Brandon Copeland confessed in front of a full classroom: The New York Jets linebacker wasn’t always thinking about football even when he was on the field.

He was spending too much time thinking about money, trading equity options to be specific.

“It was a huge distraction on the field," the 27-year-old told undergraduate students packed into a room at McNeil Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus, just off Locust Walk. “I was sitting in meetings with the coach, supposed to be going over plays. But instead I was checking my phone, I was constantly running out of the room,” said Copeland, dressed sharply in a suit jacket and suede sneakers and sporting a behind-the-scenes, you-are-there grin.

“So I stopped,” he told the class Monday evening, recalling his rookie and second year in the NFL. “I just stopped trading. That’s an uncomfortable way to live, and I couldn’t sleep at night. That’s not what investing is supposed to be about.”

Before he got his degree from Penn’s Wharton undergraduate program in 2013, Copeland wished he’d taken a personal finance course to learn the basics of budgeting, investing, retirement planning, and career basics.

Instead, he’s now teaching that very undergraduate class.

It was during his five-year reunion last year that Penn lecturer Brian Peterson persuaded Copeland to come back and co-teach this spring semester. The full-credit course meets every Monday, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.

This past week Copeland addressed budgeting, high-yield savings accounts, the differences among stocks, bonds, and commodities, and how to save for retirement.

Roughly 30 Penn undergrads scrambled to find seats in McNeil for Copeland’s intensely popular once-a-week class.

“While the focal point is finance, there is also a wealth-gap portion to the course that my co-instructor Brian [Peterson] leads,” Copeland said in an interview.

Copeland wants to bring in Philadelphia high school students in upcoming classes, so “not only will our students understand important financial principles well enough to make more informed decisions in their own lives, but the goal is for them to be able to teach someone else the same. They’ll be able to spread this knowledge to their family members, and the Philadelphia community. One step at a time, but this is simply the first step of a plan of mine to share this information.”

So, how did he learn about personal finance after graduating from Penn?

“I always had an interest in investing when I was in high school, so I worked at Samuel James Ltd., a hedge fund, and got exposed to working with a Bloomberg terminal. Then in college I interned at [investment bank] UBS and a hedge fund founded by [Penn alum] George Weiss” in New York City, Copeland said.

After majoring in finance and management at Penn, he joined the Detroit Lions in 2015 and took the rookie players’ crash course in money management.

“All rookies have to take it!” he said with a laugh. “That’s a little more complicated than what I teach here, since we covered things like agent fees and union dues” for football players. “But it’s really important. Now, my wife works at Google and we use Google Sheets” to keep track of expenses, budget their money, and save for retirement. Copeland is married to a Penn alum and the couple have a baby on the way.

Copeland — who has earned nearly $3 million in salary and signing bonuses from his six-season sports career — invests in real estate in his hometown of Baltimore as well as in start-ups.

But before all of that, he had some lessons to learn. A locker-room referral led him to Rob Sims, a former Detroit Lions player who mentored Copeland on business opportunities. Sims is a pro-athlete-turned-entrepreneur, and Copeland said Sims helped “me realize that it’s easier to learn about the pitfalls beforehand with a mentor.” Other mentors include author and consultant Temeko Richardson, Copeland said.

Today he mostly invests in stock and bond mutual funds, ETFs, and the NFL’s retirement plan, “although I change the allocations myself.”

But he still felt that personal finance represented a missed opportunity for Penn students. He tackles the nitty-gritty in class with students, including salaries for their intended fields.

Penn alum and Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland teaching at Wharton.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Penn alum and Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland teaching at Wharton.

“One young woman in the class shared that she looked up the average salary for nonprofit work, and she didn’t know it was only $42,000 a year. Then we talk about what state taxes would take out, how much rent there would be in a particular city, and the cost of student loans. It really changes their perspective. This isn’t a course that is intended to kill their dreams, per se, but to enable those dreams” with clear-eyed information, he said.

“Did you guys do your homework, asking your family members how they save?” He points to one young man.

“My aunt gets an Army pension,” the student replied.

“My mom was a single parent, so she never really had money beyond her salary to save,” said another.

Peterson, the co-teacher, said many of Penn’s Wharton undergrads leave school with theories of finance but “the feeling like they don’t understand much about personal finance.” In recent years, Wharton students formed an MBA club on investing.

“I knew Brandon, I knew his wife, and I’m very interested in financial literacy for our students, how to finance an education at Penn, how do you take on as little debt as possible. Many of us who were Penn grads, like myself, we too made some poor financial decisions,” Peterson said.

“It’s bigger than just financial literacy," Peterson said. “Professional athletes may not come from the greatest situation growing up. They get a windfall of money, people start coming at them. Penn grads have the same problem — often times, you graduate and you are the winner in the family, you’ve won the lottery. I have students whose parents were on public assistance. So how do these students balance that reality?”

For that reason, Copeland includes the wealth gap in his teaching.

“We want to include parts of the class," he said, "not just about wealth creation but also wealth inequity and how we don’t need to judge others on their finances.”