Clemson to honor scholarship of linebacker who suffered stroke
Jake Nicolopulos was among 23 players who signed letters of intent with Clemson
Nicolopulos's dream of playing football ended when he had a stroke in December
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney's biggest thrill Wednesday came as he watched the national letter of intent roll in from a linebacker who'll likely never make a tackle for the Tigers.
Swinney's group of 23 signees included Jake Nicolopulos of Anderson, whose dream of playing college football ended in December when he suffered a stroke.
Nicolopulos couldn't talk, walk or write after major surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. Nearly two months later, he improved enough to sign his letter and speak with Swinney.
"When I saw that fax come through, it brought a smile to my face," Swinney said.
Nicolopulos' father, Craig, told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday that his son has finished his first stage of rehab and began the next one at the Pathways Center in Atlanta.
"It was a glorious day for Jake and us," Craig said.
The Tigers will honor Nicolopulos' scholarship and find a role for him with the program, like the school did for former linebacker Scotty Cooper and offensive lineman J.K. Jay. Cooper was forced to give up football because of seizures. Jay had a back injury that left him at risk for more serious injuries if he continued playing.
Swinney said the rest of his new class of recruits filled vital needs at wide receiver, tight end and defensive line. The team's final two commitments Wednesday in running back D.J. Howard of Lincoln, Ala., and linebacker Justin Parker of Beaufort closed out a group ranked 17th in the country by ESPN, 18th by Rivals.com and 23rd by Scout.com.
But Swinney made sure Wednesday no one forgot Nicolopulos.
He was a fast, hard-hitting linebacker who starred at T.L. Hanna High about 20 minutes or so from Clemson's campus. Nicolopulos accepted Clemson's scholarship a year ago, almost as soon as it was offered, Tigers offensive line coach Brad Scott remembered.
In fact, Nicolopulos planned to meet Scott for lunch the day of his stroke.
Nicolopulos' parents, Craig and mother Ann, were told by doctors their son might not survive.
Nicolopulos did make it, assisted by surgery that removed part of his skull cap to relieve pressure on his brain. His father said it was stored in his abdomen and will eventually be reattached to his head.
Slowly, Nicolopulos has learned to walk. His speech has increased, although Craig acknowledged there are many long days of work ahead.
As happy as Nicolopulos was to sign with Clemson, he'll always be disappointed he won't be able to take the field as the Tigers. "It's a bit of a double-edged sword for him," Craig Nicolopulos said.
Immediately after word of Nicolopulos' condition reached the Tigers, Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips pledged to Swinney the players' scholarship would be honored and maintained.
"He will be a part of this family," Swinney said.
Swinney, Scott and other assistants tracked Nicolopulos' progress during his hospital stay in Anderson, then as he was moved to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a facility that specializes in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord and brain injuries.
Scott and Swinney visited Nicolopulos soon after the stroke when the teenager could not speak and only had control of the left side of his body. They presented him with a No. 9 Clemson jersey with his name on the back, Scott said.
"He clutched that thing and pulled it right up to his face with his good hand," Scott said. "I'll never, ever forget that."
Nicolopulos has started his second stage of rehab -- six-to-eight weeks of outpatient physical therapy in Atlanta. He might need speech therapy after that, Craig Nicolopulos said, before returning to Anderson and a future at Clemson.
"This is realized dream for him that he achieved, that he earned," Swinney said. "God had a little bit of a different plan for him. But I don't have doubt at all Jake Nicolopulos will make an impact at Clemson."
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