Changing positions just latest reinvention for Mizzou's Max Copeland
One brow arches, the other furrows. One eye pops and the other squints, a portrait of crooked curiosity. The mouth purses into a faint scowl, too, and the whole thing is framed by this long, blonde shock of hair and a thick, black headband.
Max Copeland's official mugshot is a question, except Copeland isn't confused. He's asking the question, a little bit defiant. He looks like the kind of football player who cannot fathom why he should stare, unfeeling, into a camera, why he should be one athletic department snapshot out of hundreds. His eyes are screaming, "I'm different," and his brows are echoing, "I'll never conform," and his hair, well, his hair is a long, stringy wink, letting you in on the joke -- except maybe none of this is a joke, and maybe Copeland is dead serious.
To be a football player is to be a study in boring. It is to say nothing of note, to see the game as a science, to find a role and perfect fit, without ever stretching beyond it, without ever renegotiating. It is to gaze at the camera without twitching a facial muscle, to be one unsmiling, unremarkable mugshot, more an accessory to a number than the other way around.
Copeland will tell you he's a football player, plain and simple. He believes that, and he is. But, as always, Mad Max makes up his own rules. He may be a football player, but that's by its loosest definition, and an evolving one. A former offensive lineman at Missouri, anchoring one of the SEC's best units in 2013, Copeland made a name for himself for his hulk and for his menace, for his hair and for rock 'n' roll. He was regarded as the fringiest of fringe NFL prospects coming off a strong senior season, the kind of guy who hopes to make a camp and trains the living daylights out of his body to do so.
And then he had a dream. Then he lost 50 pounds from his hulking, 6-foot-3 frame, which had hovered around 310 pounds. Then he became a fullback, and then ... who knows?
The process began in the weeks after Missouri won the Cotton Bowl, when Copeland went home to Billings, Mont. Most mornings, he'd eat breakfast with his mother, Joanne Copeland, and the two would talk about his future. They discussed his mission (Joanne's words), his desire to succeed in spite of the world telling him he shouldn't. That mission led him to turn down a scholarship at Montana and walk on at Missouri, to fight his way from a nobody to a starter with a scholarship. College was finished, and Joanne didn't think the mission had ended, but neither she nor her son knew the next step -- until the dream.
"I kind of had a vision," Copeland said. "I dreamed that I was playing fullback. It felt right. It felt fun."
The next step was to talk to Joanne, with whom Copeland has a connection both describe as spiritual. "She can feel the energy of what I want to do and [sense] if it's right," Copeland said, and in this case, Joanne agreed. Fullback would be fun. It would be less about making the NFL and more about who her son was and what he set out to make of himself. Ten years from now, they'll tell this story, and it might be about making a camp come summertime and a stint in the NFL.
Or it might just be about what Copeland did, and how it changed him -- again -- for the better.
One day during Copeland's final year of college, his mother sat down at the computer. "Free spirit," she typed into Google's search engine. "I thought I knew the definition, but I just wanted to check," Joanne recalled. You see, her son's name, paired with that description, was splattered across the Internet, and she didn't quite understand. Sure, he loves Pink Floyd, and he might be mistaken for a modern-day pirate, and when you go to his apartment for dinner, he's going to blast Metallica at full volume. But he was also a physics major. He was the kid who always had a to-do list posted on his bedroom wall, who locked in on an idea and saw it through to a T.
Call what Copeland is doing crazy. Or just realize that it's the next box he has to check.
"It was spontaneous," Copeland said of the idea. "It's kind of consistent with this ideal, that as soon as you belong, it's time to disappear. ... I get stir crazy if I do the same thing for more than a few years. I like reinventing myself, forging new ground."
The decision was made. Copeland, who had set a 2 a.m. alarm throughout college to wake up and eat in order to keep his frame filled, was going to drop as much weight as he could and switch positions. He swore Joanne to secrecy that morning, and soon thereafter he returned to Columbia, Mo., to train with Pat Ivey, a former strength coach who now runs the school's player development program. From the moment the transformation began, only Copeland's coaches and the players he trained with -- including close friend Andrew Wilson -- had a clue what he was up to.
To begin, Copeland cut his caloric intake from about 6,500 per day to around 3,000. He'd never quite been able to keep weight on, snarfing chicken breasts and brown rice every two hours and even weighing in with dumbbells in his pockets from time to time, so to restrict was a relief. Instead of camping out in the kitchen, Copeland hit the gym, beating the hell out of himself eight hours a day.
"I wasn't starving myself, but it was just kind of crazy," he said. "Every calorie was accounted for. I just worked all day. I would work until I puked and then keep working."
Wilson, a former Missouri linebacker who wrapped up his career at the same time as Copeland, knew the transformation was occurring, but when he returned after six weeks away from campus in early March, he was astounded.
"I got back, and I was like, 'What the heck happened?'" Wilson remembered. "I barely even recognized him. He got mad at me. I called him thin. He doesn't like that."
With Wilson in on the scheme, Copeland recruited his friend for some help before Missouri's pro day, held March 20. On his first day of camp in 2009, the then-offensive lineman had buzzed his hair down to nothing. Since then, he'd grown it into the mane for which he was known last season.
It was a cathartic thing, the most recent buzzing, one of those rebirths Copeland demands from himself every few years. From time to time during his career at Missouri, he'd find himself studying his split ends, this giant man examining the tiniest of forked strands, and thinking about beginnings. The split ends were where it started, and before pro day, it was time for them to go.
Wilson was summoned. A Missouri boy, born and bred, he happened to have a hunting knife at his apartment. Upon Copeland's request, he grabbed that thick ponytail of five-year-old hair, dyed recently with a green streak, and he sliced -- "like a samurai," Copeland described it -- lopping off 10 inches.
Thus was born the latest version of Max Copeland, and when he strolled into his pro day days later, the place let out a collective gasp. Scouts were expecting an offensive lineman. Teammates like Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, back in Columbia after months away, couldn't believe what they saw. The hair was short. The physique was trim. The oozing sore that had festered on the bridge of Copeland's nose all season was healed. The player teased for looking like a character in Braveheart was somehow just a little bit tamed, except of course for the green streak and the Metallica T-shirt he sported in lieu of actual athletic apparel.
Copeland's performance that day was almost an afterthought. His father, Michael Copeland, was present, and his mother sat glued to her computer screen at home. Wilson remembers being shocked at his friend's hands, at how well he could catch, as if it hadn't been years since he'd played tight end in high school. Copeland was pleased with the workout, especially his route-running, but he's also realistic. He knows what he's doing is unheard of. He knows scouts might be wary, if they weren't already wary of a middle-of-the-road prospect.
Before, though, he'd have been just another offensive lineman. Now, he's the offensive lineman turned fullback, the transformer. They'll remember that, the scouts, the teams, the executives. They'll remember, and maybe they'll give him a chance. The draft will pass, and the name Max Copeland will probably not be called, but it's not as if the 300-pound version likely would have been picked, either. It's July he's waiting for, for a phone call and an invitation to camp, for a chance to again exceed whatever expectations the world has set in his way.
For another player, what Copeland is doing would be a shock. For another player. Copeland, though -- he's so tugged at by his dreams, so determined to follow them, that he never really surprises. The wildest of ideas to him are just plans. They are methods and lifestyles, he says, as he talks about extrapolation and objectives, about self-actualization and energy.
Copeland swears he isn't interesting. He's just obsessive, he explains. Where some might see an about-face, he sees growth, evolution. His position might change, and so might his passions. His hair will grow and be lopped off. His nose will scab and heal, and his whiskers will sprout from baby-face to beard, over and over.
But his eyes, they'll stay the same. What next? they'll ask, and Max Copeland, music blaring and mind racing, will find an answer. Be sure of that.