Growing up, Cole Copeland had heard stories of former Bradley County star athletes whose careers had fizzled out after high school. Then one day he suddenly looked around and noticed he was becoming one, and he didn't like that feeling.
Now a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga junior, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Copeland is listed second on the Mocs' quarterback depth chart going into their Southern Conference season opener against 11th-ranked Wofford (1-0, 1-0) at noon Saturday at Finley Stadium.
Copeland, who starred in both football and basketball at Bradley Central, has yet to appear in a game in his second stint at UTC, which played just once this past fall — the Mocs lost a close nonconference game at Western Kentucky — as the SoCon pushed league play to the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If and when he does, it will mark the return of a 2017 signee who started the final six games at quarterback for UTC that year and received SoCon All-Freshman recognition after throwing for 1,177 yards and seven touchdowns, helping the Mocs split their final four games after they started the season 1-6.
His starts included not only a 10-3 win against rival East Tennessee State in the season finale, when he passed for the lone touchdown that day at Finley, but two close matchups with a pair of teams that had top-1o national rankings: a victory at Samford and a double-overtime loss a week later at Wofford. Having already thrown for more than 300 yards in his first collegiate start weeks earlier, he engineered game-tying or go-ahead drives in two of the final three games.
The position seemed to be his. This could have been his fourth season as a starter.
But then news leaked that Copeland would not be available in 2018, with Tom Arth, UTC's coach at the time, calling it a season-long suspension. Earlier this week, Copeland said he "let things get to his head that he shouldn't have."
With that year classified as a redshirt season for Copeland, he left UTC after the 2018 fall semester, having decided to transfer to American River College in Sacramento, California. He planned to live with his sister Brooke, who played college basketball at Florida, and her husband, Justin Jackson, a former NBA first-round draft pick who was with the Sacramento Kings at the time.
Copeland had gone through winter workouts with his new football team and was excited about the opportunity until Jackson got traded to the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 6, 2019. (Jackson has since been traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.) Unable to afford the cost of living in California, he moved back to Cleveland, eventually taking some classes at Cleveland State.
He admitted earlier this week there were some depressing times, but the combination of being back in his hometown and interactions with his family in the months after his suspension led him to renew his focus. The turning point, he said, was seeing his mom, Kim, "break down."
"That was when I had to come to terms with what had transpired when I was here and how I not only ruined things for myself, but for people that really cared about me, too," Copeland said. "That kind of changes things in a way. You don't really realize things until you look at a person you love or somebody like that and look at their eyes.
"I realized I didn't want to be this person that doesn't achieve the potential that I have, and it just kind of hit home and made me put things in perspective and carry out what I want to be. I didn't want to put anybody through it because it was hard for them as well, because they're hearing all the things that people are saying on social media, people saying stuff in public, asking how I'm doing."
Even while taking classes at Cleveland State, he hoped for an opportunity to turn things around at UTC. He reached out to Bradley Central football coach Damon Floyd, who played at UTC from 1996 to 1999, to speak with current Mocs coach Rusty Wright about a second chance. Wright, a former UTC player and assistant, had been hired in December 2018 to replace Arth, who left after two seasons to take over at Akron.
In January 2020, Copeland rejoined the Mocs.
"Those were some easy conversations," Wright said. "He wanted to come back, and I told him what he was going to have to do when he came back, and if he didn't do those things, he wasn't going to be here. He's been unbelievable since he's been here; I couldn't ask for a better person in the program. He's been exactly what you want him to be, and hopefully when he gets an opportunity, let's see what he can do."
Copeland's story currently isn't one of redemption on the field, both because that was never a trouble spot for him and there is no guarantee he'll ever take another snap — although the 2017 season, when injuries led to him taking over as the starter, offered proof that a backup is only one play away from an opportunity in football.
No, Copeland's challenges were off the field, and by his words, by his teammates' words and by Wright's words, those have been handled.
"I think it's shown a determination on his part that he's stuck with it," UTC linebacker Ty Boeck said. "Cole is a gamer; he plays really well, and he's a reliable backup right now. I think the coaches are trusting him more and more, and he's proven he can be an asset to this team."
The high Copeland was on that first season has been replaced by humbleness. He made a point to apologize to "all the people that believed in me when I first got here" for "kind of letting them down."
"I did some things that I'm not proud of and represented the university in a way that I did not want to be remembered or represent," he said. "There's a lot of guys, especially from Cleveland, that you look back and they're talking about what could have been, and I don't want to live and be sitting on a fence at a high school football game and be like, 'Dang, I remember my time.'
"I know that I'm in my time right now, and I want to take advantage of that. Looking back, I was not taking advantage of the opportunity given to me, and it was kind of nice to get away from it for a little bit and reflect and find out who I want to be, how I want to be remembered — not only as a player, but as a person."