared up.
“Taylor,” he said, “I am your big brother.”
Cooper feels like he's gained a family.
“Very rarely do you make relationships like this,” he says. “To be honest, it's kind of a selfish thing for me. When I go over there, I get big smiles and hugs. They treat me like I'm the best thing ever.
“It gives me as much as it gives them.”
Cooper and Taylor know that their friendship is a bit unusual. College athletes regularly go to hospitals or attend events where they meet cancer patients. Rarely do they form bonds that last long after the cancer is gone.
Taylor is now done with her chemo, a milestone that her entire family celebrated in June. Cooper was there, of course, for the no-more-chemo party.
Neither of them knows what the future holds, but this much is sure — she will always be his Taylor and he will always be her Cooper.