By Will Burchfield
It was 3:56 on a Tuesday afternoon and Brandon Copeland was walking into a massage. He was due to be paid by the Tennessee Titans in four minutes, his reward for another hard week of work in the NFL.
He could almost feel himself beginning to relax.
Then his phone rang.
It was the Titans calling.
Calling to tell Copeland he had been released.
“So now it’s funny,” Copeland explained, “my family knows in-season, don’t call me on Tuesday until after 4 p.m.”
It’s a story and a stipulation to which most of his peers can relate. It speaks to the instability of NFL existence, the precariousness of making a living in a bottom-line business. The grass may seem greener for NFL players, but the ground beneath them is ever liable to cave in.
“So you just can never feel comfortable,” Copeland said. “You never know what they’re thinking upstairs.”
Copeland, entering his second season with the Detroit Lions, understands this as well as anyone. He has been released five times in his short NFL career, picked up and let go like a puppy in a pet store. After being cut by the Titans in September of 2014 –- the third time they had jettisoned him in less than a year –- Copeland decided his next shot would be his last.
That came at the veteran combine in March of 2015.
If the draft combine is an exhibition of potential, the veteran combine is a display of desperation. The cast-offs and the has-beens line up to sell themselves one final time as scouts look on and appraise the debris. Like sifting through a dumpster, there is rarely much to be found.
But Copeland, then 23, stood out. He garnered interest from a number of teams and signed with the Lions a month later. Then he stood out again in the preseason, ultimately making the team due to his versatility on both defense and special teams. When the 2015 season came to a close, Copeland had played in all 16 games, registering 14 tackles and a half-sack.
Not bad for a guy who was out of a job the year prior.
So the Lions brought him back for 2016, refining his role to boot. Where last year Copeland split time between linebacker and defensive end, this year he will be featured strictly as an end. He’ll still log time on special teams – the Lions love him there – but for maybe the first time in his career Copeland can home in on a single position.
“This year is good. I can just focus on defensive end and my job and my responsibility,” he said.
The clarity has helped. Copeland has impressed the coaching staff through training camp and preseason, taking nicely to his newly-defined role.
“One of the things about him is the fact that he’s versatile,” Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously that’s what’s allowed him to adjust from a stand-up position to one where he’s got his hand in the dirt a little bit more often. He’s a guy that can run, he’s got strength, he’s smart.
“This is not an easy game. It’s hard, it’s tough, it’s a fast-moving game that you have to consistently work at to get better, and I think he’s doing that.”
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin echoed that sentiment.
“He’s really competing out there for a spot and the nice thing is because he can run, he’s so fast, he still gives us some specialty and flexibility as well. I think Brandon’s had a pretty good camp,” Austin said.
In Copeland’s eyes, though, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“To be honest with you, me personally, I haven’t played the way I want to play yet, so I’m very disgusted with the way I’m playing,” he said.
Copeland later backed off from this statement, explaining he’s his own harshest critic and that he still feels he’s doing his job within the defense. But it speaks to his insatiable desire to improve, to push the bar higher and higher, a sense of ambition brought on by his past.
“In my own experience, I guess, with my roller coaster ride through the NFL, and my practice squad years, I always joke with my friends and family that as soon as I felt comfortable, as soon as I started planning something two weeks out, that’s when I got a call that I got cut,” Copeland said.
During Copeland’s second tint with the Titans, his family was organizing a trip down from Baltimore to watch him play. They had the dates arranged and their flights picked out. The next day, Copeland was released.
“Luckily we didn’t book the flights,” he laughed.
That episode led to a family superstition, whereby the Copelands only use a certain airline that doesn’t charge a fee for late cancellations. (The airline shall go unnamed, in case Copeland wants to cash in on an endorsement deal). Copeland’s numerous setbacks, meanwhile, have filled his mother with an unshakeable sense of concern.
Last week, he called her during some down time. Like any good son, he just wanted to chat.
The moment she picked up the phone, Copeland said, “I could hear it in her voice, her getting nervous – like, ‘Everything okay? What are you calling me for?’”
“Damn, Mom,” Copeland laughed, amused by her worry. “I’m just calling to check in on you.”
With the Lions’ final cut day looming, Mrs. Copeland shouldn’t have to fret. Her son is all but a lock to make the team, likely as the fourth defensive end.
Just don’t expect Copeland to acknowledge that himself.
“Like I said, I’m trying to earn a spot. The day I start looking at is as I have a spot or I get comfortable, that’s the day that I don’t have a spot,” he explained.
So Copeland is keeping his head down and his ear to the grindstone. His next chance to impress the Lions’ coaching staff will come Saturday in his hometown of Baltimore, where Copeland began his NFL career.
The Ravens released him three years ago and now Copeland has a chance to settle the score.
“This is the week I’ve dreamed of for a long, long time, since the first time they cut me,” he said. “It’s a preseason game, but I’m gonna get up for it.”
Ultimately, though, Copeland will be fueled by the knowledge that he is never secure, that the ground beneath him is fraught with peril.
“I don’t ever wanna get myself comfortable on the field where I think that tomorrow’s promised,” he said.
And perhaps that’s why, for the first time in his career, it seems like it is.