NEWPORT — Andy Hopkins could not focus. Studying film had never been a problem before, buy this time was different. Hopkins had a headache, and even in the otherwise dark room, the light from the screen hurt his eyes.

That day in late August, Hopkins, a senior at Nokomis Regional High School, knew his football playing career was over. For a player who had started at center on the Warriors’ offensive line since his freshman season, the post-concussion symptoms were a warning, and a game changer.

“It was a very difficult decision to make. Between my father (Scott Hopkins) and Coach (Jake) Rogers, they both assured me it was the right decision,” Hopkins said.

The Warriors were hit by a baker’s dozen of graduations, and Hopkins was expected to be one of the few returning starters. At center and defensive end, Hopkins was going to be a leader, and help bridge the gap from one generation of Nokomis football to the next. When post concussion symptoms made playing impossible, Nokomis head coach Jake Rogers knew Hopkins could help the team in another way, as an assistant coach.

Andy Hopkins, a former Nokomis football player, has served as a coach this season for the Warriors. Morning Sentinel photo by Travis Lazarczyk

“It didn’t really take a whole lot of convincing. I could tell he wasn’t sure what his role would be. He didn’t want to be a  water boy. He knew more than any of our linemen combined. I really just needed to keep him in the fold,” Rogers said. “As soon as I asked him, I knew he’d take the job.”

The concussion that ended Hopkins’ football career actually occurred in a basketball game last December against Mt. Blue. Hopkins went for a rebound with a Mt. Blue player. When the Cougar outjumped Hopkins to get the ball, his elbow accidentally came down on the back of Hopkins’ head, just behind his right ear.

The blow caused Hopkins to fall to the court, when he did, his head lurched forward quickly and violently, bruising the front of his brain when it bounced off his skull.

“It was essentially a double concussion,” Hopkins said.

After taking some time off over the holiday break, Hopkins tried to return to the basketball team. It was too much, too soon. He suffered more headaches and sensitivity to light, classic post-concussion symptoms. Hopkins needed to let his brain rest and heal. He estimates he stayed in bed for close to three weeks, leaving only to use the bathroom. Hopkins took his meals in his bed, in the dark. He wondered if he would get back to school. Was this his new normal?

Hopkins made it back to school in the spring, and began to feel better. He felt well enough to join Nokomis’ baseball team in the spring, and trained all summer with the idea he’d be a key contributor to the football team.

In late August, shortly after practices began, the Warriors played a round robin controlled scrimmage against Dexter and Foxcroft Academy. Hopkins didn’t hit his head that day, but came away knowing something wasn’t wrong.

“I don’t know if it was just the constant banging off of people that jarred my head a little bit. I remember going home with a bad headache. I woke up the next day fine, but breaking down film that next afternoon before practice, I just knew something wasn’t right. I couldn’t focus. I was sensitive to light. It kind of strained my eyes,” Hopkins said.

Rogers saw his top returning player struggling to get through the film session, so he wasn’t surprised when Hopkins came to him and said he was done playing.

“I knew it was coming that following day. I was dreading it,” Rogers said. “He never took a head shot in the scrimmage or anything. I think it was the repetitiveness of being out there.”

When he was a young assistant coach at Lawrence High School in 2007, Rogers saw senior John Flynn help coach when an injury forced him to the sidelines. Rogers knew Hopkins would benefit from the same opportunity. For Hopkins, coaching has been a godsend.

“This is the best experience, other than playing, that I’ve ever had. I’ve learned a lot about coaching. I actually want to be a PE teacher and coach when I get older,” Hopkins said. “This is a great learning experience on how to deal with kids, how to make in-game adjustments, how to conduct practice in a timely fashion. This is all stuff I never had a clue about.”

Rogers said Hopkins is a perfect young coach, in that he knows he doesn’t know everything. Hopkins asks a lot of questions, and that’s what Rogers wants.

“Why do we do this? How’d you learn this? How’d you learn that? I keep telling him, the way I learned was listening. Ask questions. Listen to the old guys. I consider myself quite lucky, with the guys I learned from,” Rogers said, referring to the older coaches on the Lawrence staff a decade ago, including head coach John Hersom and assistants like Dick McGee and Mike Mealey. “That’s the way you learn, you listen. If you have a passion for something, chase it. I think he’s going to do well if he’s going to be a teacher.”

Andy Hopkins, a former Nokomis football player, has served as a coach this season for the Warriors. Morning Sentinel photo by Travis Lazarczyk

During practices, Hopkins works with the offensive line and defensive ends, the positions he played and the positions he knows the most. Hopkins’ first replacement at center was Hunter Lovering, a senior who slid down the line from tackle. When Lovering was lost for the season to a broken ankle, sophomore Garrett Graves took over the position.

Being a young starter at center is something Hopkins knows well. The best advice he can give Graves, Hopkins said, is stay calm

“That’s a very intense place to play There’s a lot of things going on. You’ve got to remember the snap count, which way to step, who you’re blocking. It’s a lot of stuff. You’ve got to fight the noise from the crowd. Make sure that snap gets to the quarterback,” Hopkins said. “Center is pretty straightforward. You want to get the ball to the quarterback and not let the guy in front of you get to the quarterback.”

During games, Hopkins wears a headset in the booth next to assistant coach Ryan Robinson. From there, Hopkins can relay info on the line play to Rogers on the sideline. Where are the Warriors getting beat? How is the technique?

“He’s not vocal, and that’s a good thing for a young guy. He doesn’t think he has all the answers He’s more willing to listen and give up an opinion quietly when he needs to,” Rogers said.

Added Hopkins: “It’s an awesome experience. You get to see everything in a different point of view… Coach Rogers and Coach (Rusty) Wilson have been very good in taking my suggestions and thinking about them.”

Nokomis (0-7) will have its season end Friday in Fairfield, at Keyes Field at Lawrence High School, the team’s home this season while its field in Newport undergoes renovations. With the end of the season comes a pause in Hopkins’ young coaching career. Rogers notes how Hopkins was quick to help clean the equipment shed and fix equipment. Hopkins focused on learning how to coach drills the right way, and understand why the drills are done in the first place. That willingness to learn will lead to opportunities, Rogers said. As he learns, Hopkins will become familiar with more schemes and ways to play football.

“You’ve got to have a passion for it, and I think he genuinely does. Once his time is ready, I think he’s going to be a pretty good coach, whatever field he chooses. He’s a multi-sport kid. Football, baseball, basketball. He could coach all three, I’m sure of it,” Rogers said.

Hopkins plans to study education in college, with the goal of being a teacher and a coach. His top two choices are the University of Maine at Farmington and UMaine-Presque Isle. Hopkins said he has no regrets with how his senior season turned out.

“I think the only regret I would’ve had is if I hadn’t stuck around the team. I’ve played since the third grade. I’ve looked forward to my senior year since probably the fifth grade. I’ve been looking up to those high school varsity players,” Hopkins said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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