Archdeacon: Beavercreek coach has ‘a lot to be thankful for’

BEAVERCREEK – It was late on a Sunday afternoon this past Jan. 3 and Steve Popp was sitting in his favorite chair in the living room of his Beavercreek home, watching an NFL game on the huge TV screen that dominates the room.

A few feet away from those flickering football images, in the adjoining dining room, was the curio cabinet he’d commandeered from his “significant other” – as he calls his girlfriend of 24 years, Jonda Shafner – replacing the porcelain cat figurines in there with mementos of his long and storied career as one of the best girls’ soccer coaches the state has ever known.

On the top shelf was his National Coach of the Year award from 2018.

The case also included his Beavercreek High Hall of Fame plaque and the state championship ring his girls team won in 2018 when it dominated Division I soccer with a 24-0 mark and a state record 19 shutouts.

There was a replica of the sign Beavercreek has at its city limits saluting that unbeaten title team. There were other championship medals and a trophy and even the scarf he wore at that state championship game.

All these remembrances take on more meaning when you know Popp’s real story.

Like a cat, he’s seemed to have nine lives.

But on this Sunday he was down to his last one.

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 – following open heart surgery in 2007 when doctors discovered structural damage – he’d lived with a pacemaker and defibrillator.

But after a dozen racing heart incidents – several of which sent him crashing to the floor and once requiring a rescue squad to dash to him to the hospital – it was evident his old heart was failing.

Popp’s doctors at the Ohio State Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital had begun a transplant workup in April of 2020 and he got on the transplant list four months later.

He figured he’d have a long wait and that’s why he was surprised that Sunday when he answered the phone and heard the nurse in Columbus tell him: “We have a heart for you!”

He and Jonda drove to Columbus and he said he walked into the hospital around 6p.m.: “I remember walking down the hall and I don’t remember too much after that.”

By 2 a.m. he was in surgery and he said some eight hours later, his new heart was beating away.

So, this Thanksgiving Day – while this is a story of heart – it’s not so much about that old heart that gave him so much trouble or the new one he’s still struggling to adjust to.

It’s about the ongoing heart Steve Popp has shown throughout his life – especially in recent years when he was in heart failure but continued to coach and win – all while keeping his health problems mostly to himself.

In part, it’s because he’s a private person, but mostly it’s because he wanted to give the Beavercreek girls the healthiest high school experience they could get.

“These days so much is going on in the world and there are so many pressures on young people, it can be tough on them,” Popp said. “But for two hours of practice or at a game, they can forget some of that.

“High school is a special time for the players and one of the great things high school sports does 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 a head coach, first at Bellbrook and then Wayne – has a 449-126-64 overall record. He’s gotten 345 of those victories at Beavercreek since taking over the program in 1999.

After Beavercreek won the state crown, Popp was named the National Coach of the Year by the United Soccer Association.

But when you tried to focus on that the other day, he quickly deflected toward the accomplishments of the players, who he said embrace “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 was never more evident than this past season.

Few people thought the 65-year-old Popp would coach this year. He said in March he didn’t think he would either. Recovery had been far more daunting than he’d imagined, but he followed all his doctors’ orders and began feeling better in June.

Then in July he was hospitalized with a Cytomegalovirus (CMV) virus that had been in his new heart.

“It spread through my body and, if not contained, it would have shut the other organs down,” he said.

Although back out of the hospital in early August, he was sleeping at least 12 hours a day and said he missed tryouts for the first time in 40 years of coaching.

Although Popp – often fighting fatigue and always wearing a mask -- returned to the team by preseason, the Beavers still lost all their scrimmages, started the season 3-2 and were shut out 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 around, made some attacking adjustments and the makeover produced magic.

The Beavers won 14 of their next 15 games, won the district tournament and made it to the regionals before losing to eventual state champs, Mount Notre Dame. They finished the season 17-4 and were ranked among the state’s top 15 teams.

Popp was named the co-GWOC Coach of the Year.

Girls soccer coach ‘by accident’

Popp became a girls’ 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 served as the assistant boys coach at Carroll from 1979 to 1985 and at a Cincinnati school for a year.

Back then the most noted soccer stars in the Popp family were Steve’s younger brothers, Don and Jeff.

Don was an all-state player at Carroll and a prolific goal scorer 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 at their parents’ home, which happens to be right next to where he now lives in the house that once belonged to his grandparents.

“Nobody was home, and the phone rang, so I answered,” he said. “It was one of Jeff’s Dynamo teammates and he said he’d just gotten traded and was headed to California, but he had a problem.

“He had committed to coaching the Bellbrook girls’ team and now they didn’t have a coach. He said if we knew anybody coaching high school, we should pass the job on to them.”

Popp called the school and, though he was working 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 went 41-36-17.

That led him back to Beavercreek, where he’d grown up.

At first, though, it wasn’t certain he could come home again. His first team won just six of its 18 games and the following year the Beavers won five 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 got stronger and stronger, his heart problems – he’d been born with a heart murmur – intensified.

The open-heart surgery in 2007 forced him to give up his leadership position with the Better Business Bureau, but he has stayed involved in the organization and still presents programs at Wright Patterson AFB. He also reads the newspaper once a week in a Salvation Army program that aids people who have no vision or are disabled.

Some of that has been curtailed by the 1-2 punch from the COVID-19 pandemic and his transplant recovery.

Following nearly two weeks in the hospital and another week – with his brother Don helping him – at a step-down apartment connected to the hospital, he made a low-key return to Beavercreek.

“I didn’t want balloons or parade,” he said. “I was happy for getting the transplant, but sad that another family had to lose someone for me to get this gift.

“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.”

There were other struggles though. At first, his legs and feet swelled so much he couldn’t wear shoes. He was taking 39 pills a day – it’s now down to 20 – and his weight has plummeted to 136 pounds.

That said, he never hesitated in his desire to keep coaching:

“It’s always been part of my life. I can’t picture not doing it as long as I can still contribute and help the players.

“Every time I go on the field – for training or a game – I get excited.

“And now the team gives me purpose and strength. It motivates me and keeps me stepping forward each day.”

Credit: Don Popp

Credit: Don Popp

‘Difficult’ season

That said, Popp said the past season was “one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to deal with.”

To handle the team’s two hours of daily practice – which usually went from 5 to 7 p.m. – he said he’d sleep three hours or so right before going to the field and then after practice he might sleep 10 hours straight.

During practice, he’d walk 6,000 steps in those two hours and then add another 4,000 during the day, both on his treadmill and walks through the neighborhood with Jonda.

Today, the two of them are having Thanksgiving dinner in Kettering with Jonda’s two daughters and her “G.B.s” as she calls her “grandbabies.”

“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” Popp said. “First and foremost are the donor and the donor’s family. And there’s my family and friends who support me.

“I’m thankful for the doctors and nurses who saved my life. And I’m thankful for my assistant coaches who stepped in and handled everything.

“And, of course, there’s the soccer team – all the players and their families – who supported me the whole season.”

He grew quiet, and, as the emotion welled up, he added:

“I’m thankful for my new heart and how it’ll give me another chance to do the things I like to do.

“I’m thankful I’ve got a future.

“The way things were going, who thought I was even going to be here now?”

That’s what makes this a story of Thanksgiving.

And it’s all because of The Beavercreek Way.

He didn’t quit.

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