All these memories take on more meaning when you know Popp’s real story.
Like a cat, he seemed to have nine lives.
But on this Sunday he was on his last.
Nine months earlier, his cardiologist had told him that because of the shape of his ever-failing heart, he probably had 8 to 14 months to live unless he had a transplant.
For the past 14 years — after open-heart surgery in 2007 when doctors discovered structural damage — he had lived with a pacemaker and defibrillator.
But after a dozen palpitations—several of which sent him crashing to the ground and once requiring rescuers to rush to the hospital—it was clear that his old heart was failing.
Popp’s doctors at Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital in Ohio state had started a transplant in April 2020, and he was put on the transplant list four months later.
He thought he would be waiting a long time, so he was surprised that Sunday when he answered the phone and heard the nurse in Columbus say, “We have a heart for you!”
He and Jonda drove to Columbus, and he said he walked into the hospital around 6:00 PM: “I remember walking down the hall and after that I don’t remember much.”
He had surgery at 2 a.m. and said his new heart was beating about eight hours later.
So this Thanksgiving Day—while this is a story of the heart—isn’t so much about that old heart that gave him so much trouble or the new one that he still struggles to adjust to.
It’s about the constant heart that Steve Popp has shown throughout his life – especially in recent years when he had heart failure, but continued to coach and win, while keeping his health issues mostly to himself.
In part, that’s because he’s a private person, but mostly because he wanted to give the Beavercreek girls the healthiest high school experience they could get.
“There’s so much going on in the world today and there’s so much pressure on young people, it can be tough on them,” Popp said. “But they can forget that for two hours of practice or during a match.
“High school is a special time for the players and one of the great things sports does in high school is create a lifetime of memories.”
And Popp and the Beavercreek girls have created memories like few other programs in Ohio.
In his career, Popp – who was head coach, first with Bellbrook and then Wayne – has an overall record of 449-126-64. He has had 345 of those wins at Beavercreek since he took over the program in 1999.
After Beavercreek won the state crown, Popp was named National Coach of the Year by the United Soccer Association.
But when you tried to focus on that recently, it quickly turned to the performance of the players, who he says are embracing “The Beavercreek Way.” And what does that mean?
“They play hard,” he said. “They play the right way. They play for their teammates and they never give up.”
That has never been more evident than this past season.
Few people thought 65-year-old Popp would coach this year. He said in March that he didn’t think he would either. The recovery had been much more discouraging than he’d imagined, but he followed all his doctor’s orders and started to feel better in June.
In July, he was hospitalized with a cytomegalovirus (CMV) virus that had been in his new heart.
“It spread through my body and if it hadn’t been contained, it would have disabled the other organs,” he said.
Although he returned from the hospital in early August, he slept at least 12 hours a day and said he missed tryouts for the first time in 40 years of coaching.
Although Popp—often battling fatigue and always masked—returned to the team by preseason, the Beavers still lost all of their scrimmages, started the season 3-2 and were eliminated twice.
“It was a rocky start and the players were upset,” Popp said. “That’s not The Beavercreek Way.”
He and his coaches moved players, made some offensive adjustments, and the makeover worked magic.
The Beavers won 14 of their next 15 games, winning the district tournament and reaching the regional finals before losing to eventual state champions, Mount Notre Dame. They finished the season 17-4 and were among the top 15 teams in the state.
Popp was named the co-GWOC Coach of the Year.
Girls soccer coach ‘accidentally’
Popp became a girl coach “by accident,” he said.
After graduating from Carroll High School and the University of Dayton, he worked as a radio personality in Springfield and Cincinnati. He was the assistant coach for boys at Carroll from 1979 to 1985 and a year at a Cincinnati school.
At the time, the most famous football stars in the Popp family were Steve’s younger brothers, Don and Jeff.
Don was an all-state player for Carroll and a prolific goalscorer for Bowling Green.
Jeff was on the Carroll team that won a state title, then played at UD and Wright State before becoming a defender with the Dayton Dynamo.
One day, Steve stopped by their parents’ house, which happens to be right next door to where he now lives in the house that once belonged to his grandparents.
“No one was home and the phone rang, so I answered,” he said. “It was one of Jeff’s Dynamo teammates and he said he just traded and was on his way to California, but he had a problem.
“He was committed to coaching the girls’ team at Bellbrook and now they didn’t have a coach. He said if we know someone who coaches high school, we should pass the job on to them.”
Popp called the school and although he worked in the front office of a Vandalia tool shop, he said he offered to help if he could get his boss’s blessing — which he did.
In five years, his Bellbrook teams won 63 games. In 1994 he moved to Wayne and in five years he turned 41-36-17.
That brought him back to Beavercreek, where he grew up.
At first, however, it was not certain that he would be able to return home. His first team won just six out of 18 games, and the following year, the Beavers won five out of 17 games.
By the third year, he had his system in place and his team went 16-4-1 and won the district title.
Although his program was getting stronger, his heart problems – he was born with a heart murmur – got worse.
Open-heart surgery in 2007 forced him to relinquish his leadership position at the Better Business Bureau, but he has remained involved with the organization and still hosts programs at Wright Patterson AFB. He also reads the newspaper once a week on a Salvation Army program that helps people who have no sight or are disabled.
Some of that has been curtailed by the 1-2 bump of the COVID-19 pandemic and its transplant recovery.
After nearly two weeks in the hospital and another week—with his brother Don helping him—in a finished apartment connected to the hospital, he quietly returned to Beavercreek.
“I didn’t want balloons or parade,” he said. “I was happy that I got the transplant, but sad that another family had to lose someone to get this gift for me.
“People tell me to remember that the family wanted to donate it. In their eyes they were doing something positive and maybe it gave them comfort… That helps me.”
However, there were other struggles. At first, his legs and feet swelled so much that he couldn’t wear shoes. He was taking 39 pills a day – it’s now down to 20 – and his weight has dropped to 136 pounds.
That said, he never wavered in his desire to continue coaching:
“It has always been a part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing it as long as I can still contribute and help the players.
“Every time I go out on the field – for training or a game – I get excited.
“And now the team gives me purpose and strength. It motivates me and makes me take a step forward every day.”
That said, Popp said last season was “one of the hardest I’ve ever dealt with.”
To cope with the team’s two hours of daily training — which was usually from 5 to 7 p.m. — he said he would sleep for about three hours right before going to the field and that he might sleep for 10 hours straight after practice. to sleep.
During the workout, he walked 6,000 steps in those two hours and added another 4,000 throughout the day, both on his treadmill and walking around the neighborhood with Jonda.
Today the two are having Thanksgiving dinner at Kettering with Jonda’s two daughters and her “GBs” as she calls her “grandbabies.”
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Popp said. “First and foremost are the donor and the donor’s family. And there are my family and friends who support me.
“I am grateful for the doctors and nurses who saved my life. And I’m thankful for my assistant coaches who stepped in and arranged everything.
“And of course there is the football team – all the players and their families – who have supported me all season.”
He went silent and when the emotion set in, he added:
“I am grateful for my new heart and how it will give me another chance to do the things I love to do.
“I am grateful that I have a future.
“As things went, who would have thought I’d be here now?”
That makes this a Thanksgiving story.
And it’s all because of The Beavercreek Way.
He didn’t stop.