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Hart's Davis Koppenhaver: Making the most of life

After surviving cancer at the age of 11, Hart’s Davis Koppenhaver is eager for what the future holds

Posted: September 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: September 24, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Hart junior wide receiver Davis Koppenhaver overcame cancer at the age of 11 and is now an integral piece in the Hart offense.

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“There’s nothing like finding out your 11-year-old son has cancer,” Dave Koppenhaver says. “That was the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

It had been just seven years since Dave had beat the disease, and now, it was back in the family’s lives.

“Unbelievable. Honestly, I never thought it would happen again,” says Dave’s wife Sharon of the moment she learned her son, Davis, had cancer in the winter of 2006.

It wasn’t until a couple weeks after the initial diagnosis that the gravity of the situation hit Davis, now a 16-year-old junior wide receiver at Hart High.

He says his first thoughts were concern over whether or not he would make that weekend’s basketball game.
But things were far more serious than that.

He had a tumor blocking 90 percent of his airway and doctors were surprised Davis didn’t collapse during one of his youth basketball or football games.

“I just noticed he wasn’t right. He was gray in color and he is an extremely sweaty kid and there was no sweat anymore, and he wasn’t right,” Sharon says. “And breathing and snoring was really bad. It was just not Davis, so it took a while because it’s very unusual. So it did take a little while to find out what was wrong.”

‘I Shouldn’t be here right now’

Davis underwent surgery to remove the tumor on Dec. 28, 2006, a procedure that proved successful.

He has lived cancer free since then, and now goes once a year for tests to make sure the disease hasn’t returned.
He first attended Hart in 2010, and made the varsity football lineup the next season.

Things were going well for Koppenhaver entering his sophomore season.

After working hard throughout summer practices, he caught a pass in each of the Indians’ first two games in 2011.

But at the end of the second game, a victory over Palmdale, Davis hurt his shoulder; an injury that required season-ending surgery and threatened to not only take him off the football field, but also to keep him out of the upcoming basketball season.

“It was really tough, I went through all the dog days, as they say, of summer and I got to play two games,” Koppenhaver says. “It was just tough to sit on the sideline watching all my friends have fun.”
But he didn’t just sit around and sulk.

“It’s just my shoulder, it’s not like a life-threatening thing,” he says. “If I can’t play football I can still live every day to the fullest.”

The surgery to repair his shoulder went smoothly, and he was able to alter his original sixth-month recover timetable to just four months by attending often-painful physical therapy sessions three days a week for an hour and a half.

Sharon admits to openly wondering if it was worth it for him to continue playing sports — at times, it felt like it was just one thing after another going wrong.

“I told him maybe it was time to pick up marbles or something,” she jokes. “But nope. And then he came back last (basketball) season and played through everything.”

Davis averaged 9.7 points per game as the Indians’ center, with 6.5 rebounds per game and a 53.3 shooting percentage while being named an All-SCV honorable mention.

For Davis, there really never was a question about whether or not to play.

The positives always outweigh the negatives, and in a way, he  said he considers himself lucky.

“When I’m having a bad day or something bad happens, I just always think, ‘I really shouldn’t be here right now,’” he says. “So, I cherish every moment right now.”

‘Make every play count’

Back on the field for his junior season, Davis is already receiving interest from BCS-conference college football programs.

He was on the sideline for Stanford’s upset victory over then-No. 2 ranked USC on Sept. 15, after previously attending summer camps at both Stanford and the University of Virginia.

“Over the last couple years, every summer it’s been almost a job, and now it’s kind of paying off,” Davis says. “I didn’t think it would be this progressive this early. But I just tried really hard over the summer to get my name out there, and it’s worked.”

But there’s one more problem to add to the list: at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Davis is projected as a tight end at the collegiate level.

Hart’s offense, though, doesn’t feature a tight end, forcing Koppenhaver to move over to wide receiver and take advantage of the few opportunities he gets at his natural position.

“It’s tough, but whatever we have, you’ve just got to make every play count,” he says. “The main thing right now is I’m trying to get bigger, heavier. (College coaches) can see I can catch the ball at receiver, but it’s hard to show blocking. I just try when we have the tight end just to make every block count.”

And so far, that work is paying off.

“He’s worked really hard on every aspect of his game,” says Hart head coach Mike Herrington. “He’s gained strength and speed and he’s worked really hard to come back from that injury. He’s gotten 10 times better and he’s learned to get more aggressive.”

With new, more lax CIF transfer rules and the rising prestige of private-school programs, Davis says people have asked him why he doesn’t move to a school that would allow him to showcase his skill set more.

For the junior, that was never an option.

“You’re only playing sports half the time,” he says. “The other half you’re with your friends, and I knew I had more friends at Hart.”

Says his mom: “He’s just a loyal person to his friends, to his team. He loves tradition. That’s a big thing for him.”

‘Role model’

For years, the family has volunteered its time to the American Cancer Society, helping to raise money for research into an eventual cure.

“It’s a big deal to me because my dad and I both had cancer,” Davis says. “So, it’s trying to raise awareness and raise money and find a cure one day.”

Davis says he’s been asked to speak about his past, but has struggled with the prospect.

“He doesn’t like making a big deal about it,” Dave says. “He would rather nobody knew. But at the same time, he understands that what he’s been through has really affected him and could be something that other people, especially kids, when they’re going through tough health issues, could see someone else has gone through that and they are doing fine.”

Slowly, those realizations have made Davis more comfortable with the idea of speaking about his struggle.

“Being in high school, I’ve realized that everything people think about you isn’t that important,” he says. “So, you might as well let everyone know who you really are.

“It would be awesome if I could be a role model for kids that have similar situations and get back to being a normal kid.”

That maturation has enabled Davis to move forward over the last five years, focusing on the positives in life and working hard to accomplish his goal of playing college football.

He had a career-high four receptions in Friday night’s win over Birmingham, tallying 40 yards.

“He’s a pretty big part (of our offense) right now,” Herrington says. “He’s going to be a big part this year and next year. He is a very intelligent young man who works hard.”

It’s taken time, but his dream is on the horizon, and despite everything that’s happened, he knows how lucky he has been.

“I’m just so thankful,” he says. “Pretty much, I’ve done a complete 180 from having cancer to now colleges looking at me. It’s awesome. I try to remind myself that things could be a lot worse right now.”

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