Soccer

Coppola remains positive while battling genetic disease

The story of David Coppola, runner up in the USA TODAY HSS and Army National Guard Most Inspirational Athlete contest.

A sacrifice bunt in the middle of a regular season game is not a likely place to find an uplifting, heroic moment – especially for a standout athlete like Calvary Christian Academy (Pa.) senior David Coppola. But given the devastating diagnosis Coppola received his sophomore year, that single bunt inspired everyone who was at Somerton Fields that afternoon.

The runner up in the USA TODAY High School Sports and Army National Guard Most Inspirational Athlete contest, Coppola is not only a diehard fan and dedicated teammate – he has also excelled at practically every sport he’s tried.

“Since the time he was five years old he’s been playing sports: soccer, baseball, football, every season, basketball with the church league, and he always enjoyed being a part of that team,” his mother, Kim Coppola, said.

By sophomore year, Coppola was a two-way lineman for the Cougars football team.

“He was willing to do anything….he loved getting in the trenches,” head football coach Mike Reichenbach said.

He was also a tremendous baseball prospect.

“He was an all-star caliber catcher and hitter,” head baseball coach Darrell Benjamin said. “Knows the game of baseball, practices hard every day, playing in different leagues. Just putting the work in to be the best he could be."

But late in his sophomore year, Coppola’s parents discovered what several teachers, coaches, and fellow students had already noticed. In addition to a few physical problems (head-bobbing, mild tremors, and unsteady coordination) he was having difficulty in school.

When the tremors intensified and he became more withdrawn both at school and home, Kim Coppola took him for testing at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Two years earlier, Coppola’s older brother, Andrew, had been diagnosed with Niemann-Pick Disease at age 16. Now, also 16 years old, David received the same diagnosis.

Niemann-Pick is genetic disease that causes an abnormal buildup of lipids (fats) in various organs. It is divided into three categories. Type “A” emerges in infants, Type “B” affects older children and adults, and those with Type “C,” such as David and his brother, become symptomatic any time from birth to maturity.

According to the National Niemann-Pick Disease Foundation, “Generally, the later neurological symptoms begin, the slower the progression of the disease.” Types A and C are ultimately fatal.

“David’s symptoms came on very fast and furious,” Kim Coppola said. “We were able to get them under control with some medication.”

The diagnosis meant that Coppola could no longer play varsity football for Calvary Christian, but he remained a part of the Cougars team, coaching up and cheering on his teammates.

“When he was diagnosed he took it on with that same passion and purpose and said ‘I’m not going to let this impact what I do,’” said Reichenbach. “It impacted him physically, he had to back out of [football] because of the contact, he wasn’t allowed to do that, but we wanted him to be a part of it because what he brought was bigger than his physical ability. It was his love for the kids he played with, his perspective on life.”

Despite giving up football, Coppola was not yet ready to walk away from his first love, baseball. Even as his coordination and motor functions slowly deteriorated, Coppola played on the junior varsity team in 2013 and was brought up to the varsity level for the postseason. As a senior, he again made the varsity team, but Coach Benjamin was reluctant to play him.

“I had to have the hardest conversation I’ve had as a coach in 16 years,” Benjamin said. “To say ‘David, you’re as much a part of this team as anyone else but there now comes in a safety factor for you being in the field, being able to judge a fly ball and catch it, to throwing the ball, receiving the ball, etc.’”

Still, Coppola remained a valuable part of the team. In the right situations, Benjamin inserted Coppola into the lineup. During the 2014 season, he played a few innings in the outfield, even hauling in the occasional fly ball. And when the Cougars faced rival Plumstead Christian in late April, Benjamin pinch-hit Coppola.

“I put him into the game with a man on first and he knew it was a sacrifice [situation],” Benjamin said. “You pray that he sees the ball and is able to put contact on it. He dropped the bunt down, they were gonna let it go foul, and it just spun 360 degrees on the baseline and stayed fair and he ended up being safe.”

The crowd roared with delight. But Coppola’s moment in the spotlight wasn’t over yet. The next batter in the Cougar lineup hit a ground ball to the shortstop, but the savvy senior thwarted an easy 6-4-3 double-play.

“David made a great slide and took the second baseman out, just like a pro would, he broke the play up perfectly,” his father, Brian Coppola, said. “As bad as things are for him, he doesn’t care, he’s all about trying to help the team win. He does whatever he can….I’m the proudest dad in the world.”

Coppola’s coaches, teammates, teachers, and now his fellow students are just as proud. Especially following theMost Inspirational Athlete contest.

“What was fun about this USA TODAY contest was a lot of our [students] didn’t really know what was going on with him, they knew something was going on but they didn’t know the specifics,” Coppola’s former math teacher Heather Beck said. “So what was neat about this was they started asking questions. So we could tell them, and that made it even more inspiring because then they understood. When they realized that I think it makes his personality and the way he’s so positive all the time, even more amazing.”

Coppola’s playing career has come to an end due to his condition, but with his passion for sports and knowledge of the games, he’s a natural coach and teacher of the finer points.

For several years, he and his brother have coached little league in Bristol Township, and along with local high school football players, they have also been a part of the Buck County Challengers, a Sunday morning flag-football team made up of special-needs kids in the area.  

“I say every day my motive is to wake up and have a smile on my face,” said Coppola, who after high school plans to attend classes at nearby Bucks County Community College in Newton, PA. “That gives me the reward, knowing that I can go out there, some children in wheelchairs can’t, some kids are disabled more than I am….it just brings joy to my face, I’m just happy.”