Penn's Copeland following grandfather's footsteps into NFL

Penn's Copeland following grandfather's footsteps into NFL
May 3, 2013, 10:30 am
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Brandon Copeland's grandfather Roy Hilton (left) played in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. (AP, University of Pennsylvania)

The seventh and final round of the 2013 NFL draft was nearing its conclusion Saturday when Brandon Copeland received a call from the Baltimore Ravens.

Copeland, a senior at Penn and the sole captain of the Quakers’ 2012 Ivy League-winning football team, stepped outside of his off-campus apartment to get some air and hear the voice on the other end of the line better. When he returned to his apartment, he had some good news to share with the family members who had gathered to watch the draft with him: the Ravens were going to sign him as soon as the draft was over.

At that point, there was lots of hugging and laughing. But amidst all the excitement of the moment, Copeland’s grandfather – Roy Hilton – made sure to offer a little bit of encouragement and advice.

“You’ve got a lot of work to do,” Hilton told him. “But if I could do it, you can do it.”

Hilton certainly knows what it takes to make it in the NFL – and in Baltimore in particular.

From 1965 to 1975, Copeland’s grandfather was a defensive end for the Baltimore Colts, playing in Super Bowl III and winning Super Bowl V. The most impressive part of it all: Hilton enjoyed such a lengthy and successful NFL career after getting drafted in the 15th round of the 1965 draft.

Hilton, a defensive end, even made sure to save his best games for the Dallas Cowboys, a team that told him they were going to draft him but never did. In Super Bowl V, he had two first-half sacks and a big fourth-quarter pass rush to force an interception to help lead Baltimore to a 16-13 win over the Cowboys.

“He jokes that if he didn’t get picked up the Colts, he’d still be waiting right now to this day,” Copeland said. “But he said he never had a bad game against the Cowboys. That’s my family’s mentality: to use everything as motivation instead of being down on ourselves.”

Hilton's going from a 15th-round pick out of Jackson State to a Super Bowl champ alongside Johnny Unitas is living proof that Copeland can make it as an undrafted rookie from an Ivy League school.

One more player that affirms that belief: Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Greg Van Roten.

A former teammate of Copeland’s at Penn, Van Roten went undrafted before spending the entire season with the Green Bay Packers last year. Today, the two players remain close friends with Copeland calling Van Roten “a great mentor throughout this whole process.”

Two other former Penn players will also try to follow Van Roten’s lead, as offensive lineman Joe Bonadies (Minnesota Vikings) and punter Scott Lopano (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) were invited to mini-camps, as well.

“I’ve always been a big believer in if you don’t believe then who will?” Copeland said. “I always knew it was possible. But seeing someone you know – especially a person I played against every single day for three years – go and do very well in the NFL is definitely a big confidence-booster.”

There are other reasons to believe Copeland could impress the Ravens enough to stick around past minicamp and through this summer’s training camp.
The Ravens, Copeland pointed out, have “taken chances on smaller-school guys” in the past, the most prominent example being reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, a University of Delaware alum. And being from Baltimore, growing up a Ravens fan and having a rich family history in the city probably can’t hurt, either.

Still, even with those things working in his favor, he knows he still has a lot of work to do – work that includes quickly learning a new position. The three-time Ivy League champion will be switching from defensive end to linebacker in the pros.

“It’s definitely been a crazy couple of days – some of the best days in my life with the news,” said Copeland, who will graduate from Wharton next Sunday, a day before he’s scheduled to report to Ravens camp. “But I’m also a levelheaded, back-to-reality kind of guy, so I know there’s a long journey ahead. And I’m ready for it.”

Luckily, he has the support of people close to him that already have paved unlikely paths to the NFL. And his grandfather would love nothing more than to see Copeland carry on the family tradition in Baltimore – from the Colts to the Ravens, one generation apart.

“We’ve talked a bunch of times this week, pretty much every single day, and he can’t say enough how proud he is of me,” Copeland said. “That’s music to a grandson’s ears.

“And if I follow his lead,” he added, “then I can’t go too wrong.”