Ex-con and current counselor ‘Coach’ leverages lessons learned to help others

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AURORA | Hulond “Coach” Copeland has lasted a long fight.

A man whose large build matches his persona, and with a wandering eye that speaks from his past, Copeland was once a boxer, now a counselor.

Coach knows how to take a punch. He loves to tell a story of how he once trained back in the 1980s with a young guy named Mike Tyson who touched him up and knocked him down — but not out — contributing to his permanently damaged eye.

But Copeland also knows how to get back up.

For the better part of two decades Copeland dealt with an opponent tougher than Tyson: substance abuse. That culminated in 2003 with his arrest for soliciting money in exchange for community service hours at his nonprofit boxing gym, Copeland’s Gym. Undercover officers also found Copeland distributing crack cocaine and marijuana and was charged for pimping members of his staff.

When he was released from jail and put in a halfway house in 2007, he fought his hardest to regain the trust he once had.

He said jail opened his eyes to his past discretions. And when he left, starting back at the bottom, he knew he’d have to work hard to regain trust and confidence of those around him.

“Forgiveness was the tough one,” he said.

Now, Copeland runs his own counseling center, where he coaches others on how to make the most of a second chance.

“Now, I can help people like me,” Copeland said. “I can help people who are lost.”

Round 2: Finding his feet, again

Copeland began looking for work after he was moved to a halfway house from jail. Most employers don’t hire felons, and Copeland said he began to realize that as he sat outside a King Soopers manager’s office hoping for an interview. Still, he was determined to get a foot in the door.

“I needed something behind me so I could keep going forward,” he said. So, he took a chance.

Copeland walked up to an assistant and shared his story. He told her everything — about how he had become a boxer and had trained at the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit, where he had fought Iron Mike and lost. It was a moment that would become a steady metaphor for his life.

“In the second round I didn’t remember everything,” he said. “All I kept hearing was, ‘get up.’”

Copeland continued on, telling that assistant about his cocaine addiction that impaired his judgment and led him to make poor choices, which led him to jail. He told her how jail and God and counseling had made him a changed man.

His persistence paid off. She talked to the hiring manager and Copeland got a job bagging groceries shortly after.

Round 3: Near knock-outs

Near knockouts and second chances are a recurring theme for Copeland. Seizing his second chance while on parole and bagging groceries, Copeland started studying to become a counselor.

“I’ve got a chance to do something about it,” Copeland said, “So, I hit the pavement hard and went to school.”

Copeland soon learned the struggle it would take. There was no law against him getting his certifications, but he needed a supervisor — and few trusted him. Finally, Copeland said he met a man named Jerry McCoy, who was willing to take a chance.

“He thought I deserved a second chance, a break, and ‘pushed the button’ to make it go,” Copeland said.

Copeland was hired at Amend Counseling in 2008 and quickly made his way to ACI Aurora Counseling by 2014, where he became the face of addiction counseling until the company was sold to Health Fusion in 2016. After bringing all of his clients to the new company, they fired him and the location closed soon after. The Facebook page still features Copeland as their poster guy.

After his firing, Copeland lost his mother and his close friend and mentor, a minister named Rick Degrace. Copeland’s wife divorced him and he was forced to pawn his most prized possessions. He was knocked down again, but still not out. The consummate fighter, Copeland, got back up.

“The tougher it got, the tougher I got,” he said.

Round 4: The comeback

On a spring day, Copeland sits in his own office with his gold chain teddy bear around his neck and his truck outside  — both recently returned from the pawn shop. In October 2016, he was fully certified as a counselor to run his own addiction treatment center, after working for a year to get approval.

“There’s no messing up too bad,” Copeland surmised. “There’s always a way out.”

But, he admitted, the way out usually requires reaching for a hand up.

Copeland’s landlord Ben Getzel said that he has helped Copeland with rent, always telling him that he believes in him.

“If you mean well, that’s all I care about,” Getzel said. “Now, he’s on his two feet again.”

One of Copeland’s patients from three years ago, Tom Grace, has remained in contact with Copeland, even after treatment. Now, they’re close friends, watching boxing matches together and planning a fishing trip soon. Grace speculated that Copeland has stayed strong because of his desire to honor his dead mother. Even now, Copeland is working to make mom proud, Grace said.

Grace has a deep respect for Copeland and said he understands why people trust coming to him.

“He’s an everyday guy,” Grace said. “He’s from the ‘hood. He’s been there. He could call someone out without actually calling them out, because he’s tactful.”

Copeland is now working to regain the clients he once had from the same building he worked in for ACI. He said he already doubled his clients in April and continues to open his door to more.

“I don’t know if it was the fighter in me or what, but I just never gave up,” he said.