'Professor Cope': NFL linebacker's offseason job? Teaching 'Life 101'

ByMichael Rothstein ESPN logo
Thursday, February 28, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- When Brandon Copeland steps in the classroom at the University of Pennsylvania, he isn't viewed as a New York Jets linebacker heading to free agency next month. He isn't seen as a Wharton graduate returning to his alma mater.

In front of these 30 students, he is something else.

He is Professor Cope.

This is a first for the 27-year-old and a rarity for an active NFL player. From 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every Monday, Copeland works at the offseason job: co-professor of URBS 140, Inequity and Empowerment, Urban Financial Literacy along with Dr. Brian Peterson, the director of Makku, Penn's Black Cultural Center.

The course Copeland nicknamed "Life 101" was his own creation, a practical usage class to give financial information to college students who might not otherwise have it.

"I don't care if you're an engineering student, a nursing student, if you're going to build rockets when you grow up or if you're going to sweep floors. You're going to have to use something in this class," Copeland said. "And you can't say that for every class at Penn. Every student. Every major.

"Even if you don't go to college, you're going to use something in this class. Your credit is going to matter."

He's an unorthodox professor without the degrees but with the chops to teach college students. Growing up in a middle-class household in Baltimore, he attended the prestigious Gilman School primarily on scholarship and worked at a local hedge fund. During his first year at Penn, he worked night shift as a stock boy at Walmart. Then came internships at UBS and an NFL offseason job as a data analyst at Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisers on Wall Street. He opened a real estate company last year.

Copeland did all that while playing full time in the NFL, where he's coming off the best season of his career. As a result, students listen when he explains the difference between traditional 401Ks and Roth IRAs, what a 403B is and varying tax rates.

In this class, he isn't interested in the complicated formulas he learned as an undergrad. He's trying to impart knowledge that students will need to make intelligent decisions when they get their first jobs, buy their first cars and find their first homes.

The way Copeland teaches is different than how your average professor teaches, but your average professor hasn't made more than $2.86 million in the NFL. Not that Copeland's students necessarily care. They see the authentic passion he brings. He's raw. He's open.

He doesn't just teach the class; he's an active participant in discussions and sometimes an oversharer -- like when he told them that he used a photo of Kim Kardashian as motivation in high school. A few years ago, he was one of them, sitting in lectures and getting ready for adulthood. He knows what they are experiencing, and he understands what they are about to go through.

"I was kind of shocked how good of a professor he was," sophomore Mark Jackson said. "I didn't go in with any expectations, but he's a very, very smart guy, and you can just tell it by listening to him. He knows what he's talking about, and he's obviously willing to learn.

"He's not going to say he knows things that he doesn't, but at the same time, he really knows a lot."

Copeland's ability to engage others has always been a strength. It makes it easy for him to navigate a locker room or a board room. It's one of the things Peterson was most concerned with -- and relieved by. Copeland knows he isn't an expert. He admits that to the class. He says if he doesn't know something, they'll research and learn it together.

As much as possible, he emphasizes that in finance, the right decision for one person can be the wrong one for another.

"The point of this class isn't for me to tell you how to spend your money," Copeland tells his class. "It's for you to understand what spending your money is doing for you."

The idea of the class started two years ago, when Copeland drove around Detroit with two Lions teammates looking at potential real estate investments. As they did, they shared their financial and fiscal responsibility experiences.

Lamenting what they learned and didn't learn in college, one of his teammates said he would have loved to take a class that walked him through the financial information he knows now and wished he knew then: taxes, budgets, investing, retirement plans, renting versus buying homes, leasing versus purchasing cars.

It would have saved him a lot of mistakes in his early 20s.

"He's saying this," Copeland said, "and I'm like, 'That's a class that everybody should have.' Like, it doesn't just involve the players. How is your school going to pick out, 'You're going to the NFL, you're going to the NFL, so this is for you'?

"Like, that's a class that everybody should have. Just because we're players, he wasn't saying it in a negative way -- he was just wishing all the money and time he wasted, if he was better prepared, he would do that."

The day ended. The idea stuck. Already well-versed in finance, Copeland realized an opportunity and a way to give back to the place that did so much for him, a way to make sure those who come after him don't make the same mistakes as their predecessors.

He brought the idea to Penn and didn't initially get approved. Last May, he ran into Peterson during his five-year reunion at a Penn Black Alumni Society function. They met when Copeland was an undergrad through friends who took classes with him.

Copeland explained his idea for the class and some of the struggles he had launching it. As he talked, Peterson's mind spun. He had contemplated a similar thing and heard stories similar to Copeland's.

"A lot of people just don't have these conversations," Peterson said. "So that was something where, when I put all these pieces together, let's put something on paper. Just workshopping it and figure out where we can go."

The next day, Peterson shared an extensive Google document of ideas with Copeland. The conversations began -- first weekly, then daily. Peterson asked Ivy Sole, a student who also knew Copeland, to assist in creating the class.

The three built the class. Peterson didn't have time to construct the curriculum. Copeland, a neophyte professor, didn't have the academic background. It became Sole's responsibility to construct the syllabus based on the input and ideas of the two co-professors.

This went on last spring and summer until Copeland left for training camp. They went over each session and what information was too basic or advanced for what they were trying to do.

They didn't know if it was going to happen, despite their relentless positivity. But in October, Peterson figured out a way. He added an inequities aspect, linking social issues and social justice with the concepts of financial literacy. It was a pairing neither Copeland nor Peterson initially thought of, but they realized it meshed well.

After that, Peterson presented their plan to the Urban Studies department at Penn. In October, days before the class book for the spring semester came out, the course was approved as a full-credit pilot program.

Peterson texted Copeland, who responded with gif after gif and meme after meme: fireworks exploding, kids dancing -- so many in a row that Peterson laughed and told him to stop.

Copeland was in the middle of a 35-tackle, five-sack season. The class gave him another major off-the-field accomplishment.

It was the first day of class, and Copeland was nervous. Being in front of a room full of students was stressful for a first-time teacher who, even though he doesn't come off as such, is uncomfortable speaking in public.

He didn't know if the students would relate to him or if he'd die at the front of the room like a bad stand-up comic on stage. He's always confident, but here he questioned everything. What if he didn't know the material well enough? Would his icebreaker jokes go over? What if the course wasn't the unique experience he hoped?

Ten years ago, as a Penn student, he couldn't have imagined being up here, in front of students, lecturing. Yet here he was about to go in. He put on his headphones, with J. Cole and Meek Mill coursing through his body. It was a mode that felt familiar: competition, like fall Sundays.

"That was like going into a game, actually," Copeland said. "The nervous butterflies of how you have this dream, this experiment. It was like my first camp. Like, this is my baby. I think people on the outside don't understand how much time, energy and effort. Like, this is my thing."

He's spending seven to 10 hours per week putting together his slides, running through his presentations and collaborating on ideas for larger group projects, including hopefully having his students go to middle schools and high schools in Philadelphia to teach the material they've learned during the semester.

Copeland is involved in every aspect of what's going on: checking every email, logging into the university's class portal to communicate with students and reading their essays. He is the one communicating with Peterson, Sole and teaching assistant Leslie Hicks daily about everything. They even built in a strategy so Copeland can keep teaching when he signs with a team, given that he could be around the corner or across the country.

The first class, he asked his students what careers they wanted to have. Then they looked up the average salary for those professions and started working with a budget template that he based on what rookies in the NFL receive. They could input numbers to understand how much of that average salary they would likely earn.

By the end, the nerves dissipated. He felt like a professor, like he belonged.

"We literally walked through it," Copeland said. "That was throwing in cold water for a lot of people in the class. It is about what I'm teaching -- that's important -- but it's also about how I'm teaching it."

Copeland is the one who came up with the part of every class called "Who Are You?" in which students have to stand up and talk for two to five minutes to someone in the class they don't know. It's a way to foster better class conversation -- and teach students how to network in social situations, a crucial business and life skill. Copeland considers the classroom a safe space where every idea is welcomed and every experience is heard. Together, they all grow.

Even though they are co-teaching, Peterson says Copeland is the lead instructor. He's the one who starts each class, teaching for around 90 minutes before Peterson teaches for about 70.

"Brandon is the reason why this class exists. Brandon is the reason why this class is being taught, because he is the one teaching it," Sole said. "Brandon had the idea. Brandon found the right people to support him to execute his vision.

"Brandon is currently living out the vision in the form of teaching the class."

Copeland doesn't really want to teach. He has no interest in becoming a tenured-track professor at Penn or anywhere, though he's already excited about bringing the class back to Penn next spring (it is not an option in the fall semester because of football).

He views this class -- and what he's teaching -- as part of a larger plan. Most of his off-the-field pursuits have been similar, from his businesses to his foundation to his football camps. As part of the camp, participants load backpacks full of school supplies for kids in Baltimore, and the camp, unbeknownst to the kids, is partially worked by police officers to help foster better relationships between the city's police department and its residents.

For Copeland, all of this is about giving back and getting the knowledge out. He jokes that "we're trying to build an empire." The class is just one part of that -- and even then, he'd love to see the concept grow to more schools on more grade levels.

"The goal for me is to make this information accessible to everyone, some way or somehow," he said. "And then, long term, hopefully that actually shrinks the wealth gap. So that might sound outrageous, but I don't care. It's outrageous to make it to the NFL, right? So you know, again, that's the long game.

"The long game is to get this information in as many hands as possible, and this is Brandon Copeland's way of helping the world."

One mind, one semester, one city at a time.

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