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December 19, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Had things transpired a little differently, one of the most special seasons in the University of Alabama football program's vaunted history might not have been.
Had Auburn recruited Valley High School defensive end John Copeland with a little more vigor, the first-team All-American might have spent his collegiate career on the Plains instead of at the Capstone.
"I grew up an Auburn fan," Copeland said. "But Auburn wasn't recruiting me as hard as Alabama, and then when I did get a chance to go down there I didn't get the same feeling as I did when I went to Alabama."
Copeland fell in love with Alabama when he and his high school teammate, Lemanski Hall, went together on an official visit. But official visits might be the only part of today's recruiting process that remotely resemble college recruiting in the late 1980s.
"The way they do things now, we couldn't even fathom anything like that when I was coming out," Copeland said. "It was a late process for most of us. I didn't start getting recruited until probably midway through my senior year. And it was mostly Southern teams. Nowadays you've got teams coming out of the woodworks because of the Internet. You can recruit all across the country now. Back then it wasn't so because it was so expensive for these teams to travel so far. The recruiting process was a whole lot slower.
"We went up there on an official visit and, man, we just fell in love with the place. We got a chance to talk to all the coaches, got an opportunity to just see the atmosphere of Alabama, and I was sold. Steve Webb, who was actually my host at the time, made sure we enjoyed ourselves."
Alabama actually had to reel Copeland in twice to get him on campus.
After not qualifying academically coming out of his senior year, he played two years of junior college football in Mississippi. It was a blessing in disguise, Copeland said, because it taught him to compete at the next level and also how to be a man. It also meant the Crimson Tide had to re-recruit the 6-foot-3, 261-pounder.
"I reopened my commitment," Copeland said. "When I went down to Mississippi, it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I looked at Tennessee, I went down to Miami. There was about four to five different schools that I seriously looked at."
The Alabama coaching staff, which had a changeover between the Bill Curry and Gene Stallings regimes, kept in contact and made another push for Copeland's signature. That effort, along with the persistence of one UA assistant coach, made all the difference.
"Alabama was recruiting me the hardest out of all of them, especially Mike DuBose," Copeland said. "He was very aggressive. He just told me how fortunate I would be to play for Alabama and not how fortunate Alabama would be for me to play for them."
The rest is history, as Copeland compiled 130 tackles, 17.5 sacks and 36 quarterback pressures in his two years at Alabama, culminating in a bucket-load of individual awards and a national championship his senior season.
Now it has come full circle for Copeland: His son, Jaevon Walton, is going through the recruiting process as a junior running back and linebacker at Tuscaloosa Academy.
"The one thing I want to pass along to him is that it's bigger than just football," Copeland said. "Football is one aspect of it, but it's a whole lot bigger than that."
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.