Freedom of choice

IAN BUSBY -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

Choosing to bolt the Montreal Alouettes for the Calgary Stampeders wasn't the toughest decision Jeremaine Copeland had to make in sports.

When the star receiver graduated high school, an even bigger life-changing conclusion had to be made: Was it going to be basketball or football?

There was a fork in the road. The outstanding athlete could play basketball at North Carolina under the legendary Dean Smith. Or he could go with football at the University of Tennessee, where star quarterback Peyton Manning was already putting on a clinic.

Although the 6-ft. 2-in. Copeland had played quarterback until that point, he joined the Volunteers, mostly because it was only 35 minutes down the road from his hometown of Harriman, Tenn.

"I turned North Carolina down because I knew my parents couldn't travel that far to watch me play," Copeland said. "If I didn't have them with me, it wouldn't have felt right. I didn't want to play a game without my dad there whistling. He's been my coach all through my life."

It was then that young Jeremaine started to reward his family for all of the sacrifices they had to make playing organized sports a reality. Copeland was always able to join top-level basketball and football teams even though money was always tight.

Copeland's mother, father and brother didn't enjoy the luxuries he enjoys now like fancy clothes and cars. So when he was offered a full-ride scholarship to the biggest university in the state, it was like the family had won the lottery.

That made all the scrimping and saving worth the trouble.

"When it came down to it, we looked at the cost and my parents made it work," Copeland said. "Somehow they made it work and they knew me and my brother loved sports a whole lot.

"We played so much in the backyard. I started playing ball when I was two or three. I was playing with my brother who was already in organized ball.

"If we didn't have the money, we could get it somehow. We would get the cleats from someone else in our family. They wouldn't keep us out of sports because that's all we had. That was one way to keep us off the streets."

Copeland still remembers the first time a Tennessee recruiter came to see him play for his high school team. As he was warming up, the coach came over to tell him the man in the Volunteers jacket was scouting out the quarterback -- him.

That was his sophomore year, so for the next two seasons, Copeland was getting frequent visits from Tennessee staff until he finally joined the school.

"That was the best," Copeland said. "Not too many people get to go to Tennessee and play in front of 110,000 (fans).

"Being a Tennessee boy going there, it made it a lot better. I was known all over the state. It was real great for me.

"The school was only 35 minutes away from my hometown so my parents could come watch me every game. If they needed to come check on me, they did. There were some pluses and some minuses but it all worked out."

Since then, Copeland has played in the NFL, NFL Europe, the XFL and, for the past four seasons, in the CFL, where he has become a star and one of the highest paid at his position.

He's thankful every time he thinks about his humble beginnings in Tennessee.

"It feels like a big blessing," he said. "All the hard work I went through is finally paying off.

"I'm at the the top of my game in the CFL. I really think all the struggle I put in, playing football with my brother growing up, letting him beat me up in the backyard, it's really paid off."


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