Getting the Most Out of a Football Career
Nov. 11, 2008
By Jon Terry, Bucknell Athletic Communications
At 5'11", 211 pounds, Julius Hopson has heard it before that he is too small to play inside linebacker in college. If you think he's undersized now, you should have seen him when he was four years old.
Hopson's father, Julius Hopson II, himself a college football standout at Hampton University, coached a 9-10 age-group team in their native Pittsburgh. The younger Julius, then just four, would toddle around the field while dad coached his older brothers, cousins and neighborhood kids. Big enough to hold his own - he was 9 pounds, 11 ounces at birth and large for his age at the time - dad finally let him don some pads and run through the drills with the older guys. Soon thereafter he was playing in the games.
Eventually Hopson became a rare six-year veteran of 9-10 pee-wee football. But it was during those formative years on the gridiron when he forged a friendly sibling rivalry with brothers Maurice, Jared and Marquise and developed a fondness for the game of football that lives on today.
"We got after each other," Hopson recalls. "My older brother, Jared [who played football at Slippery Rock], we worked out together and trained. We're the closest in age at two years apart. We didn't get to play against each other, but we always compared the stats and the workouts. Whether it was running the stairs in the stadium or sprints or even weightlifting, I always had to beat him. Most people compete against kids their own age, but I was competing with my older brothers. Trying to make up that slack is what gave me my drive. Around the age of six, I really developed an understanding and a love for the game."
Like many boys born and bred in Pittsburgh, Hopson grew up with a football in his crib. The sport is a way of life there, and native sons like Montana, Marino and Dorsett are part of the city's fabric. Former All-Pro running back Curtis Martin is from the same neighborhood as the Hopsons and a family friend. Seemingly every neighborhood in Pittsburgh has a Curtis Martin.
And then there are the Steelers, who capture the town's attention each fall like no other pro team can.
"Growing up in Pittsburgh, I always thought the only thing there was to do was to play football," Hopson says. "Every kid's dream is to play football for the Steelers. When you are a little kid in pee-wee ball you just kind of assume that you're going to be on the Steelers one day."
The elder Julius Hopson made sure his youngest son was well aware of that tradition at an early age. Young Julius played on the line in youth ball and often complained that there were no famous linemen to emulate. So his father gave him uniform number double-zero and told him to go learn about someone who wore it.
"I did some research and found out all about Jim Otto," Hopson says of the game's most famous double-zero. "[My father] gave me some old NFL Films videos of Jim Otto and some of Mean Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain and guys like that. Basically it helped me love the game from all aspects, from being on the ground as a lineman to playing linebacker."
Hopson played his high school football at Pittsburgh Central Catholic, one of the best teams in one of the best football regions in the country. Hall-of-Famer Marino and current St. Louis Rams quarterback Mark Bulger both played at Central, and Hopson was privileged to play on one of the school's best-ever teams, the 2004 squad that won the PIAA Quad-A state championship and was ranked in the top five nationally.
"It was always a great atmosphere to be around," Hopson says of his days at Central Catholic, the same school that also produced Jim Horan, Bucknell's No. 2 all-time receiver. "People always say that it's the No. 1 spot and there is so much pressure, but we did so many workouts that we didn't expect anything less than being No. 1. Along with that ranking comes the responsibility of working hard and staying out of trouble."
In the second game of that championship season, Central Catholic played St. Joe's Prep from Philadelphia, who came in with one of the state's longest winning streaks. Central won 38-12 and was ranked No. 3 in the nation not long after. After the season the team had a ceremony to present the state championship rings. Central alum Justin Kurpeikis, who went on to play linebacker at Penn State and was on a New England Patriots championship team, came back to the ceremony to show off his Super Bowl ring.
"That just showed everyone what Central is supposed to be," Hopson says.
Hopson was a second-team all-conference selection and he also earned the Frank Emanual Scholar-Athlete Award. When it came time to consider college recruiting, he focused on the Patriot League and Ivy League. Unsure of his future in football, Hopson took a visit to Cornell, then former Bucknell offensive coordinator Tim Camp paid him a visit.
"I thought he was a pretty cool guy," Hopson remembers of Camp. "He came out to my house. As a matter of fact he was the only coach who came to the house. Holy Cross offered to fly me up there, but we felt it was too far away. Tim Camp had a big part. He was a great recruiter and he really made me feel comfortable about Bucknell."
In high school Hopson played outside in a 4-4 defense and essentially had free reign to run the field and make tackles. He thought he would be playing safety in college, and the Bucknell coaches started him out at a hybrid outside linebacker/safety position, akin to a rover. He made an immediate impact, playing in all 11 games as a freshman and totaing 25 tackles. He was named the Patriot League Rookie of the Week after the Cornell game in Ithaca, when he had seven tackles, forced a fumble on the goal line and had a 40-yard return on a fumble recovery that he says would have been a touchdown, except, "I didn't get a block from [Sean] Conover!"
When Andrew Cohen came in as defensive coordinator prior to the 2007 season, the Bison switched to a 3-4, and Hopson added some weight and moved to inside linebacker. He made a career-high 56 tackles last year and was playing well again until suffering a concussion in the Cornell game that has kept him out since.
"I felt like I was playing good, playing to help the team," says Hopson, an English/creative writing major who is considering law school after graduation. "I try to contribute wherever needed. Whether it's making a tackle or dropping back in coverage or even on the sideline getting guys' spirits up, I just want to keep my emotions high and help the team."
Hopson missed only one game in his first three years in college, so sitting out these last few weeks has been difficult.
"It's been extremely tough for me to watch from the sidelines," he says, "especially after playing these last four years, and then you come out early in the summer before camp and work hard and bond with the guys. So to come out on Saturday and not be able to have that fun with them has been tough. Saturday is your reward. You kill yourself Monday through Friday, and Saturday is that reward for doing all of that work."
Hopson's coaches admit that he is probably undersized to be an inside linebacker at the Division I level, but he makes up for it with tremendous strength, heart and desire. And pound-for-pound, few hit harder.
"That's probably the greatest thing on defense," Hopson says of laying a big hit. "We always say that when the workouts start getting tough, that down the road we have to make the other team feel what you're feeling right then. When you catch a good hit and everyone says `oooh' and the crowd goes crazy, those feel good."
For now, with only two games remaining in his senior year, Hopson is trying his best to get back on the field. That will be up to the team's medical staff. Regardless of what the next few weeks bring, few have gotten more out of a football career than Julius Hopson III.