'This will be a little bit different:' Air Force's Coppola on playing in New Mexico
By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: September 28, 2017
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Coming from a small school in oft-overlooked New Mexico, Santo Coppola feared Division I schools wouldn’t come knocking on his door.
So he knocked on theirs.
During his junior year at Santa Fe’s St. Michael's High School, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end flooded colleges with emails of interest and links to his highlights.
Then he waited.
Finally, it was Air Force that called.
“I was ecstatic,” said Coppola, who will return for his final game in his home state when the Falcons visit New Mexico on Saturday. “I was like, ‘Big D1 team talking to me. I’ve got to keep my cool. Play it cool. Make them think I’ve got 10 other offers on the table.’”
One offer not on the table was from the Lobos, the team Coppola grew up supporting.
“I would have liked to go there,” he said. “I would have like to have gone anywhere. But once I got the offer from Air Force, I knew this was the place for me.”
Coppola wasted little time in committing to the Falcons. An official offer was extended to him at the end of his official visit, with the request that he let the coaches know the next day where he was leaning.
He called on the drive home to accept.
“He is a great fit at the Air Force Academy,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “He is a very, very strong leader for us. Fortunately he’s here at the academy, and it’s been quite beneficial for Santo, too, in terms of the way he’s grown as a young man and the quality of the education that he’s able to earn here and the influence. You talk about fervor and energy and love and respect for others, and a guy that’s very magnetic, not necessarily trying to be overly charismatic. By what’s real on the inside of him, he’s as good as they come.”
Coppola has appeared in 29 games, starting five games as a sophomore, two as a junior and all three this season. Only inside linebackers Grant Ross and Jack Flor have more than his 54 career tackles among current Falcons. Coppola also has 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a forced fumble. He made six tackles at Michigan, topping his former career high of five tackles set in front of more than 40 friends and family in his first trip to New Mexico in 2015.
The Falcons anticipated a big year from the senior, particularly as he moved from defensive tackle to defensive end. The move, they reasoned, would allow him to utilize the all-around athleticism that he displayed in high school as a multisport participant in basketball, baseball and a thrower in track. He cut about 15 pounds from his frame to make the move.
“He has really worked to get his body right, his technique right,” defensive line coach Tim Cross said in August. “He’s worked on improving as a leader, improving as a pass rusher. Staying healthy, I think he has a chance to have a big year.”
Coppola knows the importance of this game, and not simply because he’s making his farewell appearance in a home state.
The Falcons have given up 45, 31, 47 and 45 points to the Lobos and their fast-paced triple-option offense over the past four years, going 1-3 in those games. Air Force (1-2, 0-1 Mountain West) hasn’t defeated New Mexico (2-2, 0-1) away from the academy since 2012.
The Falcons are in dire need of a victory, too, after losing to nationally ranked opponents Michigan and San Diego State over the past two weeks and with a trip to unbeaten Navy looming Oct. 7.
“There’s no time for looking back or looking ahead, we have to focus on them because they’re just as good a test as the last two,” Coppola said. “We’re not going to shut down just because we lost a couple of games, we’re going to keep pushing ahead.”
Coppola holds no ill will toward the Lobos for not grabbing him out of a 3A (out of 5A) program just up the road. He had conversations with the program, but it “just didn’t work out.” He just wanted to play at the highest level and is happy he found a route to make that happen.
An emotional leader for the Falcons, there’s no doubt where his allegiances fall. But, he said, a small part of him will always represent the state that produces only a dozen or so Division 1 players in most years.
“In my opinion it’s a hidden gem,” Coppola said. “There’s some great players there, it’s just hard to get noticed sometimes.”
He got himself noticed. He left. And now he’s returning to say goodbye.
“Going home will be fun,” Coppola said. “I look forward to every game, but this will be a little bit different.”