Former Valley great Copeland returns to county to coach against Chambers Academy

Published 10:12 pm Wednesday, August 28, 2019

LaFAYETTE — For the first time in three decades, John Copeland will be participating in a high school football game in Chambers County on Friday night.

The former all-state linebacker for the Valley Rams has started his first season as the head football coach at Tuscaloosa Academy and will lead the Knights onto Tolbert Field to face Chambers Academy this week. His mother and sister, among other friends and family members, are driving down from Atlanta to watch his return to the area.

“I think back on my childhood quite often,” Copeland said. “Being raised in Lanett and going to Valley High School with some of the friends that I still have, lifelong friends that I still keep in contact with, it’s a wonderful memory. I’ve been all over the place, all over the world, and there’s still no place like home. Home is home, and you can’t beat home.”

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Copeland was an assistant at Tuscaloosa Academy for 12 years before accepting the head coaching job this past spring after former head coach Robert Johnson accepted a job at Lee-Scott Academy.

“It took a while to sink in. I was probably on the job for a couple of months before it sunk in,” Copeland said. “There was one point where I realized that I was in charge now. Being here for as long as I have and building the relationships from around here, I think it was fitting for me to be the next man up. I relish the position. I have a great family here, great kids here, we have wonderful support. I’m just happy to be in this position.”

After graduating from Valley High School in 1989, Copeland went to the University of Alabama, where he won a national championship and was named an All-American during his senior season in 1992. Copeland was selected fifth overall in the 1993 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that he played with for eight seasons. 

Copeland was one of three Rams that played in the NFL from the late 1980s and early 1990s era. Marcus Pollard and Lemanski Hall were the other two. 

“Those were fun times,” Copeland said of his high school playing days. “During those times, you never know what the future holds. We were just kids enjoying the game that we played. We enjoyed hanging around each other, and we were kids being kids. Carefree, just enjoying it. Now looking back on it, the chances of the three of us from our little small town of going to the NFL was kind of unheard of. I still keep in contact with those guys from time-to-time. Everyone seems to be enjoying some success so it ended up being good for everybody.” 

After his playing career, Copeland decided to go back to Tuscaloosa to finish his degree in exercise science. Being back in the area is what got him into coaching over a decade ago.

The Knights defeated Lamar High School 10-3 in week one, the three-time defending state champions from Meridian, Mississippi.

“We have a good group of kids,” Copeland said. “I thought we played hard in our first game. The execution wasn’t where I wanted it to be but that comes with time. You’ve got a lot of new faces around and kids in the program. They’re still learning how we’re doing things around here, the new way of doing things  around here, but I’m satisfied.”

Tuscaloosa Academy faces another defending state champion in Chambers Academy this week. The Rebels are coming off of a 36-7 win over Lee-Scott in week one, extending their regular-season winning streak to 35 games.

“We’re just happy for the opportunity to play over there,” Copeland said. “Get back home, see some family. The program that they have over there is excellent. They’re good at what they do, the kids have bought into the system, they play hard, you can see the fan support that they have and it’s a challenge. We’re not going in thinking about [their] success. We’re just trying to take care of ourselves. We can’t control what they’re doing on their side of the football, but we have to take care of ourselves. I think if we do everything that we need to do as a football team, we’ll have a chance over there. A chance is all you can ask for against a team like this.”

Copeland described his style of football as physical like the game was in his playing days. He described his current group of players as hard workers and although his linemen might not be as big as some of the Rebels’ linemen, the team is going to give it their all on Friday night. Copeland said that Friday night will not be the start of a weekend-long reunion for him in Chambers County because he has some business to catch up on Saturday morning back in Tuscaloosa. However, he encourages any old classmates or friends that want to catch up with him to come to the game on Friday and say hello.