by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Sporting an Indianapolis Colts polo shirt on a Thursday morning he looked more like a coach coming into the office to go over game film than a developer building a new partnership.
Former professional football player and owner of Coppenbarger Homes, Ron Coppenbarger hasn’t slowed down since selling his company to Standard Pacific Corporation in 2003. He has formed a partnership with Suddath, a worldwide corporate employee relocation, household moving, warehouse and logistics management and specialized transportation services company based in Jacksonville. The partnership — Sudco Development Company, Inc. — is looking into development opportunities in the area. But that wasn’t on the forefront of his mind as the Colts prepared to take on the Chicago Bears last Thursday.
“My son-in-law plays for the Colts, so I show support for the family,” said Coppenbarger, who played for the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Sharks and Express of the World Football League. “He’s got the best job in football, long snapper. He gets on the field for 9-10 plays a game and hardly ever gets hit.”
He likes the fact that the father of his grand kids “Tatter Tot” (Kambrie) and “Lil Buddy” (Hunter) isn’t subject to the regular punishment an every down player is subject to. His third grandkid, Alexis, is nicknamed “Peanut Butter.” He remembers, quite vividly, his career ending injury that occurred while playing for the Jacksonville Express in 1975.
“I had intercepted a pass in mid air and a teammate’s helmet collided with my knee and broke it,” said Coppenbarger. “I even broke my nose when I hit the ground. I was a bloody mess.”
He had plans to marry his wife, Tonja, that fall and carried on with the plans two weeks after he got out of the hospital.
“She took a look at me and said,’You’re a mess,’” he said.
Coppenbarger had a decision to make after his knee healed and he was cleared to compete again: go try out with the Denver Broncos or stay in Jacksonville. The Broncos wanted to bring Coppenbarger and his teammate Steve Foley to Denver for a tryout. Coppenbarger declined and Foley made the trip. Foley went on to be selected as an All-Pro free safety in 1978 and played in Super Bowls XII and XXI.
Coppenbarger’s playing career may have been short, but he developed a camaraderie with his teammates and a chest full of memories.
His fondest memory was when his parents came to see him play in Jacksonville.
“My dad had coached me in football, basketball and baseball when I was growing up,” said Coppenbarger. “My mom said he had tears in his eyes when he saw me out on the field at the Gator Bowl.”
There were also those not so fond moments.
When Coppenbarger played for the Express after the Sharks folded, they traveled to Philadelphia for a game. The day before the game a horse show was held at the stadium and turned the football field into a pasture.
“There was horse crap all over the field,” said Coppenbarger. “We had to get tetanus shots before we played the game.”
The men he played football with became another family for Coppenbarger, but he knew he had a responsibility to the family he had started in Jacksonville.
“I made the right decision,” said Coppenbarger. “My family was here and a had an opportunity to start a business.”
He learned the construction trade from his father who built homes in and around Lawton, Okla. Coppenbarger got the chance to put that knowledge to use after a random meeting at a party in Jacksonville.
“Chester Stokes asked me if I wanted to start building homes,” said Coppenbarger. “And that’s where it all started.”
He would go on to found his own company, Coppenbarger Homes, in 1983.
“He started that business with himself, a secretary and a couple of administrative people,” said Rick Brown, a former teammate from the Sharks and current business partner. “He’s a leader with a strong personality who is prone to not give up easily.”
That nature made it hard for Coppenbarger to sell the business in 2003. By the fall of 2003 Coppenbarger Homes owned or controlled about 1,700 buildable lots and expected to deliver about 450 homes by the end of 2004.
“It was tough because the company was filled with people who are like family to me,” said Coppenbarger. “it was just like retiring from football. You really miss the people who you work with and achieved with.”
Coppenbarger wasn’t content with his company’s success in the industry; he wanted to help make the entire industry better. While serving as president for both the Northeast Florida Builders Association and Florida Home Builders Association, Coppenbarger pushed for educational opportunities for the industry.
“There was never a career path for the building industry after high school,” said Coppenbarger. “We wanted to create a path that students could follow to college from high school.”
He helped create the Home Builders Institute, a national organization that helps train skilled workers in residential construction, promote the industry as a career and provide the membership of the National Association of Home Builders with a skilled workforce. Coppenbarger also helped to create the Future Builders of America, an organization that helps promote the industry in high schools and place interested students with mentors.
These are just some of the reasons Coppenbarger will be inducted into the Florida Housing Hall of Fame in October by colleague and Hall of Fame member Rita Williams.
“One of the main reasons I am a part of the hall of fame is because he gave me the opportunity to be a part of this industry,” said Williams, who does marketing and interior design for homes. “He reaches his hand out to everyone that wants to achieve.”
photo by Joe Wilhelm Jr.