Buoyed by brothers’ love, a paralyzed player refuses to quit

As 1 triplet stars on gridiron, Jared Coppola strives to walk

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By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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NORTH READING — This is how the day often starts for Tyler Coppola, one of the most feared running backs in Massachusetts high school football: He helps his 18-year-old brother Jared get dressed, hoists him over a broad shoulder, and carries him up a flight of stairs for breakfast.

Then he and another brother, Brandon, lift Jared and his wheelchair into their sister’s hand-me-down Ford for the ride to school.

They are three brothers — triplets in fact — with a special love for each other and for the violent game in which all three excelled, until disaster intervened. Both Jared and Brandon were felled on the field by spinal cord injuries; Jared critically, Brandon badly enough to force an end to his playing career.

Tyler plays on for both of them, and hurts for both of them, too. If he was scared at first — and he was — he also runs incredibly hard and well.

The brothers’ poignant story has been well chronicled, especially at a time when the risks of the game are much in the news. Its latest chapter, however, has gotten less notice: Jared’s determined and increasingly successful drive to conquer quadriplegia, and the lift it has given his family, team, and community.

It was Jared who was by all accounts the toughest football player among the Coppola triplets at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers. No one knew if he ever would stand again after he was paralyzed from the neck down Sept. 4, 2009, in one of the state’s most devastating football injuries. In the weeks after, his brothers dedicated their lives to him, their mother dabbed him with holy water, and Jared got down to work.

While Tyler sets school records, and Brandon has stuck with the game as team manager, Jared has been a regular on the sidelines in his wheelchair. His daily challenge is to painstakingly put one foot in front of the other, again and again. But he still dreams of the game, even as he shuns self-pity, and sets a quiet example.

“Jared has been the teacher for everyone in our school community,’’ his guidance counselor, Deborah Tierney, wrote in his college recommendation. “He teaches each of us every day how to press on with grace and dignity.’’

After Jared’s body went numb in a scrimmage at Lynn English 14 months ago, weeks passed before he could steady his head without a neck brace. It was a pipe dream, it seemed, to imagine he could rise from his wheelchair and stay on pace to graduate next spring with his brothers. That’s why legions of supporters rejoiced with him over the summer when Jared, wearing his Prep football T-shirt, took his first steps at Boston Medical Center with the aid of an aluminum walker.

“The impact he has made is nothing short of inspiring,’’ Prep principal Edward Hardiman said. “He has done yeoman’s work to improve his condition, and he has done it all by being himself, without any fanfare or expecting any favors.’’

Jared has rarely asked for help; people just step up. A history teacher volunteered to attend his classes and take notes until he could write again. Classmates pushed his wheelchair when he was too weak to roll himself. And teammates have ensured he remains part of the team by gathering around him during breaks in practice and exchanging high fives with him before games and after touchdowns.

At a recent game, one teammate stood in front of Jared, to block the cold wind. Others pulled up his hood and rubbed his shoulders.

“They do things for Jared that don’t come naturally to adolescent males,’’ Prep football coach Jim O’Leary said. “He and his wheelchair have broken down a lot of barriers.’’

At home, Jared and his brothers lift each other, Jared by setting an example with his work ethic and buoyant spirit, his brothers by supporting him with their strong backs and hearts.

“Tyler and Brandon have accepted Jared’s injury as their own limitation,’’ their father Skip said. “And they never complain.’’

“He’s going through so much as it is,’’ Tyler said. “We don’t want to add to it.’’

Devastating injuries
The triplets have long been inseparable. They began playing football in the second grade, coached by their father, once a star quarterback at Pope John High School in Everett. Like their older brother Derek, a running back at the University of New Hampshire, they all appeared bound for college football careers before fate intervened.

Brandon was the first to fall, fracturing his C-5 neck vertebra in a game in 2008. The injury left Brandon’s spinal cord so compromised that doctors prohibited him from playing contact sports again. He insisted on remaining on the team, though, first as a coach’s assistant, then manager.

A year later, Jared went down in an awkward collision with a Lynn English receiver, his C-5 vertebra also fractured, but far worse than Brandon’s.

“Coach, help me up,’’ Jared said to O’Leary, his first words as a quadriplegic. “I can’t get up.’’

The injury so shook O’Leary that he considered ending his 38-year coaching career. And many of Jared’s teammates were so disturbed, O’Leary said, that they “played scared’’ the rest of the season.

As the crisis unfolded — Jared underwent a 3 1/2-hour surgery to fuse the splintered vertebra and insert a titanium stabilizer in his neck — the family’s plight came into sharper relief. The community rallied, friends raising funds through charity events, neighbors providing months of meals, townspeople renovating the family’s basement into a wheelchair-accessible suite.

It took Jared nearly four months to get home. After 17 days in intensive care at Children’s Hospital Boston, he spent 12 weeks at the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic-care facility in Atlanta, his mother, Dawn, by his side as he labored to regain control of his neck, fingers, arms, and torso. His legs would have to wait.

When he returned to school in January, Jared split his days between the classroom and physical therapy at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, N.H. Though he made steady progress in Salem, his breakthrough came after he was admitted in June to an innovative rehab program at the Christopher and Dana Reeve NeuroRecovery Network at Boston Medical Center.

Therapists there soon began calling him “J-Wow’’ for his grit and enthusiasm. Four days a week, he is harnessed on a treadmill while three staffers manipulate his hips and leg muscles to help him walk. In a test without the treadmill in August, Jared managed to step off 62 feet using a walker. And when he was retested last month, he made it 97 feet, though his left leg remains far weaker than his right.

Jared’s doctor, Steve Williams, chief of rehabilitation services at BMC, described his recovery as a rejuvenation.

“Many of the cells at the level of his injury did not die but were initially stunned and didn’t work,’’ Williams said. “They are now waking up and transmitting messages from the brain down the spinal cord.’’

Williams is optimistic about Jared’s prognosis. “He will at least walk short distances,’’ the doctor said, “probably with some sort of assistive device like a cane.’’

Jared’s goals are bolder, to walk unassisted and as well as possible. He has long been the hardest-working triplet, particularly in football.

“He had the most passion for the game,’’ O’Leary said. “All three were very good baseball players, but Jared gave up baseball because it wasn’t physical enough for him. He’s a football player. He loves the game.’’

Jared has applied a similar work ethic to rehab.

“If you’re not focused on it mentally, then you’re not going to be able to do it,’’ he said in his room, his walls adorned with autographed jerseys of Boston sports greats. “I’ve always been used to working hard. I know I want to get back on my feet, and I know it’s going to take time, but it’s worth it.’’

Motivation for Tyler
Jared demands a similar football commitment from Tyler, who was cleared to continue playing after doctors determined the injuries to Brandon and Jared were unrelated to any congenital spinal condition. And Tyler plays in part for his brothers.

“Playing is motivational for me because it’s such a big loss for them,’’ Tyler said. “I want to do my best because I know they would do anything to play again.’’

The most athletic of the triplets, Tyler is weighing whether to play college football or baseball after emerging as one of the state’s most prolific Division 1 running backs. Brandon, the brainiest, is applying to schools such as the University of Chicago to pursue a business career. And Jared, the lone fraternal triplet (the others share identical features), plans to attend college closer to home, possibly Endicott or Merrimack.

First, however, he has goals to pursue. He recently notched another milestone by joining Tyler and Brandon for Senior Day at the football team’s final home game of the season, the last of their high school careers. In an emotional scene, Jared rolled between his brothers as they crossed the field to present corsages to their parents and thank them for their sacrifices.

Afterward, Brockton coach Peter Colombo sought out Jared to shake his hand. “We all have great respect for the courage the Coppolas have shown,’’ Colombo said. “Being a dad whose son played football, I worry about their mom. I know the kids play for the love of the game, but it’s kind of a relief when they’re not in the battle anymore.’’

Dawn, despite her maternal instincts, continues to support her family’s commitment to the sport. She looks forward to one game in particular, on Thanksgiving at Xaverian, when Jared’s teammates plan to elect him a cocaptain. Jared expects to give thanks by walking with Tyler, Brandon, and the other cocaptains to midfield for the pregame coin flip.

He will stand with a community that has risen with him.

Bob Hohler can be reached at