WESTWOOD, Mass. -- The young man that was awarded the game ball didn’t have to get into a three point stance, crash through a hole, or make a tackle. He just had to support his team and smile, but he gave the team something more valuable than any synthetic material and lace could appraise for.
“What did I want?”, coach O’Leary asked his team after the game as most players huddled around him. “Game ball,” the team responded, as Nate Cyr stood and stared at O’Leary.
“And we know where it’s going.”
Jared Coppola, who walked to midfield with the aid of his walker before the game, after more than a year of physical therapy to strengthen his legs after his cervical injury in a scrimmage last fall, was the MVP of the day for the entire St. John’s community, and many more who admire his courage to struggle.
“We have a good relationship as captain and coach, we talk all the time,” said Nate Cyr of the connection he and coach O”Leary shared at that moment. “It means everything to win for Jake,” he added. “From the beginning of the year, we knew it would come down to this, and we were not going home on Thanksgiving with a loss. It’s a great way to go into the playoffs.
Coppola took his walker and strode slowly to midfield, not for the television cameras that tracked his steps, not for the fame, but for a passion that runs deeper than meets the eye.
“It felt great that I was on the field with all of my brothers again and that I was up on my feet,” said Coppola, referring to his fellow Eagles. “To know that all of the hard work has paid off and that everyone got to see me and my brothers.
“Honestly, we couldn’t have asked for anything more,” said Dan Culkeen, a senior captain for St. John’s Prep. “He deserves everything, he works so hard. Judging against the things that we complain about on a day-to-day basis, you can’t compare them. He’s gone through hell and he’s been battling, but he’s back.”
Jared hung around on the field after the game, posing for the television and still cameras with a ten million dollar smile alongside his brother Tyler, who racked up 215 yards on the day.
“The whole team knew what we had to do to get the game ball in his hands,” said Tyler Coppola. “When I was feeling hurt and banged up a little bit, I thought about Jake and that kept me going. I got up and told myself, ‘I’ve got to keep playing.’ He helped me to keep pushing.”
“It’s a great win and all that, but the miracle was before the game,” O'Leary said. “Everything after that, whether we won or lost [was secondary]. That meant more to us, after all the adversity, and the hard work he had to put into that [walk], that made our day on Thanksgiving. Everything after that was a bonus.”
The walk even earned Coppola praise from the Xaverian players, sidelines and booster club.
“We’ve been playing against Coppola’s for years around here,” Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson admitted. “Certainly they’re a great family, he’s a great kid and I am happy that he’s on the road to recovery. I wish him and his family the very best as they continue on that very long road to recovery, and hopefully he continues that progress as they move forward.”
“We always talk about character, and that’s what we’re all about here,” senior linebacker Chris Tamasi said after the game. “It’s a competitive rivalry but at the end of the day, we have mutual respect for each other and it’s a great football game, to have a story like Coppola, his family and everything that he’s been through, it was pretty special to see him make that effort and walk out to the coin toss."
Tamasi and a few of the Xaverian players came to the 50-yard line to meet Coppola after the game, along with Tamasi’s parents, who introduced themselves, praised him for his efforts and wished him the best on his continue recovery.
“That’s a situation that no family wants to be in,” said Tamasi sullenly. “To go through that with not only one child, but with another, it’s just an amazing feat. My mother and father have always reminded me to care about other people and that’s just something that everyone on the team does.
“It’s the least you can do.”
“I’m thankful for them,” added Tyler Coppola, after discussing college plans with Tamasi and other Xaverian players. “I’m thankful for everything. “
“It feels great to see that no matter what team you come from,” said Jared, ”rivals or not, how good people are and how respectful they can be.“
When the day was all done, Jared had worked up an appetite, but was not looking forward to any particular dish. No, he was just plain flying high after the effort his team put out on his behalf.
“Everything tastes good after a win,” he laughed.
“I feel good about the win,” he added.. “It was a little shaky in the beginning, but we ran the ball well and that was our key. When I was walking out, I think it got the team really pumped up.”