As hard as it was, Brandon Copeland sat and watched.
Only two years removed from his third Ivy League title in four seasons, a period in which he established himself as one of the most dominant forces in a conference historically dominated by players donning the Red and Blue, Copeland was out of football. After playing for the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in 2013 and signing with the Tennessee Titans in 2014, the former Penn football standout was cut last September, without a team for the foreseeable future.
"Football kind of hurt to watch," Copeland said. "You see people out there who earned their spots. Everyone who is released thinks they can be out there.
"I watched it because I love the sport, but I also needed to learn linebacker more, so when I got the chance to come back to play, mentally I'd be a lot sharper than I was when I got released."
Nearly a full year later, Copeland has flipped the script on his career. For weeks on end, he trained every day, focusing on the minute aspects of his game that needed fixing. At the NFL Veteran Combine in March, he ran an impressive 4.52 40-yard dash. In April, he signed with the Detroit Lions on a one-year deal.
And on Saturday, he accomplished a lifelong goal. As teams across the league were forced to shrink their rosters down to 53 men, the Lions made the decision to add a seventh linebacker. Copeland made the team.
After recording seven tackles across four preseason games — with a majority of his defensive snaps coming in garbage time, as well as on special teams — the Sykesville, Md., native now has the chance to play in a regular season game for the first time when Detroit opens its season on Sunday.
"It still feels somewhat surreal, but now I'm getting focused on the San Diego Chargers and my role," Copeland said. "Now, you see your name up on the board saying you're actually going to be playing this weekend in the game and getting practice reps compared to other years when I was practice squad and not getting many reps.
"This is totally new territory for me, and not in a shocked and scared way, but in a way that I'm happy and smiling because it's pretty amazing."
For Copeland, Saturday was a case of no news being good news. When the league's 4:00 p.m. deadline for roster moves came and went without a phone call, the former three-time All-Ivy selection knew he was out of the woods.
"I saw that the clock hit four and I allowed myself to have a little smile crack across my face," he said. "The first people I called were my mother, brother and grandparents, because they've obviously been on this journey with me for a long time, the past three years."
The surreal nature of his path to the Lions' active roster largely stems from the vast period he spent out of the game he loved. But Copeland's work ethic prepared him for the combine from a physical standpoint, and his success that day in March allowed him to realistically expect to make a 53-man roster.
"After the vet combine, that was the time when I realized I had the physical traits to do this," Copeland said. "That was the affirmation in terms of knowing that I can play in this league. The only person that'd been in my way the entire time was me."
From there, the captain on Penn's last Ivy title winner connected with the Lions. Despite the team's depth at linebacker — there are six others ahead of him on the depth chart — Copeland was nonetheless confident in his ability to make the squad still fresh off an appearance in the NFC playoffs.
"After the combine, I chose the Lions, and they chose me," he said. "From a depth standpoint at linebacker, it was probably a harder decision. I didn't pick the easiest route to making the 53-man roster, but I was always planning on making this team.
And throughout the preseason, Copeland knew his play was speaking for itself.
"As you go through more preseason games, it's more affirmation that you're close," he said. "I'm making them think upstairs when they're talking about players and personnel."
Now, having already accomplished his primary goal as a pro, Copeland has the opportunity to establish himself as a regular on special teams.
"I want to be an animal out on the field, unblockable," he said. "When I'm blocking someone [on special teams], they shouldn't get past me. My guy should never make the tackle. When someone lines up across from me, I want others to think 'Ugh, this sucks.'"
Throughout his journey to Detroit, Copeland has continued to feel the support of his coaches and former teammates at Penn. Even throughout the lower periods in his career, that support has been unwavering.
At the same time, the linebacker has continued to support his program from afar. As someone accustomed to enduring adversity, Copeland has a poignant message to pass along to the Quakers as they prepare to begin their first season under Ray Priore.
"One thing I remember saying to myself senior year ... was always just 'Climb out, climb out,'" he said. "We tried to climb out of the hole, and at the end of the day, if you find yourself in a hole, you just need to find whatever path possible to get yourself out."
There's no doubt that Copeland will continue to keep an eye on his former program and those following in his footsteps. But now, with his NFL debut on Sunday, the Quakers can sit and watch him too.Comments powered by Disqus
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