Remove the bright lights.
Remove the ESPN coverage.
In fact, remove Louisville Football from any national talk completely.
That was the landscape when Damian Copeland arrived at Louisville.
Copeland’s story is one of truly rags to riches, at least on the football field. His Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson calls him a ‘fighter’, noting how he’s constantly proved himself to the peers around him. This is the story of that.
He’s went from being red-shirted – due to injury- on a 4-8 football team, to leading one of the most talented teams in school history in receptions. He’s went from sitting home in December to winning a Sugar Bowl. He’s went from being unnoticed out of High School to taking photos with Aaron Rodgers. Rags to riches indeed.
“I would have never thought in a million years that we would be in the position we are right now,” Copeland told me. “Going back to the Sugar Bowl, it’s just amazing. I would have never thought I would play the Florida Gators.”
The doubts on Copeland’s part were justifiable. After all, during Steve Kragthrope’s tenure at Louisville, success seemed miles away. The marks left by his failure, seemed to be something that surely wouldn’t be removed quickly. Then Charlie Strong happened.
Copeland’s collision course with adversity started well before then though. Out of Palmetto High School Copeland was doubted by many, rated as a two star recruit by Rivals. The reasoning was justified: Copeland told the Courier-Journal’s C.L. Brown when he arrived at Palmetto, he stood at the height of 5 foot 1. Hardly the ideal height of a Wide Receiver. By the time he had left Palmetto, Copeland had grown 12 inches taller, but the hype remained short. The 4.4 speed was attractive, the Third Team All-State Selection was exciting, but most thought he’d be nothing more than a ‘nice’ role player. When a late offer from Alabama came Copeland’s way, Crimson Tide fans took to message boards all with the same question: Why are we recruiting this guy?
Copeland relished the doubters. He could deal with that. For awhile folks never expected him to even play College Ball , so he was used to making believers out of those who doubted him.
The adversity didn’t end there.
When Copeland arrived in 2009 – the last season with Steve Kragthrope at the helm- Louisville had reached the bottom, they also lacked depth at the WR spot. Copeland showed some promise in Spring Practice and was expected to contribute as a True Freshman. He was not expected to red-shirt. Instead he did – medically – after a suffering a foot injury that would place screws in his foot, and leave him sidelined for six months. Louisville went 4-8.
A year later and with a new coach at the helm, Copeland saw an injury free season. As a RS Freshman, he showed nothing but promise. He caught eight receptions for 118 yards and 2011 appeared to be the year that everything would come together for him. Then the knee injury happened……… when Copeland played in just one game against North Carolina before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Things started to look bleak for Copeland. A knee injury to a Wide Receiver – especially on the same leg that’s been injured before – can effectively end some careers…or at least make them much different than they were before. Wideouts can lose their explosiveness, quickness; all things required to be an effective play-maker. Copeland was hearing none of it. He still proclaims to this day, he never thought of quitting.
“It was hard,” Copeland noted. “Just going back to my moms and my pops. I spent many nights crying ; just crying on the phone. I just had to keep my mind focused and just keep a positive mindset.”
Fast forward to 2012. Copeland let a mere 15 seconds pass before he showed Louisville fans he had arrived. With Louisville backed up in their own in-zone against arch-rival Kentucky, on the first play from scrimmage, Teddy Bridgewater needed an out. He found it via a 15-yard slant pass to Damian Copeland.
It caused Copeland to hold back tears, deciding to let out an enormous roar of emotion instead. It caused a domino-effect, and would catapult Copeland to his most successful season in his football career.
Nothing could be heard over the enormous eruption from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium; even so, if you listened closely you could hear Copeland making a claim: “I’m back and I’m here to stay”. It was a declaration, a symbolic moment of such, for Copeland. The guy, who had struggled so much, had overcame and was back again. It didn’t matter that it was one catch. To Copeland it was endless days of rehab, countless folks telling him he couldn’t do something be proved wrong, and a sign that Louisville Football was headed towards the right direction. That one catch changed everything.
Copeland led the team in receptions last season, and came up with clutch performances against Rutgers, Cincinnati, and Florida. Nobody saw it coming, except Copeland who says he ‘had to perform when his number was called’.
Copeland has done nothing but that during his football career. When folks counted him out, he made them believers. When they said he couldn’t, he says he can. Copeland will continue with that approach this season; continually stiff-arming whatever adversity shows up.
Louisville opponents beware: 2013 ‘Honey Mustard’ Time.
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