NFL linebacker Copeland cultivating sense of community in Baltimore, beyond

June 23, 2018 | Luke Jones

(Photo courtesy of Brandon Copeland)

Brandon Copeland continues to cultivate a sense of community.

Whether it’s holding his free football camp for Baltimore youth, providing Thanksgiving meals to single mothers and their families, or offering financial advice to fellow NFL players, the Gilman School graduate and New York Jets linebacker doesn’t want his road to success to have a lonely destination.

Football remains his biggest platform, but Copeland doesn’t let the sport he loves define him and is hardly waiting until the end of his playing days to figure out what he’ll do next. He hasn’t viewed that as a linear process from the time he graduated with an economics degree from the University of Pennsylvania and eventually found his NFL footing in a journey that began with a brief stint with the hometown Ravens in 2013. The 26-year-old already has experience working as a Wall Street investment analyst and has even started his own real estate company with his wife, Taylor.

Copeland will remind youth at his third annual Beyond the Basics camp at Gilman on July 7 that football isn’t forever. It’s a lesson that hit all too close last summer as his career with the Detroit Lions was on the rise and he was competing for a starting spot after playing in all 32 games as a reserve and special-teams contributor the previous two seasons.

You should always have more than one plan.

“I’m living, walking proof that this career can end at any moment after sitting out last year,” said Copeland, who suffered a torn pectoral tendon in the first preseason game last August. “A lot of people tell you preparing for Plan B is distracting from Plan A. You can just generally have other things that you’re interested in. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, I like football, and I like something else.'”

Copeland wants the 400 kids ages 11 to 17 registered for this year’s camp to understand they have options, a reason why he recruits volunteers from a variety of career fields. Many campers initially gravitate toward big-name volunteers such as two-time Super Bowl champion Torrey Smith, longtime NBA player Rudy Gay, and many other current and former NFL players — including former Baltimore Colts defensive end and Copeland’s grandfather, Roy Hilton — but the goal is for kids to also identify with other volunteers who love football while succeeding in other walks of life.

That’s the reason why this year’s registration form requested campers to list three professions they’d like to have other than being a professional athlete and to state three goals for themselves. Copeland said the exercise sparked much positive feedback from parents, who in some cases learned something new about their children’s interests and dreams.

“What we’re trying to do is open their eyes to let them know that certain things are possible for them,” Copeland said. “A lot of these kids grow up and see lawyers or police officers on TV, and they think negative thoughts about that profession. If we can create that positive experience with that profession, then that’s great.”

Beyond the Basics provides each camper a free t-shirt and lunch as well as opportunities to win other giveaways such as laptops, tablets, and headphones, but it isn’t just about what the attendees receive that day. Campers will put together 750 book bags and hygiene kits to be distributed to needy families through the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, an increase from the 500 of each donated last year.

Copeland is quick to express gratitude to a list of sponsors that includes Penn and even the Lions despite his free-agent departure in March. He’s also been amazed by the number of volunteers willing to make a difference in the community.

“A lot of these kids only see people on the sidelines cheering for them at the big game, the championship game, stuff like that,” said Copeland, who will have approximately 140 volunteers at next month’s camp. “When there’s nothing on the line, for them to see a bunch of different smiling faces encouraging them, that’s a message that I definitely want to allow to happen at our camp.”

That collection of volunteers has also sparked an unanticipated networking forum with internship opportunities and even jobs being offered among the helpers, further growing that overall sense of community.

In addition to getting involved in Baltimore and the other NFL cities in which he’s played, Copeland expanded his message to a different audience this offseason by offering financial advice to the 2018 NFL draft class through The Players’ Tribune. Given his Ivy League education and off-field ventures that have come without the luxury of a lucrative signing bonus or long-term contract, first-year players could stand to learn from someone whose NFL career has been anything but guaranteed.

“I wanted to speak to the things I had learned from other players, other advice that I had heard, and other things I had seen through my own internships and finances and all of that type of stuff,” Copeland said. “It was a great opportunity for me to voice my message on my way of thinking about money.”

Copeland doesn’t know how long he’ll have his current platform as he tries to carve out a place with the Jets and prove he’s fully recovered from last year’s injury, which created an extended absence that both renewed his love for the game and provided valuable time to put more extensive work into his real estate company.

His off-field ambitions and wisdom at such a young age leave few doubts that he’ll be successful no matter where life takes him, but Copeland has no interest in being the only one at that finish line as he continues to strive to set an example for others.

“One of the things that I’m trying to be better at now is sharing,” Copeland said, “so we can hopefully help each other and we all can grow.”