“A lot of athletes die two deaths,” Brandon Copeland is saying, and he knows this because not far from him is the field where his football life flashed before his eyes. Or so it seemed, anyway.
Here was the most consequential kickoff of his Gilman career. A Greyhounds teammate had gone down in a late-season 2008 game against visiting Loyola Blakefield. Coach Biff Poggi told Copeland he would be lining up in the wedge. As they went out to block, a teammate fell on Copeland’s ankle. He heard a pop, felt the rush of pain. He finished the game, and the season. But “to me,” Copeland said last month at Gilman, where he was promoting his second annual youth football camp, “it wasn’t the same.”
The year before, his college counselor had asked him: Why not Ivy League football? Copeland, a three-sport athlete and a good student, thought little of the idea: Why Ivy League football, indeed. But the injury had cracked a veneer of invincibility. His grandfather, Roy Hilton, a former defensive end for the Baltimore Colts, always had told him he was one play away from the finish line in football. Now that he had seen how his dream might end, Copeland thought of where his next career might start.
“That, for me, was the wakeup call,” the Owings Mills native said. “Like, OK, I need to make sure that I take this education thing seriously.”
So Copeland, 26, went to the University of Pennsylvania, graduated from the prestigious Wharton School, did internships on Wall Street, only to end up in the NFL after all. The former Ravens and current Detroit Lions defensive end will be joined Saturday at Gilman for his Beyond the Basics youth football camp by more than a dozen NFL players. Tennessee Titans wide receiver Darius Jennings (Gilman) will be there. Former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith (Maryland), too. Copeland’s hope, though, is that some of the 300 kids registered go home talking about someone like Allanté Keels, one of the 100-plus other volunteers.
Keels grew up in Southeast Washington, home to much of the District’s violence and crime. But a football career at private school Episcopal (Va.) led him to Penn, where he roomed with Copeland. After graduation, Keels enrolled at the university’s law school. He became president of Penn’s Black Law Students Association. A job offer from a top-10 firm followed. Now he’s clerking for a U.S. District Court judge.
For Copeland and Keels, college football was a means to an end. One dresses up to play in 70,000-seat corporate stadiums, the other in nondescript courtrooms. Why should one be more worthy of emulation?
“I want [campers] to be like: ‘Torrey Smith is cool, Brandon Copeland is cool, football is great, but guess what? I can also prepare. I wouldn't mind being like Allanté Keels as well,’ ” Copeland said.
It took Copeland’s counselor “opening my eyes” to the Ivy League to convince him that maybe waiting and hoping for an offer from Syracuse, his dream school, lacked foresight. That was for the better: His freshman year, he met his fiancée on the first day of classes at Penn. As a senior for the Quakers, he was named the program’s first sole captain in over three decades.
In Philadelphia, there was an unexplored life outside the one he knew. That is what he wants to share with the young campers who remind Copeland of himself. Before the two-plus hours of drills with current and former NFL players, before the speed and agility work with professional trainers, the first activity at Beyond the Basics will be community service. Kids will fill 500 book bags with school supplies and 500 hygiene kits with toiletries, to be distributed to Baltimore’s needy by the Franciscan Center.
“You're going to feel the genuine joy of being able to be a blessing to someone else,” he said.
It is a feeling passed on down to Copeland. His grandfather, Hilton, saw worse than a messed-up ankle.
Hilton’s father died before he was born. His mother, when Hilton was 5, was struck by lightning as she stood near a window, sewing. The force threw Hilton and his brother into a wall, unconscious. When they came to, Copeland has been told, they saw pieces of their mother’s candy-red, polka-dot dress plastered across the room. She’d been taken from them, too.
After Hilton moved in with his aunt and uncle, Copeland said, the uncle made them eat rats. Hilton ran away to live with his sister. He persisted, and after stops at a junior college and Jackson State, he was a college graduate and in the NFL.
“Just the things he's done, the things he's been through,” Copeland said, “have been the stuff of movies.”
Copeland’s mother moved their family to Sykesville for better opportunities, but when he started going to Gilman, Hilton would drop him off at the Roland Park school if his mother was busy with work.
When Copeland was wrestling with where to play in college, his grandfather told him: “If you're good enough, they're going to come find you.”
And when Copeland called Hilton on Father’s Day last month, he asked him whether he was coming out to the camp Hilton has in many ways inspired.
“As long as I’m breathing,” he told Copeland.