Commentary | Damian Copeland and Louisville teammates used inspiration from Muhammad Ali to beat Florida

adell@bradenton.comJanuary 6, 2013 

Nearly a half century ago, Muhammad Ali shocked the boxing world when as a 7-1 underdog he defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title.

His presence at last week's Sugar Bowl was a reminder to his hometown Louisville Cardinals that anything was possible, though unbeknownst to most of the world they were already brimming with confidence.

Ali was icing on the cake, according to Louisville's Damian Copeland, who honed his ball-catching skills at Palmetto High.

The Cardinals were Ali, and the third-ranked Florida Gators were Liston.

Louisville didn't have a chance, all those folks tweeted. If you believed the pundits, there weren't enough stretchers to carry the Cardinals off the field.

Copeland listened and laughed. He knows more than most about defeating long odds. But that's why the receiver thought those TV analysts needed a refresher course before going on air.

He believed Louisville was the better team.

"You could say we shocked the world like Ali did," Copeland said. "He comes to some of our practices. I visited the Ali museum in Louisville, shook his hand and saw clips of him when he was young. He felt nobody could beat him, and we went into the game thinking nobody could beat us. He has been a great inspiration."

The Las Vegas oddsmakers were sure to put Copeland on their list of people never to hire before the game, making Florida a 14-point favorite.

After his Cardinals dismantled the Gators 33-23, they might want to give him a casino of his own.

"We knew America and Vegas were against us, and I'd say most Americans lost a lot of money that night," Copeland said.

The 6-1, 185-pound junior also dispels the notion that Florida didn't play hard, which many prognosticators are saying to cover up the pie in their face.

"The nation overlooked us, and Florida had it in their minds they were going to blow us out," Copeland said. "Analysts never gave us a chance. They said we were going to be dominated and didn't be

long in the game. We didn't believe that, but we used it to put a chip on our shoulder."

Copeland believed what most now see as true. Louisville had the better quarterback and better set of receivers.

Florida's 11-1 record was built on a run game and a strong defense, which ranked second in the SEC and fifth the country. But it didn't scare the Cardinals.

"We have a nasty offense. We matched up perfectly with their defense," Copeland said.

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater reminded Gator fans of what they don't have with Jeff Driskel as their signal-caller.

As he did in a loss to Georgia, Driskel looked lost and confused, raising thoughts that the Gators aren't going to win any titles with him running the offense. Bridgewater and his receivers made Florida's vaunted defense look less than ordinary and slow on the back end.

Copeland helped put the dagger into the Gators on Louisville's first play from scrimmage in the second half when he caught a 19-yard touchdown pass.

"When I lined up, I knew it was going to be six points," Copeland said. "The defensive back covering me (Jaylen Waitkins) was playing soft and would bite almost anything I did. It was a slant and go. I made a move and went by him."

For the season, Copeland led Louisville with 50 receptions, was second with 628 reception yards and caught two touchdown passes. Beset by injuries, he had eight catches for 113 yards prior to the season.

Copeland will be a senior next season and get to put the finishing touches on his dream to play in the NFL. With sub-4.3-second time in the 40-yard dash and a new training regimen that left him injury-free for the first time in three years, his chances now look promising.

Local fans will get a chance to see him in person in 2013. Louisville will visit USF, giving Copeland a chance to play against Ray Woodie, his head coach at Palmetto and now an assistant for the Bulls under Willie Taggart.

A sports historian in his own right, Copeland knows all about Taggart and Woodie from their playing days at Manatee and Palmetto, respectively.

"It should be a lot of fun," he said.

Maybe he can get Ali to make the trip to Tampa.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.

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