DANVERS, Mass. -- Since the second grade, Tyler Coppola has always shared the football field and the spotlight with two of his brothers. But now he is the only Coppola playing football for the No. 19 St. John’s Prep Eagles.
It started two years ago when Tyler’s brother Brandon fractured his fifth cervical vertebra making a hit in practice. Although he did not undergo surgery, doctors said he could never play contact sports again.
Then, last year, another one of the triplets suffered another career-ending injury. This time it was Jared, the middle child of the three, who fractured the same vertebra.
But this injury was worse.
Jared, who was starting at safety going into last year, could not move after colliding with a Lynn English player during a scrimmage in September. He was then taken to Children’s Hospital Boston where Doctors operated on his C5 vertebra and stabilized his spine.
According to St. John’s head coach Jim O’Leary, initially the injury shocked the community so much that some parents took their children off of the team.
“It was a lot of adversity for last year’s team,” said O’Leary.
Jared spent last fall at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta trying to regain motion in his limbs. Now — just one year removed from the injury — he has regained motion in his upper body, and is rehabbing his lower extremities. Even though doctors still consider Jared a quadriplegic, the high school senior proclaims he will walk again.
The most impressive part is that the brothers will once again share the same field.
Tyler is St. John’s starting tailback and a co-captain. Brandon helps younger players learn their plays and run their routes. Jared serves as a constant motivation by cruising the sidelines in his wheelchair.
“Although we didn’t have a great season last year, he was a lot of motivation for us to pick up our game and play,” co-captain Ryan Delisle said. “It’s good to have him back home though. He is just showing us how precious life is.”
Last year, the community rallied around Jared’s injury and helped the family through tough times. A local public-access television station even streamed the Eagles’ games online so Jared could watch in Atlanta.
“It was just good to know that I had the support, they were there for me and that I knew they had my back,” said Jared about the school’s reaction.
St. John’s players wrote the initials “J.C.” and No. 34 on everything from their athletic tape to their helmets in memory of their injured teammate.
Coming into this year O’Leary and the triplets’ mother, Dawn Coppola, had a lot of discussions about whether or not Tyler should play football. Doctors were brought in to study Tyler’s spine and compare it to Jared and Brandon’s.
In the end, they deemed the two injuries rogue accidents, and Tyler decided that he wanted to play this season for his two brothers.
“I just have to play like nothing happened even though I know that in the back of my mind they both got hurt,” said Tyler.
Along with Delisle and quarterback Tommy Gaudet, Tyler will be one of the go-to options on the Eagles offense. This year with both of his brothers on the sideline, Tyler is ready to produce under pressure.
“It would be better if they could play because we’ve been playing on the same team since second grade,” said Tyler of his brothers’ presence. “But I just have to step up my game because I have to carry the weight for the three of us.”
ST. JOHN’S PREP AT A GLANCE
2009 record: 4-6
Coach: Jim O’Leary (27th year, 178-84-2)
Players to watch: Danny Culkeen, Sr., OL/DL, 6-0, 245 lbs.; Blair Friedensohn, Sr., C/DE, 6-3, 220 lbs.; Nate Cyr, Sr., LB/OG, 6-2, 250 lbs.; James Ferguson, Sr., OT, 6-3, 270 lbs.; Tyler Coppola, Sr., RB/CB, 5-9, 185 lbs.; Chris Ryan, Sr., FB/ILB, 5-9, 230 lbs.; Tommy Gaudet, Jr., QB, 5-11, 190 lbs.; Ryan Deslisle, Sr., TE/DE, 6-5, 245 lbs.
Strengths: Size, Senior leadership.
Outlook: The Eagles lost four games by seven points or less last season, and had a tough time against Catholic Conference and non-conference opponents. However according to O’Leary, this year’s schedule “didn’t get any easier”. While St. John’s offensive and defensive line can match up against anyone and they have experience at the skills positions, they are unproven at quarterback. Look for Gaudet to throw primarily to Delisle and use Coppola to complement him in the Eagles' option offense.