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Medical turnback gives Air Force safety Garrett Kauppila an extra year of eligibility

Garrett Kauppila, U.S. Air Force Academy football team defensive back, lead their team onto the field for their first game of the season at Falcon Stadium on Sept. 2, 2017.

DENNIS HOFFMAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 8, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Garrett Kauppila’s collarbone couldn’t have snapped at a better time.

Sure, that sounds a bit bizarre — timing of football injuries is rarely seen as part of a bigger, perhaps divine, plan — but the Air Force safety can’t draw any other conclusions.

His season ended last year in the third game against San Diego State, so Kauppila was able to be where he wanted to be — at his brother’s hospital bedside as he began a long recovery from a nearly fatal motorcycle accident.

And, thanks to an NCAA redshirt and a medical turnback received after leaving the academy for a semester, Kauppila is still just a junior by eligibility and will have two more years to play.

“I was going to stick it out and stay here, because that’s what he would have wanted me to do,” Kauppila said. “And then when I broke my collarbone, it was like, hold on, there’s something bigger that is happening here. There’s a bigger picture going on. I need to listen to it. So I went home.”

Kauppila made eight tackles and forced a fumble at Michigan in the second game on Sept. 16. The next day, he learned his brother, Kyle, had been severely injured in California.

The next week for Kauppila was a whirlwind of little sleep, agonizing decisions and wishing he could be home with his family.

To put into perspective how close the brothers are, Kauppila wears No. 22 in tribute to their 22-month age gap.

When he was injured, the academy gave the approval for Kauppila to return to Northern California and miss the rest of the fall semester and delay his graduation until December 2019.

He parked a trailer in the hospital parking lot and didn’t leave for the next month and a half.

Garrett says Kyle is mostly better now, and the two were able to spend the past week together in Colorado Springs.

“I wouldn’t say like he’s completely himself,” Kauppila said. “But you could look at him now and never know he’s gone through what he has in the last 11 months.

“He’s not perfect, but he’s inspirational to everyone who sees him.”

Kauppila didn’t skip a beat academically by missing a semester, as he earned a 4.0 GPA in the spring and emerged from crowded competition to earn a two-month summer internship at Deloitte in Washington D.C.

The management major with aspirations to attend graduate school before serving as an acquisitions officer worked as a federal consultant on the internship, aiding in the supply-chain logistics on large projects such as revamping the presidential helicopter, Marine One.

As good as the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Kauppila looked on the football field in his brief time last year, he’s been far better as a student at the academy with a GPA hovering around 3.90.

“We’re fortunate to have him,” defensive backs coach John Rudzinski said. “As a young man he really carries himself with confidence. He’s sharp in the meeting room, and then he brings a good physicality to the game. Which is fun for us.”

The Falcons have two experienced safeties with Kauppila, plus junior James Jones IV, all of whom could team together for the next two seasons.

Coincidence or not, everything began to deteriorate defensively for Air Force around the time Kauppila was injured while blocking a punt against the Aztecs.

The Falcons gave up 36 points in the first five halves of the season. They gave up 125 points in the next five halves.

“The best part about it is I’m coming into this season with the mindset of a senior — this is my last hurrah, this is the White House year,” Kauppila said. “With all the guys I started with, this is our last. So I have that perspective that it’s all or nothing.

“But in the back of my mind it’s there that, wait, I still have another chance after that.”

©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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