By Jean DePlacido
---- — DANVERS — The Hour of Therapy open house at St. John’s Prep yesterday afternoon, to raise funds for former St. John’s Prep football player Jared Coppola, was an uplifting event.
Blue and white balloons decorated the entrance to the Milano Dining Hall on the campus of St. John’s Prep. Inside, a table was set up with Coppola’s No. 34 football jersey and Prep helmet. Friends, coaches, former teammates and several members of this past year’s Super Bowl champion team came out to support one of their own.
Coppola has made amazing progress since suffering a catastrophic injury in a football scrimmage four years ago during his junior season, in which he fractured his fifth cervial vertebra. Jared was paralyzed and initially the prognosis was not good, but he has defied all odds and walked to the podium yesterday afternoon without his walker. Instead, he used crutches with arm braces to tell his inspiring story as he prepares to spend the next two months doing intensive rehabilitation at the renowned Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Coppola thanked everyone for coming. He spoke about the recent surgery on his left leg to give him more balance and also what he hopes to accomplish in Atlanta.
“It’s great to see all these people,” said Coppola. “Everyone here has a relationship with St. John’s Prep. I want to thank them all because I really appreciate all the help.”
Coppola has received tremendous support from his extended family, the St. John’s community, and people across the North Shore. He is now ready to take the next step and return to the Shephed Center, where he spent over three months following his injury. He will be in the Beyond Therapy program, hoping to achieve his goal of walking without the help of a walker for longer periods of time and also to be able to stand without help.
The Shepherd Center is recognized as one of the top rehabilitation hospitals in the country. It specializes in treatment, research and rehabilitation for those who have suffered spinal cord or brain injuries.
Supporters came together yesterday to help with expenses not covered by insurance. A donation of $100 (the cost of an hour of therapy at the Shepherd Center) was requested at the event organized by his aunt, Robin Coppola Shelgren. The outpouring of support began long before the open house, when people began sending checks to Jared’s fund at the Reading Cooperative Bank in his hometown of North Reading.
Coppola will receive three hours of intensive therapy five days a week for the next two months. In addition, Jared will need food and lodging in Atlanta. Vinwood Catering, owned by the Delisle family, donated the refreshments for the open house, and former Prep captain Ryan Delisle came to support his former teammate.
“Seeing Jared walk to the podium and hearing him say he can’t wait to get out of his chair (to a standing ovation) was beautiful,” said Delisle, who now plays for Harvard. “He has come so far from that day when it happened. He’s a great kid and I know he is going to make even more progress because he works so hard.”
Students at St. John’s Prep raised money to help Jared and presented a check to cover the first 24 hours of therapy.
“I still remember the day it happened,” said Prep football captain Lucas Bavaro, who will play at Dartmouth in the fall. “Jared has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and we all wanted to come out to support him.”
Shelgren said she was very pleased with the large turnout and the support her nephew received. She said donations will provide funds to cover most, if not all, of his expenses.
The Coppola family will have a busy weekend coming up, with son Derek graduating from the University of New Hampshire on Saturday and daughter Brittni from Maryland on Sunday. After that, they’ll accompany Jared to Atlanta.
“The remarkable progress Jared has made is just incredible,” said St. John’s Prep football coach and athletic director Jim O’Leary. “That day when he got hurt on the field changed my life as a coach forever. I went to visit Jared in Atlanta when he first went to the Shepard Center, and now he is doing life changing things. His family, the North Reading and Prep communities are committed to helping him forever.”
Head assistant football coach Mike Barbati said the outpouring of support for Coppola was heartwarming.
“He’s excited to go back to Atlanta,” said Barbati. “Jared is such a hard worker and has such a great attitude. We are all rooting for him. It won’t be easy, and progress doesn’t come overnight, but he never stops working.”