W&J Football Feature: Craig Popp Overcomes The Odds
According to a recent study by Business Insider magazine, nearly 68,000 college football players suit up on a given Saturday to entertain fans from all three NCAA divisions. W&J kicker/holder Craig Popp (#37, pronounced POPE) is one of those lucky enough to grab a helmet each week and if Las Vegas placed odds on such a thing, he may have been the longest shot on the board.
Popp’s diminutive build (5-foot-6 and 135 pounds) is not exactly ideal for a sport that continues to produce bigger, faster and stronger players. That’s not just Division I either. A quick check of NFL rosters shows chiseled players like the Redskins’ wide receiver Pierre Garcon (Mount Union – 6’0, 212 pounds) and Colts’ linebacker Jerrell Freeman (Mary Hardin-Baylor – 6’0, 234 pounds), both who competed at the Division III level and lined up against W&J during their collegiate years.
Size aside, Popp’s football career almost never started. He participated in soccer throughout childhood, but kicking for the football team never really was a thought until high school. He made that decision to play football after being cut from his high school golf team.
There was only one other small issue. At the age of 14, Popp was diagnosed with a heart defect, one in which he must closely monitor his entire life. He is not allowed to lift more than 50 pounds and avoids contact, like tackling for example. So why football?
“I know the risks and I know my limitations,” said Popp. “It’s the type of situation that my heart issue is controlled, but it’s not going to get any better. I worried about it for 3-6 months after I was diagnosed, but I don’t even think about it at all anymore. You never know how a play is going to unfold. If I need to make a block or attempt a tackle, I’m going to try and do it.”
Popp, who has handled the Presidents’ holding duties on extra points and field goals the last two seasons, had a number of Division I inquiries during his high school career because of his strong leg. Even then-Florida coach Urban Meyer made a call to his high school coach, W&J graduate Dan Donovan. Coaches loved the strong leg, but had to be concerned with his stature and the lingering health issue.
“I remember going on a recruiting trip to see Lehigh play Holy Cross,” added Popp, who has a twin brother Corey, who attends Penn State. “I was on the sideline and a wide receiver came by and said that I had to be someone’s little brother because I was too small to be thinking about playing college football. Those words motivated me. Being small, I always get jabs and jokes from opposing fans. The Division I schools I got calls and letters from kind of disappeared. I imagine there were scared off by my health, but I really don’t know.”
If those same hecklers knew that Popp was also dealing with a heart defect, they’d probably be rooting instead of mocking. His parents, Jack and Gail, are obviously well aware, but have not discouraged their son’s dream. Jack is a former IUP tennis player and a graduate of Norwin High School. It’s no wonder that with input from his father and high school coach, that IUP and W&J eventually became his favorites during the recruiting process.
“I actually verbally committed to IUP, but they had a coaching change and things didn’t work out for me. One of the old IUP coaches was Nick Sirianni, who suggested that I take a look at his brother’s school. I loved the fact that the W&J coaches wanted to win. I ended up checking out some of the other PAC schools while I was visiting western PA. I didn’t get that determination to win from the others. W&J proved to me they wanted it and I wanted to be a part of that success.”
As confident as Popp feels about his safety on the gridiron, the question remains: what if a bad snap occurs during one of his holds and he is forced to try and make a game-winning play? What if a kick is blocked and Popp is face-to-face with the player that scooped up the ball?
“My mother was definitely worried at first. One time in high school, I had to stick my head in there on a tackle. I looked in the stands and my mom had her hands over mouth. I can take some contact, but if I was at the bottom of a big pileup, I’d be concerned with having to push those guys off of me.”
A diehard Boston sports fan, Popp took over full-time holding duties last year as he has been behind W&J’s first-ever All-America kicker, Eric Eberle, on the depth chart. Of course, he’d love the chance to line up the game-winning field goal, but he also is part of a group of tight-knit specialists on the squad.
“It’s tough coming from high school where kickers usually don’t compete for jobs,” said Popp, who worked for his father’s company, HASBRO, this summer in Providence, R.I. “Eric is a great kicker and (former W&J kickers) Joe (Kelly) and Colin (Kracinovsky) were great players. Colin has been my best friend since we met. We all root for each other. We have a lot of free time on the sidelines and we’ve all held for each other. I think I have an advantage as a holder, because I know where I’d want the ball.”
Eberle has struggled on occasion this year and Popp has received a few chances on extra points. His first career point came midway through the fourth quarter at Grove City on an extra-point after Ryan Ruffing’s touchdown and he drilled another three weeks ago on Homecoming to put the Presidents ahead of Thiel 32-12. It’s not the glory some college football players receive, but for everything Popp has overcome, the kicks had to feel special.
During the Presidents' 45-21 victory over then 20th-ranked Thomas More Saturday night at Cameron Stadium, Popp handled all placekicking duties and was a perfect 6-for-6 on extra points and nailed his first career field goal (19 yards). He figures to finally hold on to the job that he has worked hard to obtain during his first three-plus years on campus.
“People don’t believe it when I tell them I play football in college,” he concluded. “They’ll say ‘Oh, of course you’re a kicker’. I just laugh it off. I’m playing college football, not too many can say that.”