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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Baylor's Cooper Kinney, right, is congratulated by co-coach Greg Elie as he rounds third base after hitting a home run during a game at Chattanooga Christian in March 2019. Kinney, who as a senior this past spring helped the Red Raiders to a third straight state title, is now in the Tampa Bay Rays' minor league system.

This past Monday found Howard Hustlin' Tigers baseball coach Jon Johnson doing what he always does during the school year — teaching Spanish — when he began receiving text messages from Baylor School baseball coach Mike Kinney.

After ignoring a couple of them, Johnson texted Kinney a brief note to say he was teaching and would get back to him later. A short time after that, Johnson was forwarded a message originally sent to Kinney's son Cooper from Gatorade's Play It Forward program.

Thanks to a video Cooper submitted praising the good work done by the Southside Youth Development organization that Johnson helped put together, Gatorade was awarding Southside one of 12 spotlight grants of $10,000 that it hands out nationwide each year.

Beyond that, as a reward for being the Gatorade Tennessee Baseball Player of the Year, Cooper had already designated an initial $1,000, which is separate from the spotlight grant, for Southside.

"I was almost speechless," Johnson said Saturday. "First, there's just a small amount of people with Cooper's talent and future who always put others before themselves. That's such a credit to his parents, Mike and Lori, and how they've raised him. I hope every day that my son Justus can grow up to be just like Cooper.

"Second, when you're trying to build a community baseball field at the Emma Wheeler Homes from scratch and start a youth baseball league in the inner city, you need everything. We still need someone to donate concrete and some bleachers — which cost $3,000 a set — for parents and grandparents and friends to watch our kids play. But the Gatorade grant will allow us to buy balls, bats, gloves and other equipment for every kid in the program, and there were more than 50 of them this past summer; $11,000 will do a whole lot of good."

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Contributed photo / During a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Southside Youth Development organization's community baseball field at the Emma Wheeler Homes, Jon Johnson, left, and Kalai Elong, right, hold the ribbon. Johnson is a high school baseball coach for the Howard Hustlin' Tigers and also helps run the SYD organization; his friend Elong helped build the field.

Young Kinney's video to Gatorade to garner support for the Southside organization that Xavier Cotto runs and Johnson and co-coordinator Drew Barton contribute much time and sweat equity to, was obviously good.

In it, Kinney says the "organization's mission is to extend the reach and impact of organized sports in the Southside community. The goal of the organization is to host a sandlot-style little league for children 8 to 13 years old."

Later on in the compact, 97-second footage, Cooper tells the Southside players: "Sure it might be tough. But when you work hard for something, you can get it. You've got all kinds of talent. Just take that to the field and work hard."

Moments later, Johnson and other adults lead the kids in a cheer of "Work hard."

The relationship between the Kinneys and Johnson started a few years ago, when the Baylor baseball team spent some time at Howard helping revitalize the Hustlin' Tigers' field from a long neglected, rocky patch of dirt and weeds and broken glass to a facility to make any school proud.

"It was a super-cold day," Cooper said Friday as he recalled that first trip to Howard. "You quickly realized that these kids had the same passion for baseball I did, they just hadn't had the same opportunities and facilities I'd had. When this grant through Gatorade came up, I was so excited to help out Southside and Jon Johnson, who's one of the best people I know."

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Staff photo / Howard baseball coach Jon Johnson, right, talks with De'Onta McCroskey before the Hustlin' Tigers game against Tyner in March 2019 at AT&T Field. Johnson also helps run the Southside Youth Development organization, which is building a community baseball field at the Emma Wheeler Homes in Chattanooga.

Cooper is wrapping up one of the best weeks imaginable. In Florida since mid-June after being picked 34th overall in the first round of the MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, on Friday he got a hit in his very first game in the Florida Complex League — formerly the Gulf Coast League — by ripping a double into the gap in right-center field.

"And I do have the ball," he said with a laugh over the phone. "We beat the Braves 10-1. It was a great way to start."

The Baby Rays were supposed to face the Baby Braves again Saturday, but it was rained out.

It was also a bit strange for Cooper facing Atlanta's rookie league team, because he grew up a huge Braves fan.

"For a long time, I'd go out there and try to hit from both sides of the plate like Chipper (Jones)," he said. "Then one night my dad and I were at Turner Field, and I saw Freddie Freeman hit a grand slam to win the game. I remember thinking, 'I want to be like that one day.' After that, I started hitting from the left side only."

It's all worked well enough for him to have been a key member of three TSSAA Division II-AAA state title teams at Baylor, earn both the state's Mr. Baseball and Gatorade honors, then receive $2.15 million as the No. 34 pick.

"That's without taxes, though," he added, showing wisdom far beyond his years.

And what might he purchase with what's left of the money Uncle Sam doesn't grab?

"I don't think I'll buy anything too big," Cooper said. "Maybe a new set of golf clubs."

Still, the best thing he did this past week for others was create a video forceful enough to encourage Gatorade to hand 10 grand to Southside Youth Development.

"These kids wouldn't have baseball without this organization," he said.

But without Cooper Kinney's ability to inspire Gatorade, the children who live in and around the Emma Wheeler Homes wouldn't have the equipment they deserve to fully enjoy the sport they share his passion to play.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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