Clemson University

Clemson recruit Jake Nicolopulos is overcoming a stroke


IT WAS DARK in the room; she remembers that as though it were yesterday. There were many questions and not a lot else.

Anne Nicolopulos was alone with her worries in an outpatient apartment next to the Shepherd Center where her son Jake had been moved after the stroke he suffered on Dec. 9 dropped him to his knees in his Anderson home and changed his life forever.

She couldn't understand why her policy for attending to her children suddenly wasn't working. It had always worked: the times her oldest, Gina, a sophomore at Clemson, had gone out on first dates; the times Jake went out and Anne worried about drinking and driving; the times Jake suited up to play football, a sport of violent collisions.

It might have been Christmas, maybe Christmas eve, she thinks, but the date on the calendar seems so insignificant now, it isn't worth a moment's thought.

She knows what happened and she knows everything will be all right for her son.

"I was one of those people," Anne Nicolopulos said Tuesday afternoon while sitting on the same couch she was on that night, "who felt I always had to be in control of everything, I had to know what was going on and then it would all be OK; that's what I thought."

Her son had a bad migraine on Dec. 8 and took two pills that had been prescribed for such times, but it didn't seem to be working. The next morning, Jake had a big day ahead - a lunch meeting with Clemson assistant football coach Brad Scott, who had successfully recruited him a year ago.

Jake was feeling better the next morning, had breakfast, showered, shaved and got ready to leave. He walked slowly down the hall toward the living room when his father Craig noticed something unusual.

"He wasn't himself," Craig said. "He stopped and looked at me, and I said, 'What's going on?' and he just stood there. He couldn't say anything, his mouth opened but nothing came out.

Craig asked him his name and nothing came out. He helped him to the ground, put him on his back and lifted his son's knees, thinking he was lightheaded and needed blood flow to the brain. As soon as he put Jake's right leg up, it flopped right back to the floor, unresponsive.

"Call 911," Craig said to Anne, and five minutes later an aid truck was there. Five minutes after that, Jake was in the hospital.

Doctors determined he had suffered a rare pediatric stroke on the left side of his brain that shut down the right side of his body. He was moved to the Shepherd Center, one of the nation's leading rehabilitation hospitals for people suffering brain or spinal cord injuries."

His progress was rapid, but his mother still was trying to work her magic, to no avail. On that night last month, Craig lay in bed, her son was next door in a hospital bed and Anne was on the couch, lights out, worrying, as hard as she could.

"I honestly felt if I worried about kids drinking and driving, or what might happen at a party or in a football game, if I worried about it enough, it was going to be OK," she said. "On that night, I sat here on this couch worrying, and nothing was happening, not a thing, and it was getting real frustrating."

Then, she said, it got quiet, even quieter than it had been in the middle of the night.

"I was praying and praying and praying," she said. "I was saying, 'I cannot go the rest of my life not knowing what happened, why this happened, I can't dot it,' and that's when it got quiet.

"I heard a voice. I heard it. I heard it as clearly as you can hear anything, and the voice said, 'Jake is going to live a long, healthy and happy life;' that's what God told me.

"This was total submission on my part," she said. "I mean, I had never allowed myself to do anything like in my life. I was a control person; the more I controlled things, the more things happened the right way. That's what I believed.

"But when I heard those words, I didn't need to know anything else," she said. "I was at peace; I'm at peace now. Jake is going to be fine"

The football career is over. Jake Nicolopulos had a small, bony protective covering of his skull - the skullcap, they call it - cut out of his head and implanted, for the time being, in his abdomen. When he has recovered enough, it will be placed back over the left side of his brain, but the stint doctors inserted in his head to drain fluid off his brain is permanent.

There will be no more football, but there will be lots of living. He might coach, he could scout, maybe he'll take up golf.

"His progress has been amazing to see," Craig said. "Exactly why or how it happened, we may never know, but it could have been related to the medication he took the night before the stroke. His attitude, according to the doctors and the therapists, has been phenomenal; the way he's accepted his learning path is something they talk about every day."

Jake has been at Shepherd Center since Dec. 22, and for a week now, he's been moved next door to an apartment with his parents. He's technically an outpatient now, going to rehabilitation in the morning until early afternoon and then moving back to the apartment. The physical skills are coming back with momentum, the speech more slowly, which is always the case.

He has some big dates upcoming. Feb. 26 will be the one-year anniversary of the day he committed to attend Clemson and play linebacker. The school kept its part of the bargain and will honor his scholarship.

"I honestly never thought about it," Anne said. "They have been so personally involved, from Brad Scott to all the others; they've gone well beyond what anyone might expect. They call, they visit, they stay in touch constantly. They made him feel he's a part of the Clemson family."

Another date he has to look forward to is June 4, when Jake will graduate from T.L. Hanna.

And then there's the first Clemson football game, Sept. 9 against North Texas.

He'll be there.