If Winston Churchill were alive, and happened to root for the Missouri football team, perhaps he’d call Max Copeland a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma stuffed in a mountain man’s soul.
A lot of people never see past the shoulder-length red mane and bushy, unkempt beard or the oozing wound that never heals on the bridge of his nose.
“He could star in the movie ‘Braveheart,’
” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He would just walk in and they’d hire him right now.”
Copeland came to Missouri as a walk-on, was told he’d never see the field, yet worked his way into a starting role the last two seasons. He’s charismatic and presents a rebellious image, but being a Tiger is all he ever wanted to be.
Now, as Copeland prepares for his final college game, he’s improbably left an indelible imprint on the program he’s loved since childhood.
Around the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex, Copeland — a 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior left guard from Billings, Mont. — cuts an imposing figure, striding through the halls in his Motorhead T-shirt with a gallon jug of water in his hand.
“People always look really scared of me on campus,” he said. “I wish beards and long hair were more accepted in our society, but they’re not. I would hope people saw me as warm, but I think people probably just see me as a crazed mountain man, which I think I’ll have to live with.”
While Copeland has embraced his rock ’n’ roll image, when he speaks, there’s an eloquence that belies the blare of his head-banger appearance.
He talks about self-actualization and fundamental laws of nature, describing the offensive line’s cohesion as “single cells in a petri dish coalescing into a single organism.”
Copeland’s enthusiasm and wit also readily shine through, whether he’s opining that Missouri left tackle Justin Britt’s daughter, Navy, seems perpetually terrified of “Uncle Max” or lamenting the fact that dogs won’t let him pet them, “which is a shame because I love dogs.”
Of course, there’s still more depth to Copeland, a physics major who played bass in his high school orchestra. For his senior solo, a clean-cut, tuxedoed Copeland performed “Elephas Maximus,” a rare concerto for the stand-up bass.
“And he was awesome,” his mother, Joanne, said.
His methodical and disciplined side led him to ditch journalism and it’s varying shades of gray for physics and its certainty, which also feeds into his contemplative nature.
“He definitely has a very quiet side and a very gentle side, which we get to see,” Joanne said. “But that’s obviously not his football persona.”
Copeland’s brash persona isn’t an act, at least not completely. He’s always been larger than life.
“Even as a baby, his personality was always very big,” Joanne said. “When he would walk into a room, even as a little, little kid, it was as though he commanded attention.”
Copeland would jam to George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” as a 2-year-old, rocking out on his toy saxophone wearing only a diaper.
He also was eager for neighborhood adventures and frequently bolted out the door and down the middle of the street — again in nothing but his diaper — clutching a tube of Crest in one hand.
“He would grab a tube of toothpaste, which was his favorite snack food, and just charge off into the great beyond with no fears,” Max’s father, Mike, said. “We really had to look after him, otherwise he would escape.”
Mike was born and raised in Kansas City. He graduated from Truman High School in 1977 and later graduated from Missouri.
Max was also born in Kansas City, but the Copeland family moved to Billings in March 2004 when he was in seventh grade.
Being uprooted from his school and friends didn’t sit well at first, but once Max found a niche with the eighth-grade football team things started to click into place.
“Up until that point, I don’t think he liked the move,” Mike said.
“He thought we ruined his life,” Joanne added.
Eventually, Copeland morphed into one of the most popular students at Billings West High School. He was the student body vice president and a rabble-rousing, student-section cheerleader during basketball season.
Dressed in black tights with a golden cape and mask, Max would rabble-rouse during basketball games and “got thrown out a couple times for some off-color chants,” Mike said.
But the school’s administrators never caught on to another of Max’s tricks.
“They would have these giant posters to hold up that would say, ‘Support the troops’ and ‘USA’ on the front, but on the back it would say the other team sucks or things about the administrators,” Mike said. “Only the other fans could see what the signs really said and thought they were hilarious.”
These days, Copeland says Montana is where his “spirit was born,” an at-times ornery but generally jovial and good-natured spirit, but the love for Missouri football he had growing up never diminished despite the distance and years.
Of course, there’s something of an unwritten rule in Montana that the state’s best high school football players attend either the University of Montana or Montana State, so Copeland’s decision to spurn the Grizzlies, who offered him a scholarship, and walk on at Missouri wasn’t well-received.
“I always made it really clear that Missouri has always been my dream, and I’m not saying that for effect,” Copeland said. “Truly, before anything I knew, that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It felt like a calling.”
That didn’t matter to many folks in Montana, some of whom called Copeland stupid for heading out of state.
“It’s really bucking the system if you do that, and it did not make people happy, including his high school coach,” Mike said.
In fact, Montana’s defensive coordinator at the time, Kraig Paulson, drove six hours to Billings to berate Copeland in person the day after accepted a preferred walk-on spot at Missouri.
“(Paulson) had him taken out of class by his counselor, thinking this was a recruiting visit,” Mike said. “He pretty much said, ‘You’re making a huge mistake. You will never play at Missouri. You will never see the field. You are not in their plans. I thought you liked football. I thought you were serious.’
Paulson’s heated diatribe lasted more than a half-hour.
“He told me I’d be a blocking dummy for five years and that essentially I was ruining my life, but it really reaffirmed my decision,” Copeland said. “That’s what rock ’n’ roll is all about. It’s not about following the money and the steak dinners and the glitter.
“I know the rock ’n’ roll thing is cute to a lot of people, but it’s truly embedded in my spirit. That was a big part of the first phase of this process and self-actualizing who I wanted to be here. It was the first time I really had to defend my commitment, and I knew I would have to defend my decision a million more times, but that was the first step in proving I was committed to this idea that I had.”
The surest way to motivate Copeland is to tell him he’s sure to fail, a fact Missouri’s coaches also learned.
“Don’t tell him he can’t do something,” Pinkel said. “‘You’re not going to get a scholarship here.’ Well, he got a scholarship. ‘You’re not going to play here.’ Well, he played here. ‘You’re not going to start here.’ Well, he’s starting here, and he had a real good year. That’s the message of Max Copeland.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy, especially after Copeland tore his hamstring two weeks before preseason camp his redshirt freshman year.
“His leg was purple,” Mike said. “He could barely put weight on it, but he was convinced that if he wasn’t able to go they would cut him, so he played through it even though it was incredibly painful for him. He was of the mindset that ‘I just need to survive today.’
It led to a Samson complex.
“He had been there six weeks and had survived every single day,” Mike said. “That’s as far as he would ever look and then realized it was time to get a haircut, but he remembered he had cut it right before camp and he had survived all the days without cutting his hair. He told himself, ‘By golly, I’m not going to cut it and we’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll continue to survive.’
Copeland admits that his confidence was low those first few years, so he probably overcompensated with the rock ’n’ roll persona and excessive enthusiasm.
Still, Copeland — long hair and all — not only survived, but he began to thrive.
Last season, Copeland started 11 games at right guard, then won the starting spot at left guard as a senior, starting 11 of 13 games. He missed the Indiana game with a sprained ankle and played on a limited basis against Arkansas State the following week.
“Max has a tremendous work ethic,” Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “What people don’t give him enough credit for is that he’s a guy who’s worked his way into becoming a player at this level. He leads by example. I know he’s very flamboyant and he gets out in front and he’s got the long hair and the cut-up nose, but the thing that backs all that up is the way that he works. There’s not anybody that outworks him.”
After surviving those first three seasons, Copeland has become an integral part of the Tigers’ success. He’s also learned to strike a balance between heavy metal-crazed berserker and inspirational teammate.
“Last year, we talked to Max about how some of the rock ’n’ roll stuff is good,” Henson said. “It’s good to have enthusiasm, but if you’re that way all the time people stop listening to you, so you’ve got to pick and choose your opportunities to lead. I think he’s been perfect this year.”
It hasn’t been easy and remains a work in progress.
“It’s a really difficult balance that’s taken me the full five years to — I haven’t even perfected it yet, just to get it as good as it’s going to be,” Max said. “It’s about finding that perfect balance of intensity and controlled chaos. Still, each day, that’s the challenge.”
Much of Copeland’s leadership comes by example. He’s relentless in the weight room.
“This offseason, he really helped me become more of an animal in the weight room, so to speak,” senior left tackle Justin Britt said. “His attitude and the way he presents himself is something we can all take something from.”
Copeland, who was voted Missouri’s most inspirational player, also was a tireless worker on the practice field.
“He brings the attitude of having fun and the attitude of coming out here getting better every single day,” said sophomore Evan Boehm, who’s been known to engage Copeland in rap battles on the sideline during games. “Every time he steps out on the field, he works to get better. When you see a guy like that, that makes you want to get better each and every day.”
Of course, Copeland’s example isn’t only for his Tigers teammates. As a finalist for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given to the top former walk-on in the nation, he’s an inspiration to players battling for a scholarship like he once did.
“The kids who got picked last for two-hand touch football, that was me,” Copeland said. “The kid that didn’t get picked first for kickball, that was me. But I didn’t really have a dude that I could look up to and say, ‘Hey, he got picked last, but he ended up being OK.’ I wanted to be that example.”
Copeland’s journey is classic chaos theory, or the butterfly effect as it’s commonly known. As his time with Missouri draws to a close, it’s impossible to gloss over the impact — improbable as it was to predict five years ago — that he’s had on the program.
“You put in these small initial conditions and it sends your function on a widely divergent (path),” Copeland said. “I feel very humbled and I feel very best blessed that things that could have gone wrong didn’t, the things that shouldn’t have gone right did.”