Vori Copeland and a few of his Appomattox senior classmates will take center stage Wednesday, when they make official their commitments to continue their athletic careers at the college level.
It’s an opportunity most high schoolers don’t get. Across the nation, less than 3% of those who play at the high school level will suit up for a Division I team in college, according to NCAA statistics.
Copeland, a football star, has reason to be proud about where he’s headed. The linebacker will wear maroon and orange later this year as a member of the Virginia Tech Hokies, continuing down a path he never really thought he’d travel.
“Right before I was offered [by another school], I didn’t really know what was really gonna happen after [high school] football,” Copeland said.
Interest from the University of Virginia, the team that will become his collegiate rival, in the fall of 2021 changed his life, Copeland said.
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It opened doors Copeland never thought possible. And as each of those doors swung wide, more prestige poured in.
But Copeland — whose list of accolades and resume-boosting accomplishments soon will be added to, thanks to news that he officially will receive a national award in the coming months — doesn’t aim to have the spotlight on him.
In his final months in Appomattox, and then when he begins his next chapter in Blacksburg, his focus is on replicating the examples he’s had set for him.
“I want to inspire people,” Copeland said.
For the future Copeland has mapped out, much of the credit should go to family, he said.
As he grew up, Copeland’s parents — his mom, Angela Smith, and dad, Jonathan Smith — and older sister, TaShya Copeland, provided the benchmark when it comes to work ethic.
“I was not allowed any room to slack,” Vori Copeland said. Then he added an extra word onto the phrase that recounted the memories of his youth: “Luckily.”
“Luckily” is what he’s able to say now, having seen what a commitment to his education has produced. But there were times when he would’ve rather been relaxing than doing homework, as per the strict standards his parents put in place.
TaShya, too, was subjected to that set of rules. Vori saw her thrive, and realized he could do the same.
“Seeing her doing what she did in school, making good grades,” Vori Copeland said, “… it showed me that I was able to do it.”
For Vori, that translated to his current GPA of near 4.0.
“He is smart, and he studies and puts in the work,” said Jonathan Pennix, Copeland’s classmate and teammate on the ACHS football team. The two will continue playing together at Tech, where Copeland aims to begin a pre-med track on an endeavor into the medical field.
Copeland — who earned offers to play football at multiple Ivy League schools — hopes to perhaps become an anesthesiologist.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, consciousness and everything,” Copeland said. “… Just being curious, wanting to know everything has really helped me.”
That desire to continue learning has propelled Copeland toward realizing his dreams, but it’s also helping him accomplish another goal.
“We’re not dumb dudes that just go hit people,” Copeland said. “I could play football, but I could also do whatever. … I want to change the stereotype about football players.”
In sports circles, preconceived notions about football players are plentiful.
Particular body shapes or builds often are associated with specific positions, for example.
Linebackers, for instance, don’t often come in the form Copeland takes. But while much longer and thinner than most, at 6-foot-4 and around 200 pounds, Copeland was the leader of an Appomattox defensive unit that helped the Raiders reach the Class 2 state semifinals in each of the last two seasons and to the championship game — where they won consecutive trophies — in each of the two campaigns before that.
“Very physical,” Pennix, a defensive back, said of Copeland. “A lot of big hits.”
That also applied to Copeland’s work on special teams. On kickoff returns by opposing teams specifically, Pennix said, he’d deliver those momentum-building tackles that “set the tone.”
Pennix, a sought-after recruit himself before he committed to Tech, described his high school and soon-to-be college teammate as always going “full speed.” The description sounded much like Copeland’s assessment of his style of play.
“All gas, no brakes,” Copeland said. “That’s the best way I can put it. Just fly. Just go. Don’t hesitate.”
The results speak for themselves. In addition to what he’s helped his team do over the last few seasons, Copeland has racked up individual accolades, too, including multiple all-district, all-region and all-state awards.
His performance on the field with the Raiders led to another honor, as well, this of the national persuasion.
In March, Copeland will be recognized officially as the winner of the Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award, handed out by the National Alliance of African American Athletes to the nation’s top African American male high school scholar-athlete. Among previous recipients of the annual award are multiple athletes that have gone on to play in the NFL.
“I’m a kid from a little [place], and to be recognized with these big names, it shows that anything is possible,” Copeland said.
When combined with his work in the classroom, Copeland’s gridiron efforts put him in contention for an award that garnered hundreds of applications from across the country, Copeland explained. What he did for others in his community — following the example set by coaches in the football program he’s called “family”— were an important factor, as well.
Together with the rest of the staff, Appomattox coach Doug Smith modeled for Copeland and his teammates the concept of dedication, Copeland said.
For the good of the program and their success on the field, coaches poured countless hours into preparation. They helped players in the weight room in the regular season and offseason. They watched film and game planned for hours in the days leading up to games, and spent long nights at the school for practices and on bus trips for away contests.
But in Appomattox, football is about more than wins and losses, Copeland explained. In Raider Country, players also know football is the avenue by which they come to truly care about each other, and through which their coaches invest in their physical, mental and spiritual health.
“He never lets nobody get left behind,” Copeland said of Smith, who was there for him when his grandparents died before the fall season and when he endured multiple broken bones through his career.
Copeland knows that approach from Smith extends beyond the confines of the high school, to the surrounding community, as well. And over the last several years, Copeland has joined in on the endeavor to practically show love for the people in the place he calls home.
Among the activities listed for Copeland in the news release about the Watkins Award — which explained community service, personal statements and letters of recommendation also were factors in determining the winner — are the times he spent days off cleaning up debris from storms and volunteering with events for people with special needs, including the Night to Shine prom.
There, Copeland and his teammates lined up along the red carpet to clap for and cheer on guests as they arrived to the venue. For those with special needs, who may not get to attend their own high school proms, the attention centered around them on that night is priceless. Wide smiles spread across guests’ faces betray their joy.
During his high school years, moments like those are the ones Copeland said he finds especially rewarding.
When he leaves Appomattox in a few months, he knows some people might remember him for his football skills. But Copeland hopes his lasting legacy in his hometown — along with his future path — includes something more.
“Making people smile,” he said, “that’s what I live for.”
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