Troy Kopp's well-heeled classmates at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High didn't know much about being down and out. They never had to make their home in a state park. And they didn't know what it was like to awaken day after lonely day in other families' houses. Kopp learned all about this sort of thing after his idyllic suburban life came apart in 1985. But from those tough times, he has emerged as one of the hottest quarterbacks in all of college football.
Kopp, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., has averaged 470 yards passing in his last five games. During that span he threw 22 touchdown passes, became the first quarterback to have back-to-back 500-yard games in the air and set NCAA Division I-A records for combined passing yardage in two (1,079), three (1,494) and four (1,933) consecutive games. Last Saturday, in a 41-35 last-gasp victory over Portland State, the 6'2", 200-pound Kopp connected on 33 of 47 throws—including 19 straight—for 464 yards as the Tigers improved their record to 4-5.
"I always believed athletics would be my way to make it," says Kopp. "When I was successful [on the field in high school], I could forget about a lot of things. I could think about how things could get better."
Things couldn't have gotten much worse. During Troy's freshman year at Mission Viejo, his father, Gary, lost his job as a district shoe salesman and a month later was forced to sell the family's three-bedroom house. With nowhere else to live, Gary and his wife, Judy, and their three sons, Troy, Trevor, now 14, and Travis, 15, spent the summer in a state park, sleeping either in a tent or in the family's van.
November 12, 1990
When summer was over, the family split up, with Judy and the younger boys going to stay for a while with family in Wisconsin, while Gary continued to look for work. But Troy, about to begin his sophomore year, moved in with a friend, and over the next three years lived with three different families while attending Mission Viejo. "My dad was trying," he says. "But I couldn't understand how something that had been so right could go so wrong. It made me angry."
Troy's ordeal was not widely known in Mission Viejo. Those who did know about his situation knew better than to make light of it. Says Ron Drake, an assistant coach at Mission Viejo, "You wouldn't tease Troy, or you'd be missing your front teeth."
In his senior year, Kopp became the top-rated passer in Orange County and the Montreal Expos' 58th-round draft pick as a catcher. He was determined to play football, but few schools recruited him. The rap against him was that he wasn't nimble enough. Walt Harris, the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, showed the most interest, but on Christmas Eve, Kopp learned that Harris had accepted the coaching job at Pacific. "I was scared then," says Kopp, "because I didn't know what lay ahead."
Harris, though, didn't give up on Kopp. "It was obvious Troy was a quarterback," says Harris. "He could really thump it in there."
However, as a freshman starter for the third-smallest school in Division I-A (enrollment 3,800), Kopp took most of the thumping in a 2-10 season. He was so discouraged that when the Expos drafted him again, in the 12th round last June, and offered him a $10,000 bonus, he was tempted to leave school. Harris, though, persuaded him to stay.
Harris installed a no-huddle, run-and-shoot attack this season, but Kopp hurt his left, nonthrowing, shoulder in the Tigers' season-opener, a 55-7 loss at Tennessee, and was sidelined for the next two games. Upon learning he wouldn't start the Tigers' fourth game, against Long Beach State, Kopp quit the team. Harris again persuaded him to stick around, and when he played well coming off the bench in a 28-7 loss to the 49ers, he regained the starting job. After that, the statistical roll was on.
As Kopp thrives in Stockton, his family remains apart, with Gary working in Madison, Wis., and Judy residing in San Clemente, Calif., with Trevor. Travis is living with a family in Mission Viejo. Movie producers have called the school about buying the rights to Troy's story. "My fantasy is to help people in my situation," he says. "I want them to know you can overcome. Things can work out."