Tuesday December 8th, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a former high school quarterback in Michigan who was known for his composure in the pocket and ability to read defenses, perhaps Andrew Copp should have sensed the blindside blitz coming. But he’s a full-time professional hockey player now. So while chatting with a reporter in a Verizon Center hallway the morning before his game against the Washington Capitals, he began comparing his skills in each sport—“My quarterback game and my hockey game are a little different, for sure”—when one of his Winnipeg Jets teammates snuck up from behind and jabbed his stick at Copp’s groin.

True to form, Copp never flinched.

“Yeah, I’m definitely a different player in hockey, more of a role player, more of a strong, fast skater,” he continued in stride, no acknowledgement given to the dirty hit. “Definitely a little different.”

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More than four years after his last gridiron appearance, Copp, 21, can easily characterize his entire journey to the Jets under this “different” umbrella. The son of a figure skater and a hockey coach, Copp grew up only a short distance from headquarters of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, dreaming in his backyard of some day representing his country at a major international event. Yet when teammates and peers started narrowing their focus to hockey and seeking attention from college coaches, Copp went in another direction. In 2008, before he began his freshman year at the city’s new Skyline High School, he decided to play football.

The initial nudge came from his father, Andy, who had been told by some hockey scouts that Andrew needed to increase his physicality on the ice. What better way to learn, then, than by strapping on a helmet during the fall and making tackles on defense? Besides, Andy figured, the experience would help his son make friends at the new school.

Andrew, for his part, balked at the suggestion. He didn’t want to get hurt, didn’t want anything to affect hockey, not with several important years of development on the horizon. “Then I went out for a couple days, had a blast doing it,” he says. “So I said, ‘Why not?’ Ended up working out in the long run.”

At first, Skyline’s defensive coordinator tried staking a claim to Copp for the secondary. Then the coaches changed their minds after they saw him throw a football. He became the team’s quarterback even though he hadn't played the sport since his flag football days in sixth grade.

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Copp never had any issues adapting to life under center and he was identified early on by head coach Randy Hutchison as a charismatic leader around whom teammates would rally. A former offensive coordinator at nearby Pioneer High School who took up the challenge of starting a program from scratch, Hutchison recalled hosting a spring open house to gauge interest in the football team. Copp tried to recruit everyone who arrived, asking them whether they could and would play. During all four of his years at Skyline, Copp would serve as captain as well as the team’s cagey field boss. 

“It got to where I very rarely punted, just because I thought Andrew was going to figure out something,” Hutchison says. “And he always had an answer. He was very bold and brave. He would say, ‘I really like this, because we’re on this hash and the wind’s blowing this way.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this 16-year-old kid is crazy.’”

The bigger challenge came off the field, whenever football and hockey bumped against each other. Copp spent four seasons playing for Detroit Compuware Bantam Minor and Tier 1 Elite teams in a breeding ground for NHL prospects and stars, the ranks of whom include Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan and Ryan Kesler. Before his junior season at Skyline, as notices of interest from Ivy League and MAC football programs gathered on Hutchison’s desk, a player on the USNTDP’s Under-18 team suffered a season-ending injury. Copp was offered a full-time spot as a replacement. The only catch: He had to quit football. He tried negotiating with the officials in Ann Arbor. “Is there any way I could do both?” he asked. Flatly, the answer was no. It just wouldn’t work, having someone stretched thin like that.

After some deliberation, Copp declined the offer. Skyline had already opened its season and he refused to bail on a commitment he’d already made. “It’s really tough outside to understand how big a decision that was for him to turn that down, because that was his dream,” Andy Copp says. “Especially in Michigan, with having the team in your backyard and stuff, all of those kids dream about that. That was always the dream. To turn that down was really huge.”                                     

Andrew Copp after Team USA beat Sweden to win the U-18 World Championship on April 22, 2012.
Radek-Mica-AFP/Getty Images

So the football season continued. It was the middle of a week in late December when Copp’s phone rang again. The Under-18 team was leaving soon for a road trip in North Dakota and needed some forwards in a pinch. With football season over and no quarterbacking obligations, Copp agreed to go and played well. Upon returning to Michigan the following week, the USNTDP offered him a roster spot for the remainder of the season, which he mostly spent with the Under-17 team. Then he worked out a rare deal for his senior year at Skyline. 

“He’d come over, work out or skate with us, then go over to football and do two-a-days, then come back and lift later on,” says Danton Cole, his Under-18 coach in Ann Arbor. “It was an incredible workload, but he stuck with it because he wanted to take care of things on both ends.”

Ask anyone around Copp—coaches, friends, his father—and they all marvel at how the teenager navigated a rugged two-sport season, zipping across town to squeeze both practices into one day. Cole sometimes approached Copp in the weight room, wondering if he should slow down to guard against over-training, though he never did. “I was lucky to be an exception to the rule,” Copp says, so he worked at justifying the USNTDP’s faith. They supported him too—at a football game on the road in freezing fall rain, a few of his hockey teammates took off their shirts and ran around the visiting bleachers cheering for him. “And we had a lot to cheer about,” defenseman Connor Carrick says.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

At Skyline, Hutchison tailored his practices to maximize Copp’s availability, giving him a list of passing drills to conduct with the receivers and sending them all off to practice on their own. Copp always led the drills with great precision. The Eagles were loaded with athleticism—during his sophomore season all five of his wideouts could dunk basketballs—but the team didn’t have much size, so Hutchison decided to run a spread offense and rely on Copp to pile up points. Whenever time conflicts arose, Copp handled them himself, sometimes conducting workouts before school at 6 a.m. During his senior year, when he had last period open and a teacher was sympathetic to Copp’s situation, he regularly left school early, lifted with his USNTDP teammates, skated for 20 minutes, and then drove across town for another three hours of football practice.

“It was all him,” Andy Copp says. “Getting himself up, doing his homework when he needed to do it. He drove his own bus. It’s [a kid’s] life. They have to take responsibility for it. They have to be on top of their own things, and he was. We didn’t have to do much. He was disciplined with it.”

By his senior season of 2011-12, with a new coach after Hutchison’s departure, Copp still hadn’t decided between football and hockey as his future. Through six games for Skyline, he’d thrown for 1,732 yards and 27 touchdowns, including a state-record 557 yards and seven TDs against Pioneer, the same school that his USA teammates attended. Around then, Eastern Michigan and Toledo were still sniffing around Copp as a quarterback, and Minnesota had inquired about whether he might want to continue playing both sports for the Gophers. Entering senior night at home, Copp says, nothing was certain.

The Skyline Eagles held a 3-3 record with three winnable games left on their schedule. But during the first half of the first of those games, Copp rolled out to pass and darted upfield. As he stopped and looked to cut back, a defensive lineman clobbered him, driving his throwing shoulder into the ground. He felt the pain instantly. Soon, the team’s trainer was reaching under his pads and making the diagnosis: a clean break of the collarbone.

“As soon as the trainer said, ‘You’re done,’ I was like, ‘S---. That was my last play of football,’” Copp recalls. In his family’s house are photos of the bittersweet halftime celebration for seniors. Copp’s arm is wrapped in ice packs, his face stained with eye black and agony. “That’s when I knew hockey would be the choice,” he says. 

Dennis Pajot/Getty Images

After winning the 2012 U-18 world championship with Team USA in Brno, Czech Republic, where he led the tournament with a 65.4 face-off percentage, Copp signed with the University of Michigan, but only after a roster spot opened up. He announced his commitment on Twitter in May that year and spent three seasons with the Wolverines, increasing his points totals each year and serving as an alternate captain in 2013-14 and captain in 2014-15, when he posted a college career high of 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in 36 games.

Leaving after his junior year to sign a three-year, $2.875 million entry deal with Winnipeg, the team that picked him in the fourth round (104th) of the 2013 NHL draft, Copp made his league debut on April 11, 2015 and posted an assist in a 5–1 win over Calgary. One of three rookies to make the Jets out of training camp in October, he’s been serving mostly as a fourth-line center, notching four goals and averaging 7:07 of ice time in 24 games while he learns and adapts to the NHL. Coach Paul Maurice has been impressed by Copp’s hockey smarts and steady improvement, especially in the face-off circle. It's becoming clear that the Jets have themselves a solid young two-way player with offensive upside to go along with his grit and leadership skills, two traits that have carried over from the gridiron.

“Kids these days, they try to choose one sport by, like, age 10 or 12,” Copp says. “I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without playing football, or going back before that, tennis or baseball or anything like that. You just get burnt out mentally from one sport. Your body starts to design itself around one sport and it can lead to injuries here and there. I had a blast doing it. I don’t regret it for sure.”

 

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