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Ex-Northside, UVA Star Relives Glory Days at Sports Club Meeting

Sports Club guest speaker Jon Copper was a standout linebacker at UVA.

by Gene Marrano

Jon Copper never quite made it all the way to the National Football League, but the former Northside High School wrestling and football standout carved himself quite a niche in college after walking on at the University of Virginia.  Copper became a terror at linebacker for the Cavaliers, leading the team in tackles after progressing from special teams play as a freshman.

When he left UVA in 2008, Copper placed 15th all time at the school in total tackles.  He had a tryout as an inside linebacker with the fabled Green Bay Packers in a rookie spring camp – current long haired NFL linebacker standout Clay Mathews was also there – but was not chosen for an invite to summer training camp. “They rolled out the red carpet,” he recalls of his tryout at legendary Lambeau Field; “it was cool.”

Copper told tales of his football past at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club monthly meeting this past Monday. After a short-lived and unsuccessful tryout in the Canadian Football League, Copper left the game behind and got into the nutrition and fitness business, helping clients achieve optimal health and conditioning. He recently moved back to the Roanoke Valley, where his father Jeff has been a longtime minister.

Copper walked on at UVA in 2005 after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy post-Northside. He earned a college scholarship at Virginia after demonstrating his value to then-head coach Al Groh and the Cavs coaching staff. Ironically, Copper grew up as a Virginia Tech fan, but when the Hokie recruiters seemed to lose interest he gravitated towards UVA, which continued to call him.

The movie Rudy, about a walk on player at Notre Dame, piqued his interest in pursuing the game from an early age. “I saw that movie and said, okay, I want to play for Notre Dame,” said Copper, who had to be urged by his mother in his first year to go out and hit an opponent – he was too passive. Imagining himself as a steaming locomotive seemed to do the trick.

Copper came up with a life plan he still employs: “I desire to dream big things, then put together a game plan.”  Around age 9 he decided that college football was what he wanted to do.  Former Virginia Tech quarterback Dave Meyer – a Roanoke County teacher at one point after spending three years in the NFL – befriended and mentored Copper at Northside. The two still keep in touch.

“One thing that always [stood] out about Dave to me was his commitment to his faith,” said Copper, who has made that same commitment. “Grow where you’re planted. Where you’re at today matters,” Meyer always told him. The former NFL quarterback, who was mainly a rifle-armed backup at Tech, also ignited Copper’s passion for fitness and nutrition, sharing with him an Indianapolis Colts training manual that approached the subject in great detail.

As an undersized athlete, Copper relied on strength training and fitness to maintain an edge over larger opponents – or teammates trying to take his job away. He was also a state championship contender as a heavyweight wrestler in high school. Copper is now based at a local spa and fitness center, where he offers his consulting services. He also spends one day a week doing the same at Smith Mountain Lake.

During a Q&A session after he spoke, Copper said he hadn’t paid all that much attention to the recent announcement that the ACC would expand by at least two teams, chalking it up to a sign of the times. “I think that’s the way industry goes – college sports is [also] a business,” said Copper of the move towards super conferences. He got along fine with former UVA head coach Al Groh, and said he wouldn’t object to college athletes being paid a stipend for expenses above and beyond their scholarships.

“Big time football players,” said Copper, “put in what amounts to a 40 hour work week preparing for games,” about 1600 hours a year as he recalls – leaving little time to pick up a job waiting tables to earn extra pocket money.

“I feel like there have been doors that were opened [for me],” said Copper on how his athletic career unfolded. “I was fortunate just to be able to play for and with a lot of good players and coaches,” added Copper, who singled out former Northside football coach Jim Hickam as a positive influence.

Current NFL standouts tight end Heath Miller and defensive lineman Chris Long were notable teammates in college. Wins over highly ranked Florida State, and a 48-0 victory at Miami (in the last game ever played at the Orange Bowl) were highlights for Copper.

The Roanoke Valley Sports Club meets monthly; October’s guest speaker is former major league catcher Ed Ott.

Contact Dave Ross at 774-1080 or Tom Marchi at 588-2969 for more information about membership or upcoming meetings.

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