Of all the football camps that are run by NFL players every summer, the one organized by Brandon Copeland may be among the most unusual, and yet one of the most impactful.
Copeland, a graduate of Gilman School, will return to his alma mater June 29 for his fourth annual Beyond the Basics camp, a free full day of activity for kids ages 11 through 17. But while there will be some expected athletic activity in store for the 400 or so young people who are there, the most important experiences that day won't involve a football.
"I really don't care too much about the football portion it," said Copeland, who has been in the NFL since 2013 and is entering his second season with the New York Jets. "In my mind, the football is the attraction; I guess you could call it the bait. But our real goal is to help these kids understand that there is more to life than football and sports. And we want to instill in kids a sense of leadership, the understanding that they can be leaders."
That Copeland's camp veers from the usual pass-catch-block-and-tackle routine of other football camps run by pro athletes actually makes a lot of sense considering the 27-year-old's own story.
Rather than honing his craft at a football powerhouse, the Sykesville, Md., native went the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated with a degree in economics from the prestigious Wharton School. His summers were spent interning for investment bank UBS. Recently, he's been teaching a course in financial literacy at Penn.
Copeland also has a legacy of football. His grandfather was former Baltimore Colts defensive end Roy Hilton.
Copeland's own experience with the vagaries of football injuries and seeing his grandfather struggle in later years with the physical effects of 11 NFL seasons, as well as dementia, left an impression.
"He won a Super Bowl, he was a great player but still you could see how he was damaged," Copeland said of his grandfather.
Copeland said the jeopardy inherent in the game he loves was reinforced when he was hurt late in his college career.
"It reminded me of what you always hear -- you're just one play away from having it all come to an end," he said.
At Gilman, Copeland was part of the 2006 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship football team coached by Biff Poggi.
"Brandon was always a nice young man. He comes from a great family. His grandfather, Roy Hilton, was a prince of a man. Roy was very influential in Brandon's life," Poggi said. "His mom is a great lady who was very supportive of him and his brother Chad."
At Penn, Copeland was captain of the team that won the 2012 Ivy League title.
Still, the 6-foot-3, 263-pound linebacker was a long shot to make the NFL, and it was a struggle. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, did not make the roster and spent that season on the Tennessee Titans' practice squad. He saw limited playing time with the Detroit Lions from 2015-2016 and missed the 2017 season with a pectoral injury. Last year was a breakout season with the Jets with five sacks and 35 combined tackles in 16 games (10 starts).
Copeland wants the young people who attend his camp to understand that while they may have dreams of sports celebrity and fortune, they should set their sights on more realistic goals.
"We have 150 volunteers and that includes all professions -- teachers, lawyers, doctors. And what we will do is pair kids up with these role models," Copeland said. "Too often among kids in a place like Baltimore and kids in general, there is an almost exclusive association between sports and success. We want kids to see successful people who are outside of football so that they understand that success happens all over."
One of the role models who will be at the camp is Jae Barchus, who has been assisting with Copeland's charitable foundation since the player and his wife, Taylor, started it.
Barchus, a camp organizer, also went to Penn and was a track star there. Today, he's a vice president for Barclays, the international banking firm, where he specializes in digital and social media marketing and branding.
"From my perspective, I try to explain to the kids that the key is identifying what you're passionate about and then working toward that goal," Barchus said.
The key, Barchus said, is that young people try to recognize their talents.
"A kid may be interested in football but it's not likely that your path will be as a player, but that doesn't mean the NFL can't be in your future," Barchus said. "Maybe your future is in marketing or branding or a graphic designer for a team -- you can use those talents with football somewhere."
Among camp volunteers are other close friends of Copeland, including attorney Allante Keels from Washington, D.C., and celebrity Nike trainer Joe Holder. Both were football players at Penn.
"Allante was passionate about the law and he became a lawyer," Copeland said. "Now, he's working to make an impact in his community ... to make it a better place."
"Joe Holder was a wide receiver at Penn but as an extremely healthy person who understood how to train and exercise, he understood that he could grow a career as a trainer rather than a player," he added.
Stories such as these are what the kids who attend the camp will hear, Copeland said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rian Watkins @itsmyrevolution
Plus, he wants young people to appreciate the satisfaction that comes from being of service to others. One of the first things kids do at Copeland's camp is to help pack 1,000 book bags and 1,000 hygiene kits to be distributed throughout Baltimore for people facing difficulties.
"We want the kids to understand that community service is important and that you can be of service to others at any age," he said.
Next, the kids take to the field for athletic drills, speed training and exercises that Copeland has used himself.
"We work them to the point where we get them pretty tired and then when they take their water break, that's when we pair them up with our role models -- people who will take the time to tell them about their own professions and what it took to get them to where they are today," Copeland said. "At the end of it all, we want the kids to say, ‘Hey, that guy is a lawyer and he's a pretty cool guy.'"
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rian Watkins @itsmyrevolution
Issue 255: June/July 2019
Originally published June 19, 2019