Jim Copeland played nine seasons in the Canadian Football League in the 1960s. A defensive back and punt returner, Copeland played with the Montreal Alouettes, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Toronto Argonauts. Despite his relatively small stature, he is particularly remembered for his impressive return game.
Copeland was born in Windsor on January 2, 1939.
As a student at Kennedy Collegiate, Copeland was an integral part of the 1954 WSSA and WOSSA Football Championship team.
In 1956, Copeland suited up for the Windsor Jets in the Detroit Class “A” Football League, leading the league in rushing. The following year, he played running back, defensive back, and kickoff and punt returner for the Ontario Rugby Football Union Champion Windsor AKO Juniors. Copeland’s squad reached the Canadian Championship before losing to the Parkdale Lions Juniors, “Big Four” champions, 52-13. He played a second season for AKO in ’58, losing in the league finals to Sarnia.
Copeland’s professional football career began in 1959, when he played running back and returned kickoffs and punts for the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in the Senior ORFU. He was named the league’s Rookie of the Year and the Dutchmen’s team MVP while playing alongside former NFL players like quarterback Bob Celeri and onetime All-Pro defensive lineman Sam Cissell, plus Olympic Decathlon gold medal winner Milt Campbell. Copeland’s historically strong Dutchmen team played the Calgary Stampeders close in a preseason exhibition match, losing 24-16.
Copeland soon graduated to the CFL. He spent the 1960 season with Montreal before joining the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he would play until ’64. In 1962, he led the West Conference in punt returns. Between ’65 and ’68, Copeland switched conferences to play for the Toronto Argonauts. In ’67, he suffered a hamstring industry during training camp, which led to a rehabilitation stint with Bramalea in the Senior ORFU. Copeland scored 20 touchdowns in 8 games while leading the league in rushing, scoring, and receiving. After returning to the Argonauts, Copeland became the East Conference Leader in punt returns for 1998, his final season.
Upon his retirement, Copeland had established a legacy as one of the Canadian game’s greatest punt returners. Significantly, he stood at only 5’9” while playing in an era during which blocking was not allowed on punt returns. He sat at second in all-time punt returns in a playoff year (28), third all-time for punt returns in a playoffs game (10), fourth all-time for punt returns in a playoff career (62), and eighth all-time for career regular season punt returns (422). On October 29, 1966, Copeland set a CFL record for Most Punt Returns in a single game (14) during a contest against Hamilton. He also recorded 10 interceptions during his career.
In 1974, the Argonaut Alumni and members of the Toronto sports media named Copeland to a modern era (1945-73) All-Argonaut Team. Other notable selections included Joe Krol, Cookie Gilchrist, Tobin Rote, Dick Shatto, Royal Copeland, Mel Profit, Billy Shipp, Jim Stillwagon, Jim Corrigall, and Dick Fouts.