Commentary

Jared Coppola pushes forward

Small steps are huge steps for St. John's Prep alum paralyzed in scrimmage

Updated: May 1, 2013, 4:31 PM ET
By Brendan Hall | ESPNBoston.com

DANVERS, Mass. -- With each conversation the night before, the morning of and on the car ride to his high school alma mater, the message Skip and Dawn Coppola conveyed to their son Jared was the same: Let them know what you're doing. Let them know where you're at. Let them know why you're doing this program.

"We all know -- we live with you -- but everybody else doesn't," Dawn told Jared. "They don't know what your routine is like, what you do on a daily basis. You're a kid who's still gone to college and you've done all this at the same time that other kids might have had part-time jobs. Your part-time job is therapy to get you better."

[+] EnlargeJared Coppola
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comJared Coppola tells friends and supporters about his long road to walking on his own.

Nearly three and a half years after suffering a C-5 vertebra fracture in a football scrimmage that left him paralyzed from the waist down, former St. John's Prep football player Jared Coppola is starting to stand, albeit slowly and heavily aided. He has been using a wheelchair and a van to get around campus at the University of New Hampshire, but is also driving a car with hand controls. Earlier this week, he put down his walker and picked up a pair of hand crutches, another step toward independence.

In January, Jared underwent surgery, his first since the 2009 accident, to extend a tendon in his left leg, a procedure intended to help him walk flatter. That was considered a significant breakthrough in the rehabilitation process.

Earlier this month, the Coppolas experienced another big break in Jared's recovery. Over the last two weeks, Dawn has posted two videos to her YouTube account showing Jared taking small steps -- one across the driveway at their North Reading home, with Skip alongside holding his right hand; and another in the living room of their home, where Jared is walking across the floor slowly, completely free of aid, elated almost to the point of laughing.

"It definitely helps me mentally," Jared said. "It shows I'm still progressing, making pretty good gains. It helps me stay positive."

"Certainly the tendon length surgery has worked out extremely well," Skip said. "I feel it when I hug him, when I talk to him, when I hold him. I just think that the combination of the surgery and his own workout regimen over the last several years has really started to pay off. Visibly, I can see him making tremendous strides."

In the Milano Dining Room on the St. John's Prep campus, Jared was going to talk about all of this before a crowd of alumni, faculty and former football teammates, each of whom had donated $100 to the Jared Coppola Fund, which was established to help pay for his medical expenses. The open house was the idea of Skip and his sister as a way of thanking the Prep community for its continued support.

Naturally, there was some unease.

Jared came in a back entrance of the hall shortly after 11 a.m., wobbling up the staircase aided by his parents, and sat down at a white table. A playlist of Norah Jones tunes hummed over a nearby radio. Across the room, two Prep football jerseys bearing his No. 34 flanked a flat-screen monitor playing an episode of "E:60" that told Jared's story.

The show included everlasting images of his two brothers -- they are triplets -- carrying him up and down flights of stairs and tear-inducing footage of Jared taking 60 steps to midfield for the ceremonial coin toss at the Eagles' Thanksgiving Day game, giving new spark to all sorts of old memories. One of his brothers, Brandon, has made his own full recovery from a C-5 vertebra fracture a year before Jared's injury.

Jared gazed out nervously and couldn't get over the emptiness at first.

"First half-hour I was like, I guess people don't want to show up right now," he laughed.

[+] EnlargeJared Coppola
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comJared Coppola with family members. Each credits the other for providing motivation in Jared's rehab.

Eventually they came, nearly 200 of them, of all ages, to listen to him talk. With help, he rose from his seat and walked a few short steps to the podium. He gripped the podium loosely, his lower body swaying ever so slightly, as he discussed his long road to recovery.

He talked of his grueling schedule of rehabilitation visits, compounded by his decision to attend college in Durham, N.H. On Thursday nights, Jared makes the 70-mile drive from the UNH campus to Boston Medical Center in the city's South End, then stays overnight at home. On Friday mornings, he goes back to BMC, then visits Journey Forward, a private facility in Canton, Mass. After a weekend at home, he returns to BMC on Monday morning, then heads back up to UNH in time for his first class at 2 p.m.

He talked of what's to come in the rehabilitation process. Starting in May, Jared will begin a nine-week program at the world-renowned Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he will look to increase his core strength, which will help him do things like stand up from a couch without hesitation. He also hopes to build up more strength and stamina, to walk farther for longer periods of time, without a gait. The cost of the program is $100 an hour.

He talked of his decision to transfer to Bentley University in Waltham for the fall; he will be a 20-year-old junior. The move figures to cut off about nine hours of driving per week. His brother Tyler, who led the state in rushing as a senior at Prep in 2010, transferred to Bentley a year ago after a season at Marist College. The two intend to room together on campus.

"We just have hope, and it's mostly because of him," Tyler said later. "He has been positive, so we can't watch him have all this positive energy and … you know he's not done getting better, he's going to keep improving, and we hope for the best. He knows that his positive energy, his positive attitude, is going to get him there."

The feeling is mutual.

"[Without them] mentally I wouldn't be there, I'd probably be down a lot," Jared said. "When I'm progressing, they give me motivation to want to work harder."

When he was done, after roughly four minutes at the podium, Jared shrugged and said with a chuckle, "That's it." The 200 or so in attendance clapped loudly, and after a minute or so, they all rose to their feet, sparking another round of ovations.

Off to the side, leaning against a window sill, was Dawn, eyes wide, her visage the grin of a thousand grins. For that moment in time, nothing could wipe it away.

"He hasn't stopped living, and maybe that's the best thing about this," Dawn said. "He's going on with his life and not letting this affect him. He doesn't get upset, he doesn't get down. He just continues to improve."

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