November 13, 2023 – Written by Olivia Mundorf, Heels4Life Journalism Intern
It’s not about how you start. It’s how you finish.
“I’m not saying I’ve done it all right. I’m still learning and still making the path for myself,” said UNC tight end, John Copenhaver.
But Copenhaver isn’t just referring to learning how to execute plays or add to his receiving yards on the field in Kenan Stadium. For the Roswell, Georgia native, his faith has played a substantial role in shaping him into the individual he is today and has helped keep him grounded both on and off the field.
“You’ve got to have an audience of one, which is God, and sometimes that’s hard because you have the media, you have the fans, you have people always wanting to criticize you,” Copenhaver said. “It can get tough because you can get inside your head, and it becomes a mental game. That’s when you kind of have to come back and know who you are and who God says you are.”
Just as he has remained patient in his faith, Copenhaver has had to remain patient throughout his football career as well – especially as he experienced quite an unusual start.
He was eager to begin playing football when he was just in first grade. But sliding to retrieve a kickball during recess hindered his debut on the flag football field. What looked like a turf burn on his swollen knee, quickly transpired into his first major injury: a broken femur. After spending months in a full leg cast, Copenhaver’s leg healed and when second grade came around, he was ready to begin his first season of tackle football.
Copenhaver didn’t necessarily consider himself a standout recruit in high school but recalls his career taking a jump to the next level during his junior year at Roswell High School – his first season playing on the varsity team. By his senior year, the realization of playing at the division 1 level had set in, and he knew he wanted to be a Tar Heel.
“You know how you just have a gut feeling when you’re making a decision?” Copenhaver asked. “I had a pretty good feeling about it. It was definitely a gut feeling – that this could be my home for the next three or four years.”
As any member of the Carolina family would admit, it’s really the people that make the place. For Copenhaver, this starts with the coaching staff and his teammates who have made UNC Football one of the most special programs in the country.
Copenhaver acknowledges that playing the tight end position is an unselfish, mostly unglamourous role on the field: “You’re always wanting to get the ball and get touchdowns and your receiving yards, but sometimes the game doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you have to just block, and you’re not going to enjoy it, but if that’s going to win us the game, that’s going to win us the game.”
Copenhaver said he will do whatever he can to keep the offense rolling, and although he is competing with other talented guys at the tight end position, they all have a unique bond that has made them better on the field in pursuit of the same common goal: doing whatever they can to help the team win.
“We’re all pushing each other to do better,” Copenhaver said. “I think being in the room with all those guys has been awesome. It’s not always just about business and football, we can just hang in there and joke around and have fun together. That really builds the bonds and the friendships, and I think that helps us on the field.”
Along with the importance of fostering great relationships with other tight ends, any football fan knows the importance of the players on the offense having a connection with their quarterback. And Copenhaver recognizes that he gets to take the field with one of the best in the nation in Drake Maye.
While the two undoubtedly are playing to win each time they take the field, their competitive energy doesn’t dissipate when they take a step away from football – especially when it comes to the highly debated question of who wins in pickleball and who is better in ping pong.
“I would give it to him in pickle ball,” Copenhaver said. “He’s a pretty good player in pickle ball, but we’ve had a fair amount of ping pong games as well and I think I’ve got him in that.”
Finding time away from football, even for a quick game of ping pong, can be a challenge in the busy schedule of any student-athlete. Copenhaver recognizes that playing college football truly is a full-time job, but the ability to manage practice times, along with class work and other extra curriculars, is preparing him for life after he leaves Chapel Hill. Copenhaver has also found ways to involve himself in the community and give back to the fans who have given him so much throughout this career as a Tar Heel.
“People just pour into us, the community is always backing us up, supporting us, going to the games,” Copenhaver said. In addition to the community service he does with Heels4Life partners, such as PORCH and TABLE NC, Copenhaver’s most meaningful impact within the community came last spring when he was a leader with Young Life, a Christian ministry group that works with high school students in guiding their relationship with Christ.
“I really enjoyed helping out those guys – helping to teach them the walk of life, having your eyes on God no matter what,” Copenhaver said. “I really do love helping those high schoolers. I was in their shoes four years ago and high school is a pretty tough stage in your life. Just teaching them the ropes, showing them the steps, just helping them in that walk of life, I wanted to do that, and have enjoyed it.”
Copenhaver recognizes that he has the opportunity to make a much greater impact within the UNC community beyond the plays he makes on Saturdays – and hopefully on Sundays in the future – with his goal of one day playing professional football. And still, his faith is at the center of his dreams of going to the NFL.
“I’m hoping and praying that I can make it to the next level,” Copenhaver said. “But if God has other plans for me, he’ll steer me the other direction.”
At the end of the day, the perspective that there is more to life than football, and more to his identity than being a division 1 student-athlete, will help keep Copenhaver grounded in his faith in whatever happens in life after his playing career ends.
“It’s not the end of the world if you lose a game or you make a mistake on a play,” Copenhaver said. “It’s a tough walk, no one said it would be easy, it’s a very narrow path. I’m still learning, I’m still trying to build my relationship with Jesus. Obviously, we’re humans, we have flaws, and we’re imperfect; but we just have to know that God has a bigger plan for us.”
Olivia Mundorf graduated in May with her degree in Journalism from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. During her time at Carolina, Olivia has focused on pursuing a career in sports broadcasting and journalism, and has spent several semesters covering UNC sports and sharing the compelling stories of the athletes, teams, and community surrounding one of the top athletic departments in the nation. After graduation, Olivia will remain in Chapel Hill as a member of the UNC Sport Administration Graduate Program.