Fate’s hit reveals a wider football family

After brothers’ injuries, a community rallies

From left, Derek Coppola and his triplet brothers, Jared, Tyler, and Brandon, in 2007. Jared is recovering from a spinal cord injury; Brandon was hurt last fall. From left, Derek Coppola and his triplet brothers, Jared, Tyler, and Brandon, in 2007. Jared is recovering from a spinal cord injury; Brandon was hurt last fall. (Courtesy of Coppola Family)
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / September 23, 2009

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DANVERS - The Coppola triplets did what Coppolas do. They played football.

Like their father, Skip, a former quarterback at Pope John High School in Everett, and older brother, Derek, a running back at the University of New Hampshire, the North Reading triplets played a violent sport because they loved it. All three were on the fast track a year ago to playing big roles this fall for the powerhouse football team at St. John’s Prep in Danvers.

Then, it was as if lightning struck the same house twice. Brandon Coppola was the first to fall, cracking a vertebra in his neck last October during a junior varsity game, ending his football career. Then, three weeks ago Friday, Jared crumpled after making a tackle during a varsity scrimmage in Lynn. He critically injured the same vertebra, C5, leaving much of his body paralyzed, suspending life as he knew it.

Only one of the 17-year-old triplets, Tyler, remains in the game.

“It’s one of those lotteries you don’t want to hit,’’ St. John’s Prep coach Jim O’Leary said.

As medics airlifted Jared yesterday from Children’s Hospital Boston to a catastrophic-care rehab center in Atlanta, his family knew that weeks or months may pass before they know if Jared will walk again. But based on the remarkable community outpouring so far, they also know that during those anxious days and nights, they will never fall short of anything a family in crisis needs: cash, food, lodging, transportation, comfort, and prayers.

“Obviously, none of us sits around wondering what will happen when a tragedy occurs,’’ Skip Coppola said. “But the way all these communities have pulled together to show Jared so much love and support is overwhelming at times to think about. It’s just unbelievable.’’

Torrent of generosity
Life rarely has been simple since Skip and Dawn Coppola, high school sweethearts, had five children in three years: Derek, now 19, followed by Brittni, 18, and the triplets. Five diapers to change. Five mouths to feed. Few hours to sleep.

But there were sports - the boys also played baseball, Brittni softball - and there was plenty of joy. Even after Brandon was hurt last year, the Coppolas drew strength from watching him wage a monthslong recovery and grow well enough to return last spring to the baseball field at St. John’s Prep. He continues to practice with the football team, though he is limited to noncontact activities.

But Jared’s trauma Sept. 4 was far worse than Brandon’s.

Playing defensive back in a scrimmage against Lynn English, Jared zeroed in on a wide receiver who was sprinting across the middle of the field to catch a pass. The ball was thrown a bit high, causing the receiver to leap. As the receiver came down, Jared rose up and hit him, the collision cracking Jared’s vertebra and pushing it into his spinal cord.

“It wasn’t a huge hit,’’ said O’Leary, the coach. “It was just the angle of the forces.’’

O’Leary said medical specialists determined there was no genetic deficiency that may have contributed to Jared and Brandon suffering strikingly similar injuries. It was just bad fortune. Brother Tyler - having no reason to think he was especially vulnerable to spine injury - was cleared to continue playing.

“I’ve been coaching for 37 years and we’ve had tragedies before,’’ O’Leary said. “But this one really touched us. It was more immediate because everybody said, ‘That could be me right there.’ We may never recover totally from this.’’

The coach fielded calls from parents worried about their children’s safety on the field. His assistants questioned the wisdom of tutoring such a violent sport. And everyone worried about Tyler, who wore Jared’s jersey in the season opener and scored a touchdown in a 32-7 victory over Peabody. He gave his brother the game ball afterward.

“There is always anxiety, of course, because Tyler is the third [triplet] playing for us,’’ O’Leary said.

Yet out of the tension has risen a torrent of generosity. At St. John’s, where students gave Jared a seven-minute standing ovation during a Mass that was Web-cast to his hospital room, they collected more than $30,000 for him in a Dress Down Day fund-raiser, including several gifts of $1,000 and another of $5,000 from parents. They also jammed a message board with prayers and well-wishes for him.

When Jared’s health insurer initially balked at covering his out-of-network care at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, family supporters, including US Representative John F. Tierney of Salem, whose staff includes a St. John’s Prep alumnus, successfully lobbied the company. Before the insurer relented, North Reading firefighters offered to lease a private ambulance and drive Jared to Atlanta. They also volunteered to make any renovations to the Coppolas’ home that Jared may need.

“The response has been incredible,’’ said Sue O’Leary, one of Dawn’s best friends and the coach’s sister-in-law. “It started with us sending out a simple e-mail, and then it mushroomed.’’

Meals and deals
The Coppolas, with two teenagers in college and three in parochial school, have been financially stung by the crisis. Skip works in a technology firm’s finance department and Dawn is unemployed after Fidelity cut her job as a systems analyst.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh my God, this could be my kid. Let’s do something,’ ’’ said O’Leary’s husband, Steve.

One person who requested anonymity gave O’Leary a $5,000 check for the Coppolas. Another woman donated $300 she gained from selling a pair of mismatched gold earrings. The town’s Little League mothers raised $3,500 in a bake sale. Regional youth football, hockey, and soccer programs have chipped in as well to the Jared Coppola Fund at the Reading Co-operative Bank, 170 Park St., North Reading 01864.

So many friends, neighbors, and strangers have committed to cooking meals for the Coppolas that the O’Learys have created a waiting list after ensuring the family will be fed through Christmas. Business travelers have offered frequent flyer points to help the Coppolas visit Atlanta, and a retired Delta flight attendant has stepped in so Brittni, a freshman at the University of Maryland, can see her brother.

Fund-raising events also are in the works in Everett.

“It’s a special feeling for us to know how wonderful people can be,’’ Skip Coppola said. “We’re very grateful.’’

As for second-guessing the family’s love of football, he has little interest in the exercise.

“Football is a violent sport,’’ he said. “Any kind of injury can happen, but to this day Jared doesn’t regret playing football, and I don’t think he’ll ever question it. He has tremendous passion for the sport.’’

Jared, meanwhile, battles on. After surgery to fuse his vertebra and stabilize his neck with titanium, he is able to sit up, talk, smile, and move his arms a bit. He continues to receive nourishment through a feeding tube, and he has told both his coach and St. John’s Prep principal, Ed Hardiman, that he is eager to confront the challenge ahead.

“I’ve got to eat, I’ve got to get to rehab, and I’ve got to get back to playing football,’’ he told them.

His only gripes, they said, have been his brother wearing his game jersey and driving his car. Otherwise, he is focused on better days.

“Jared is a very optimistic individual and he has great determination,’’ his father said. “With those two things as the backbone of his spirit, I believe he will bounce back.’’

If so, the balance of funds the Coppolas have received will be used to help other youths facing similar challenges, Coppola said. And there will be joy throughout Jared’s extended community, especially at St. John’s Prep.

“We’re all holding our breath for Jared right now,’’ Hardiman said. “We’re hopeful there will be a phenomenal day when he walks back on campus and we’re there to welcome him.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at

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