By Brian Paglia
He makes his entrance to summer workouts so pedestrian-like sometimes. It is two-and-a-half miles from Ola High School to Ra'Chard Pippens' house, so he pulls out his bicycle to make the lonely trip.
Mustangs coach John Kovzel sees Pippens enter the weight room with the bicycle under his arms, hears the muted sound of spokes crackling and wonders if there isn't a faster alternative for one of his starting cornerbacks to arrive at practice.
"I'm like, 'You should've called me. I would've come pick you up,'" Kovzel said. "He's like, 'No, coach, I want to ride my bike."
On July 25, Pippens will make another entrance, one not nearly as lonely. The rising junior qualified for the Ultimate 100 Rivals.com Camp at the University of Oklahoma, a prime opportunity to introduce himself to the college football recruiting industry. He'll enter Gaylord Family-Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., one of the cathedrals of college football, and into a world Pippens and his family is just beginning to understand.
Pippens arrived at this precipice of his brief football career by his performance at the Atlanta Rivals.com Ultimate 100 Camp on June 20. He ran a 4.45 40, jumped vertically 35 inches, broke the camp record with a 10-10 broad jump and was named Skills Combine King. Only the top 15 players in each position for every grade (freshman, sophomore, junior) were chosen to go to Norman. Pippens is one of them.
"I didn't think I was going to do that good the first year I started doing combines," he said. "It was a real surprise when they said I made it to the finals as one of the top prospects."
So far Pippens's high school athletic career has included impressive achievements, but on lesser stages. As a freshman, he won the long jump title at the Henry County track and field championship - on junior varsity. Last season, he won the 100-meter dash in 10.75 - on junior varsity. In football, he started every game at safety before moving to cornerback - on the junior varsity team.
Now the grander stage calls. Kovzel confidently names Pippens one of his starting cornerbacks, that the job is, as Kovzel said, "his to lose." And to illustrate Pippens' talent, he offers an anecdote from a passing tournament at Mary Persons High last weekend.
After Pippens' counterpart and friend, D.J. Beard, had three interceptions and Pippens had one, a flummoxed Pippens came to Kovzel.
"Coach," he said, "they don't throw to my side."
"You're right," Kovzel said, "they don't. That's a good thing."
Standing 6-foot, 172 pounds, the thrills of the recruiting journey are starting to emerge for Pippens. He's gone through the rituals of the combines: he is numbered, handed his uniform and takes a portrait photo, the one he still waits to find loaded on his Rivals.com player page.
Oh, yes, he has one of those now, too. The stars are empty - will he get five or one, he wonders? - as they are for the entire Class of 2011.
But the realities of the process have also confronted the Pippens.
"It's all about marketing," Pippens' mother, Patrice, said. "It really is. You shouldn't have to pay, because there is a fee. Then you look at it and think (the recruiting services are) just out here making money. But as a parent, you don't know what else to do."
Well, here's the Pippens' plan. Everyone in the van - Pippens, his mom, father and 13-year-old brother. Drive 14 hours to Norman, Okla. Step on the field at Memorial Stadium after saying a prayer, like his parents told him.
And take a giant step toward a dream of playing college football that suddenly seems feasible.
"At first, I thought it was just a dream, a goal," Pippens said. "But now it may be possible to go to the next level."