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Publish date: Feb 2, 2011

A scholarship for a different reason

By Bill Sanders

Jake Nicolopulos was eight weeks away from the biggest day of his young life. National Signing Day doesn’t mean a lot to those who don’t follow college football religiously. But for those who do, it’s the biggest day of the off-season.

And the Nicolopulos family, to put it mildly, follows college football.

Photo of Jake Nicolopulos by Gary Meek, courtesy of Shepherd Center.

When Signing Day 2010 finally arrived, Jake did exactly what he always envisioned. He signed his letter of intent to play for Clemson and faxed it to the Tigers’ football offices.

But a lot happened in those eight weeks between Dec. 9, 2009, and Feb. 3, 2010 – enough that Clemson was now offering Jake a scholarship not for what he might mean to the team, but because of what he had already meant to the program.

Because by Feb. 3, 2010, it was clear that Jake was never going to play football at Clemson or anywhere. Jake, one of the top 30 middle linebackers in the country, experienced a massive stroke on Dec. 9, 2009. A couple of days before Christmas, he was admitted for brain-injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center in Atlanta. There, he would start the long road back to being able to walk, dress himself and, little by little, talk again.

Jake, 19, of Anderson, S.C., grew up just a few miles from Clemson’s Memorial Stadium known as “Death Valley.” His mom, Ann Louise Nicolopulos, graduated from Clemson and his sister, Gina Nicolopulos, is a junior at Clemson now. Jake’s father, Craig Nicolopulos, played football at Fresno State. But there was no split allegiance for Jake. He’d grown up going to Clemson games, and he knew early on that his dream was to run onto that field, wearing the orange and purple, and play football in front of more than 80,000 people.

Turns out, Clemson had the same dream.

Photo of Jake Nicolopulos and his family at the Clemson University football stadium by Gary Meek, courtesy of Shepherd Center.

In 2009, Jake was one of the best middle linebackers in the country. He was bigger and stronger than most high school linebackers and was as football-smart as anyone Clemson was recruiting. The two were so fond of each other that Clemson offered a scholarship, and Jake unofficially accepted while he was just a junior in high school. Other schools wanted Jake to consider their program. He had no interest.

“He was a terrific player,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, “a 6-2, 235-pound linebacker who could run. He fit into our system because he was a MIKE linebacker, and we needed a MIKE linebacker. And he was so smart in his approach to the game.

“Jake was the second player to commit in our class, and it was a dream of his to play at Clemson. We signed an outstanding class that day, but getting his fax was the highlight,” Swinney added.

That’s because a couple of months earlier, doctors weren’t sure Jake would live to see Signing Day. On Dec. 8, 2009, Jake went to bed with a headache that was a little worse than migraines he’d had before. When he woke up the next morning, still feeling a little weird, he got dressed for school – a little dressier than normal because a Clemson coach was coming to see him that day. But before he left, standing just down the hall from his parents, he had a stroke.

Photo of Jake Nicolopulos at the Clemson University football stadium by Gary Meek, courtesy of Shepherd Center.

“He came down the hall, turned the corner, and the look on his face was a look of fear, like a deer in the headlights,” Ann said. “My husband, Craig, and I both jumped up and said, ‘Jake, Jake, what’s wrong?’ He couldn’t speak. His speech was the first thing that left him. Craig got him on the floor so he could lift his knees above his head to get the blood flowing again. His right leg fell right back down. We called 911, and Jake was fading in and out, and we were begging him to stay with us. I thought I was losing my kid. I was begging God, please let him be OK.”

Jake spent a couple of weeks at an Anderson, S.C., hospital. Doctors didn’t expect him to live at first. Even after a craniotomy to relieve the swelling in his brain, his condition was touch and go for a while. Eventually, he was transported to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the nation’s top-ranked rehabilitation centers for brain and spinal cord injuries.

Jake received every type of therapy imaginable – occupational therapy; speech, language and cognitive therapy; recreational therapy; and grueling, rigorous physical therapy.

While he was undergoing rehabilitation, Swinney, Clemson Athletics Director Terry Don Phillips and other coaches came to visit.

“Clemson was so great to Jake,” Ann said. “Coach Swinney had a helmet and jersey with his name on the back, and Jake just smiled, and with his left hand, he lifted the jersey and just rubbed it up and down on his face, as if to say, ‘This is what I have been working for all my life.’”

Photo of Jake Nicolopulos at the Clemson University football stadium by Gary Meek, courtesy of Shepherd Center.

Swinney told Jake that day:  “Son, we all thought your impact was going to be on the field as a middle linebacker making tackles in front of 80,000 people. You’ve had a big test, but with big test, comes a big testimony. Your impact will be so much greater than making a tackle.”

Today, Jake walks with a slight limp and still has little use of his right arm. His speech is still limited, but is improving gradually with continued therapy. He understands everything, is responsive, drives a truck and plans to enroll at Clemson this fall.

And his scholarship will be there for him.

“It was the right thing to do, and I appreciate our athletic director for not hesitating when we talked about it,” Swinney said. “We will honor his scholarship.”

Meanwhile, the Nicolopulos family will do what comes naturally – cheer on the Tigers.