Alex Kupper thought starting on three state championship teams at Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky., was enough for NCAA Division I schools to offer him a scholarship.
He was wrong; but as it turns out, so were the uninterested schools. They passed over a player who, after joining the local University of Louisville program as a walk-on, would earn a scholarship and cap off his Cardinals’ career with a Sugar Bowl victory.
Kupper, a 6-3, 299-pound offensive lineman born in Louisville, continued his familiar route of passing under the radar screen and onto the final rosters of teams when he made the final cut of the Houston Texans’ 2013 squad. After getting married in the off-season, Kupper seemed certain to make the Texans’ starting lineup at press time.
A lifelong Catholic, Kupper, 24, spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie during training camp about how his upbringing provided a foundation for becoming a successful football player.
Heading into last season, you were not one of the players getting the most attention at the Texans’ training camp, but you made the 53-man roster. Do you think the lack of attention helped, because there was less pressure?
Yes, with less noise around, you can just get down to business and play hard. You only have one goal in mind, instead of trying to impress so many different people and worrying about this, that or the other thing. That lack of attention was a good thing, but what was also good was making the final cut and being on the team for a whole season. I can take those experiences with me into this year, which, in another sense, makes it easier now, despite the increased expectations from others.
Did you encounter any surprises in 2013, your first year in the NFL?
I knew the NFL would be different than college football, but I wasn’t entirely sure how. One thing that would surprise a lot of people is that playing in the NFL is similar to any other full-time job. You don’t just show up for games on Sunday and then collect a paycheck later that week. You work and work during the week, sometimes on things that are tedious but that are still part of the job.
Last year, I was unable to attend a good friend’s wedding because of my previous football commitments. It was disappointing, but that’s what can often happen when you’re dedicated to something, like I am to football.
This next thing isn’t the case for every player, but for me, the transition from a winning program in college to a losing one in the pros was probably the toughest thing. Yes, the NFL is a higher level of play, but when you come from Louisville, where we were 11-2 senior year, and then you go 2-14 the next year, it’s a sharp transition.
I also have seen how the NFL is a business. It’s not just about fan or player loyalty to a team; it’s about winning and money-making. Seeing the business side of things is good, but if you get caught up in it, you can easily become a lesser player. The great players are the ones who don’t get distracted by all the extra stuff; they’re the ones who retain a love for the game and just try to play it as well as they can.
Have you always associated the Catholic faith with sports?
When I started playing football in junior-high school, I had a coach, Paul Passafiume, who had a big impact on me. He’s part of SportsLeader, a group that tries to associate sports with virtue. They want athletes to see that sports are not a separate compartment in life, but that your values should shape who you are on the field as well.
We were taught by Paul that God is above everything; family follows, then school, then sports and other things. That’s a great hierarchy to have in your mind from the start, because it keeps you from taking lesser things too seriously.
Keeping things in the right order is what helped me to get over not receiving a Division I college scholarship out of high school. I thought I deserved one, but it didn’t happen, so I moved on and persevered. After starting as a walk-on at Louisville, I earned a scholarship fairly quickly, and things worked out well from there.
Were you able to persevere in the faith while in college?
A lot of people stop going to church in college, but it was really easy for me to continue going. One of the main reasons is that the University of Louisville is so close to where I grew up — so close that I was even able to attend my home parish, St. Agnes. It is an amazingly beautiful church, with a traditional design, which makes it pleasant to be there. It also has a lot of different groups for all kinds of different needs. It feels like an extended family.
Not going to church was never a real option for me. It’s just part of who I am. That’s how my parents raised me, my two brothers and two sisters. I can even remember a time in high school when I spent the night at a friend’s house on a Saturday. He was one of the few non-Catholic friends I had, so he was surprised when, early on Sunday morning, I was getting ready to leave the house. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was going to church. He thought I was weird for doing that, but I thought he was weird for not doing it.
There are quite a few football players who have a spiritual life. I’ve prayed with at least some guys from every team I’ve been a part of, and that includes the Texans. It’s not like we’re a religious order, but it’s common for most of the team to pray before a game, which often includes an Our Father.
You got married in the off-season. How has married life been so far?
I got married in April to Paige, who is from Louisville. We want to start a family and raise our children in a close-knit community. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments, and it’s the way children are meant to come into the world.
Fathers have distinct gifts to offer their children, and mothers have distinct gifts, too. When you combine those gifts, children get the balance they need. Then they can grow and learn in a way that is both challenging and compassionate. There’s a definite structure you’re called to fit into as a child, but also [that teaches] empathy that respects human weakness. That’s the beauty of family life: There’s unity in diversity — a variety of gifts that, when combined, make for healthy human beings.
The Church is pro-life, of course, but being a biology major in college might have let me gain an even greater appreciation for the sanctity of life. In one way, it’s obvious that life begins at conception, but when you go through the science classes, especially the sections on embryology, this basic fact is confirmed again and again. DNA for a unique human being, made in the image and likeness of God, is there from the very beginning.
We’ll be happy with as many kids as the good Lord blesses us [with], and, while neither of us knows everything we could about the Church, we are learning more, and we plan on making sure our children receive a good Catholic upbringing.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.