^Kelaney Lakers (left) and Alix Carruth (right) pose for a photo with former Mizzou offensive lineman Max Copeland. (Photo credit: Alix Carruth)
Max Copeland showed up alone.
His hair was cut and his beard was trimmed. He wore sunglasses, a brown leather jacket, jeans and black boots loosely tied. He looked like a badass. And, of course, he held a gallon of “Drinking Water” in his right hand.
Outside of his giant build, nothing alerted people that he was part of the football team. No “#MizzouMade” T-shirt. No pads. No funny phrases or complicated words. He was simply Max.
“Are you Alix?” Max asked, smiling, as he approached the Stand with Sam event coordinator, sophomore Alix Carruth, a few minutes after 1 p.m. A tall, Texas woman, Alix smiled back and extended her hand. She asked Max to help her coordinate the counterprotesters to form a line along Stadium Boulevard.
Max came to support everyone who was standing with Sam. After playing countless games in front of the crowd, he finally joined them. The energy of his love for Missouri football was conserved, changing forms from the field to the fans.
Copeland graduated in the winter with a degree in physics. He’s still living with his kid brother on campus and taking a class in web design. His scholarship extends to the end of the spring semester.
I followed Max around for awhile. I didn’t want to bother him, but I wondered why he was there. I summoned the courage to ask the 6-foot-3-inch, 300-pound colossus if I could hang out with him. His face brightened.
“Sure man,” he said, turning toward the crowd with his black iPhone and snapping a picture. He said he sent the photo to Michael Sam. Minutes later, Copeland said Sam responded with “OMG.”
“He has a good sense of humor,” Copeland said of Sam’s reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church protest.
Copeland, though, didn’t share that humor. The Westboro protest deeply hurt him. Copeland, like any other physics major, desires to understand the universe, but the Westboro protest didn’t make any sense. He didn’t want to get near the protesters.
Despite the hurt he felt, Copeland smiled to the hundreds of people he saw at the protest. He wore a “Stand With Sam” rainbow button. He posed for pictures and Snapchats.
“That guy’s the real f—–g deal,” a student said, after getting a photo with Copeland sticking his tongue out.
For nearly 20 minutes, Copeland talked to a complete stranger, quoting “Braveheart” and debating morality. Every time a car passed him and rolled down its window to take a picture, he joked and yelled, “Tag me!”
Copeland made the students laugh. His energy kept those around him warm.
After a phone call, Copeland met up with two current players on the football team. They couldn’t go on the record or reveal their names because all football player interviews are set up through the team. The three big men talked about the counterprotest and Sam.
Media swirled around Copeland. The Columbia Missourian, Kansas City Star and well-known freelancer Ashley Zavala all wanted quotes. Copeland obliged but didn’t want the sole focus of their pieces to be about him. After all, the counterprotest was about supporting Sam, not about himself.
“(Sam’s announcement) shouldn’t be a big deal, but this is sort of the process of making it less of a big deal,” Copeland said
Then Westboro Baptist started to picket. Copeland stood toward the back of the quarter-mile line as it shuffled forward to the picketers at Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road. Carruth said that she worked with MU Police to line the protesters on one side of the street and the Westboro Baptist Church on the other.
The walk seemed like a wake before a funeral as students passed the lifeless “God hates fags” protestors, witnessed their demonstration and left for home.
The line moved slowly. To kill time, I asked Copeland about his eating habits. He laughed and told me he consumed six chicken breasts a day during the season. Now, he’s eating salmon, too, and lifting before his pro day in March.
“Could you make sure they stay in a line?” Carruth asked Copeland as she passed him. She figured no one would mess with Max.
But someone did. A man with a “Westboro Bap-Dick” sign ran past students and screamed his displeasure toward the protest. Max fired back.
“We are no better than they are if we do that,” he said.
The anti-protester turned to “Mad Max” as he walked away and screamed, “Thousands of people didn’t die in 1776 for this s–t to happen.”
Max turned to an older woman next to him and discussed if his statement was historically accurate. They both agreed it wasn’t.
Finally, after two hours standing in the 25-degree cold, the Westboro protest packed up and left. Cheers and “M-I-Z, Z-O-U” chants sounded between the scores of remaining students.
“We won!” Copeland exclaimed, warmly.
Max posed for more photos as students returned to their dorms. He talked to Carruth and fellow organizer sophomore Kelaney Lakers for another 15 minutes. Although he was en route to his first Mizzou basketball game at 3 p.m., he wasn’t in any hurry.
He made sure to thank the organizers. His presence had certainly made an impression on them and they, too, asked for a photo.
Passing Faurot Field, Max talked about how odd the fame was for simply playing football. He always enjoyed talking with fellow students and admitted that he didn’t hang out with his team all the time.
“I never wanted people to think that I was part of some cool club,” he said.
I was surprised Max came to the protest. No one would have noticed if he didn’t show up. But he did. He messaged Carruth and Lakers on Facebook asking if he could help days earlier.
We shook hands before he headed to the Mizzou Arena. I said goodbye as he stood at the corner of Stadium Boulevard and Tiger Avenue, the frigid wind whipping his pink face.
He waited alone for the light to turn.