College football: Tennessee Tech's Josh Poplar finds deeper meaning following stroke
For the Tennessee Tech football team, it's a rallying cry whenever the team is faced with adversity, signifying the Golden Eagles move past the actions of the past and get ready for whatever the next challenge will be.
For Tech junior linebacker Josh Poplar, "what's next?" has an expanded meaning — one of overcoming life's obstacles and preparing for the next one.
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To fully understand just what Poplar means to the Golden Eagles, you have to go right up to the top.
As Marcus Satterfield began his inaugural season as the head football coach at Tennessee Tech, Poplar was another face in the crowd, but the coach quickly learned that there was something special about Poplar.
"When we got here, we didn't really know a whole lot about him," Satterfield said. "We found out his story of, I won't say hardships, but what he had to help control growing up with his parents both being deaf and having to learn sign language and be the communicator in the family. There was a lot of responsibility put on him at an early age – some that I don't know if I could handle now at my point of life.
"So we knew there was something special right off the bat before we really even watched him play. In the spring last year, we started to see it and what he could possibly be. He had a great summer and earned a single-digit. His teammates saw how tough he was and he has really bought in to our standard, our process and he helps us spread it, protect it and defend it."
But Poplar isn't just any other player — not by any stretch of the imagination.
"He really means the world to us," Satterfield said. "He's just as important to us as any of the coaches on staff."
And then you have to look off the field into the classroom.
Poplar, a Knoxville native and Knoxville Central grad, has also proven to be a very intelligent student with numerous appearances on the Tech athletic director's and Ohio Valley Conference commissioner's honor rolls as well as two OVC Academic Medals of Honor and an appearance on the College Sports Information Directors of America's Academic All-District team.
Poplar's football career at Tech started slowly, but he has progressed into one of the shining stars of the Golden Eagle defense.
In his redshirt freshman campaign in 2015, Poplar played in seven games, making 14 total tackles. Last season, he was the Golden Eagles' top defender, recording 105 total tackles — an average of 9.5 per game – with two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries including one for a touchdown and one pass breakup.
Those numbers led to an all-OVC second-team selection, and it was expected that Poplar was going to be one of the Golden Eagles' top players entering the 2017 campaign.
Following 2016, however, Poplar had shoulder surgery and had worked hard to try to get back into shape and ready to go.
It seemed that he was better than ever, until an evening in July, not long before the Golden Eagles were expected to report back for fall camp.
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It was just another summer evening in Cookeville. The players had already wrapped up their individual workouts and had gone home to rest up for the next day's work.
When Poplar tried to sleep, something just didn't feel right.
"At the moment, it was a very scary feeling," Poplar said. "Initially, I just thought it was a headache and I could just sleep it off. I get headaches from time to time so I didn't really think much of it. When I laid down, 20-30 minutes passed by and I started to feel numb and tingling in the right side of my body and I thought this couldn't be right.
"I got up out of bed and I fell to the right – my center of gravity and balance was off – and I thought this wasn't good. I tried to get up and stand on my own and I couldn't."
And his reaction?
"I must be having a stroke right now."
Fortunately, Poplar was with his roommate, quarterback Adam Browner, and they made a quick reaction.
"Thank God he was there," Poplar said. "I screamed for him to help me out. He carried me down the stairs and took me to the ER."
From there, Poplar didn't know what to expect.
"I was just praying for the best-case scenario," he said. "There were a lot of scary thoughts going around in my head at the time."
It had only been a couple of weeks since Poplar took the team's fitness test and passed it with flying colors – even after he may have already had the stroke.
"The funny thing was that I had two or three weeks before the symptoms started to show up," Poplar said. "What was going on at that time, the doctors weren't 100 percent sure that I wasn't about to have another stroke or having atypical migraines, because sometimes people with atypical migraines show stroke-like symptoms. So it was just alarming news when they told me I had a stroke when I had no symptoms.
"I thought to myself, 'I must really be lucky.'"
When the doctors told Poplar of the diagnosis, however, it was tough news to take.
"It was a lot to take in initially," Poplar said. "But I just stuck to our core values – 'What's next?' – what's the next step I need to take in the recovery process and how can I get better? Honestly, I wasn't that upset. I was thankful, because I went through the mindset for a couple of days with how I was feeling and after having a stroke, I may not be able to do the simple things in life again. I couldn't smile and laugh the same way I had before. I couldn't talk the same way I did before. I couldn't walk the same way.
"I was just happy that I regained all my feeling in my body and the symptoms had slowly started to go away. It was just a relief, because the thought of this is what it's going to be like for the rest of my life was a very scary thought."
Satterfield said, "I was shocked. You don't expect that. You expect older people to have strokes, not in-shape athletes."
Throughout camp, the Golden Eagles are taught the lesson of "What's next?" – not to dwell on the past and stay focused on the moment and what's ahead, so they can keep fighting on every down until the final horn sounds.
"When we saw him in the hospital," Satterfield said, "the first thing he said to us was 'what's next? I felt sorry for myself for a second, then I just said what's next?'"
From the mouth of the student to the teacher, the lesson, the process had taken hold.
"That's the mentality he takes," Satterfield said. "Control what we can control. I don't think there's a lot he can't overcome. He's tough-minded and he's implementing our process with what he's going through and that's allowed him to get through it in a football mindset. That's what he does for a living. That's what he's done for his whole life – play football."
Satterfield continued, "To be able to attack this issue with a football mindset is helping him get through it each day."
What's next – to control what we can control – has been a valuable lesson that Poplar has taken to heart.
"Our program values have helped me so much as far as life and adversity," he said. "Just having that mindset and being told every day about the program and the details and how to care about those things, it all flows into life. I feel like it's prepared me for anything that I face in life."
Those values relate to more than just what happens on the field as there are always new forms of adversity in our lives.
"We can't sit there and feel sorry for ourselves," Satterfield said. "That's what we teach our kids – we don't get to feel sorry for ourselves. You can handle all of this adversity. We started that process with him and it was so unbelievable that he got up and ran with it. That's allowed him the peace of mind to not feel sorry for himself and make things worse."
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As camp has progressed and the 2017 season is about to begin, Poplar is still trying to do everything he can to compete, even though he is limited.
"Typically, I'm still involved in the routine things like meetings," Poplar said. "They won't allow me to practice outside, because they don't want me to get dehydrated or form a blood clot, which can pass through my heart and, ultimately, lead up to my brain."
However, the stroke revealed another obstacle — one that will close the book on Poplar's 2017 campaign as a player.
"Right now, I'm scheduled to have heart surgery on August 22 to close a PFO (patent foramen ovale — a hole in the tissue between the left and right upper chambers in the heart). Most people that have this are young and it's supposed to close in adulthood. Mine didn't. They're going in through an artery in my leg and will put in a device to plug the hole in my heart. Eventually tissue will grow over it.
"I'll be out for six months. I'll have to take blood thinners and there's always high risk taking those and being in a contact sport, so I'll be out for the year. I'll be able to work out and condition. I'm doing everything in my power to physically and mentally prepare myself for next year."
A fund was started in Poplar's name, announced at the team's alumni golf tournament. With many of the program's notables in attendance, an outpouring of support came in trying to help cover their younger comrade's medical expenses.
Even for players who have been out of the program for 30 to 40 years, helping out their fellow teammate just solidified how much of a brotherhood or fraternity football can provide.
"Exactly," Satterfield said. "It's easy to help a kid like Josh. He's proven to be a great citizen, a great student. I mean, he's a 4.0 student. You hear what happened and any human being, whether they played football or not, would want to help this kid.
"But it was really special to see the response from our alumni and former players stepping up for him. He didn't play with them, but we consider everyone who ever played here a teammate."
The fund remains open as the new expenses add up. Any excess to the fund after the expenses are covered will be donated in Poplar's name to a charity of his choice.
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Even though it's an obstacle for this season, Poplar's football career is far from over. But rather than feel remorse, the junior is using it as motivation.
"I could be selfish," Poplar noted, "knowing that I can't go out there and play and be sad all day, but that's not going to benefit me or my teammates. I try to be the best cheerleader and motivator that I can, be the energizer on the sideline trying to keep them going."
Satterfield still has Poplar as involved as he can be.
"Right now, until he gets cleared, he's the assistant linebackers coach," Satterfield said. "He's doing a heck of a job. He knows the defense, he knows the responsibilities. I've heard some of the younger players tell him 'Yes, sir' a couple times even though he is a teammate and a peer.
"But he's done an unbelievable job. He has not lost focus. He demands our standard of himself every day. He demands our standards every day from his teammates, whether they're offense, defense or kickers. He is instrumental to everything we do in our daily process."
Still, it's hard to tell a student-athlete that they can't compete, especially with all of the effort put in to be the best they can be.
"I'm not going to lie – there is some anger into it," Poplar said. "I put in a lot of work to get back into it because I had shoulder surgery in the winter time. I was going through the rehab process, getting my shoulder right, getting back into shape, getting bigger and stronger. For all the work that I put in for those six months and take it away in one day, it's disappointing.
"But I'm hungry more than ever. I want to play so bad, but I can't. It just drives me to make me better as a person, but as a football player. I'm hungry and ready to get after it for next year."
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"I'm trying to cheer on the guys and be a mentor and help the guys in my position to grow and learn and be able to do the job. I'm just trying to be the best teammate that I can. Being in the starting position last year helped me grow as a player and as a person, and I want to spread my knowledge on to the younger guys, because with me out, those guys are going to have to step up into the starting position. I want to help lead the guys and show them the right way to get the job done."
It all comes back to the saying, "What's next?"
Life has thrown obstacles in Poplar's path and he has faced them without a moment of hesitation, treating those like another opponent in his way on the gridiron.
"It is what it is," Poplar stated firmly, determination in his eyes. "I'm not going to let this beat me. I know He's still got His plan for me and will do everything in my power to keep going."