By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – Kalil Pimpleton is a small kid with a huge heart.
He said he cried as a sophomore at Detroit’s Ford Field, when his Muskegon football team lost the state championship game to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
He was a late-season call-up and didn’t play very much in that game, but felt bad for the seniors who failed to reach their goal.
He said he cried with joy when he got his first college football scholarship offer, from Ferris State. He said he cried with joy when he got his first Division 1 scholarship offer, from Virginia Tech.
He said he really cried late last fall, when Muskegon’s dream of playing in a state title game for the fourth straight year came to a halt in an ugly playoff loss to Lowell.
“I don’t think I’ve cried like that since I was a baby,” said Pimpleton, 17, a senior at Muskegon High School.
He says his emotions pour out freely, “especially when it comes to football, something I love.”
Pimpleton also puts his heart on display during games, fearlessly throwing his small 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame into every play, racing, dodging and weaving past defenders, or breaking tackles that initially appear to have him down.
Last season, his first as a starting quarterback, he ran for 1,091 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. He threw for 1,180 yards and 10 more touchdowns. He led the Big Reds to a 9-3 season and a district title in the postseason playoffs.
This season, through seven games, he’s the Big Reds’ leading rusher with 726 yards on 65 carries for an astounding average of 11.17 yards per carry. He’s scored 14 touchdowns on the ground, and has had 11 runs for more than 20 yards.
As a passer, he’s completed 27 of 50 throws for 504 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He’s returned seven punts for 157 yards and two touchdowns. His longest return covered 62 yards.
He’s also caught nine passes for 121 yards and one touchdown.
That adds up to 1,531 all-purpose yards and 29 touchdowns, and there are still two games to go in the regular season, followed by as many as five postseason playoff games – if the Big Reds reach their goal.
Muskegon is currently 6-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 3. The Big Reds will go for their seventh win Friday against cross-town rival Mona Shores at 7 p.m. at Hackley Stadium.
“I just go out there, say my prayer, know that God’s got me, and I just play,” Pimpleton said.
Being small has never been much of a concern for Pimpleton on the field.
“Some people always told me I was too small,” he said. “I heard it with my own ears. You just have to show them they’re wrong.
“You can do whatever people say you can’t. You just set your mind to it, work hard, put your trust in God, and it’s yours.
“Heart over height. I always use that.”
‘I was good at it’
Pimpleton’s extreme confidence on the football field took some time to develop.
His parents signed him up for youth leagues when he was four or five, and he didn’t like it at all. In fact, his distaste for the game lasted until he was about 10 years old.
“It’s something that runs in our family,” said Pimpleton, a friendly kid who doesn’t mind expressing himself at all. “All of my uncles and cousins played for Muskegon, my stepdad played for Muskegon, and my dad actually played for Muskegon Heights back in the 80s, I think.
“So I played with my cousin (former Big Red) Jared Pittman, and I hated it. I hated getting hit. But I had to go do it. One year I told my parents that I wasn’t going to play the next year, and they said ‘Yes you are.’”
Pimpleton’s love for the game gradually emerged over the early years. He was obviously talented, and people tend to enjoy things they’re excel at.
”I was good at it,” Pimpleton said. “I was scoring touchdowns. Every time I got hit I cried, but I didn’t get hit a lot. When I was nine or ten one of my coaches told me that I could really be something, and he pushed me pretty hard.
“Since I was a kid I was always pretty fast and shifty. I was always watching highlights of (NFL running back) Darren Sprowls. I used to love to watch him. He was a little guy out there always running around. I figured, he’s little, I’m little, I can do it just like him.”
Pimpleton became a quarterback by accident when he was in the seventh grade. His team was far ahead in a game, and the coach pulled the starting quarterback and asked for a volunteer.
Pimpleton – who almost unbelievably was not an offensive starter at the time – jumped at the chance. He displayed a natural feel for the position and became a starting quarterback when he reported for practice the next fall.
He’s been piling up the yards and the points ever since.
That’s extra challenging for Pimpleton, because everyone in the stadium knows he’s going to have the ball more often than not.
Of the 190 rushing plays the Big Reds have run this year, he’s carried the ball 65 times, or nearly one-third of the time.
Defenders are never surprised when they see him coming, but they have an incredibly hard time tackling him.
Pimpleton is also a very efficient passer, although he’s been called upon to do that less this year, since the Big Reds rotate in backup quarterback La’darius Jefferson a lot, allowing Pimpleton to move around the backfield and better employ his speed and pass-catching abilities.
When he’s old and gray, Pimpleton will have quite a few stories to tell his grandchildren about his big games with the Big Reds. The list goes on and on.
Last year, in his fourth game as a starter, he rushed for 203 yards and scored four touchdowns against previously unbeaten East Grand Rapids.
Against Grandville last year, during Muskegon’s historic 800th football victory, Pimpleton rushed for 121 yards, including four touchdowns, and passed for 121 yards.
In this year’s opening game against Ann Arbor Pioneer, played at Michigan Stadium, he had a hand in five touchdowns – two TD passes, two rushing touchdowns and one touchdown catch. He finished with 260 yards of total offense.
Perhaps his most telling performance came earlier this season against Lincolnshire Stevenson, a powerhouse team from the Chicago area.
In the first half alone, Pimpleton rushed for 40- and 38-yard touchdowns and passed or a 35-yard score. He finished with 176 yards passing and 126 yards rushing.
It’s the highlight reel rushing touchdowns that draw most of the oohs and aahs from fans.
“It’s just second nature for me,” Pimpleton said. “It’s my speed and my vision. I see a hole and go through it. I see defenders, and I act like I’m getting ready to sacrifice my body and take a hit, then I make a move on them.”
‘No need to be greedy’
Pimpleton was probably the only one surprised when he started receiving scholarship offers from college football teams.
His first offer came in the middle of his junior season, from Ferris State University.
“I got called out of class,” he said. “Coach (Brent) White said congratulations, you just got your first college offer. I cried. It was overwhelming. I had always prayed for that moment.”
An offer from Davenport University followed, but Pimpleton had his heart set on playing Division 1 football, and held out for an offer from a big school.
That offer came last spring from Virginia Tech, an Atlantic Coast Conference power – and once again Pimpleton was shocked.
“It caught me off guard,” he said. “I remember one Sunday I was praying to God that the moment would come, and not even three or four days later I got my first Division 1 offer. It was crazy.
“I was in sixth hour science class when Coach Fairfield called me down. Usually when he calls you down you wonder ‘what did I do?’. But he handed me the phone, and the man said it was Coach Perry (an assistant coach) from Virginia Tech. I was overwhelmed, at a loss for words.
“Then the head coach comes on the phone and said they were offering me a full-ride scholarship to Virginia Tech. I cried. It was what I had been praying for, coming true.”
Pimpleton visited the Virginia Tech campus twice, and committed to play for the Hokies in May. He didn’t wait for offers from other Division 1 colleges – even those in his home state – even though he had a full season of high school football still ahead of him, a many more offers sure to roll in.
He said he and his family have always been Michigan State fans, and said the Spartans showed some interest over the summer at a 7-on-7 camp.
“A coach came up to see me and said he wanted me to come to a camp there the following Saturday, but I never went down,” Pimpleton said.
“There was no need to be greedy,” he said. “Division 1 is Division 1, and that was my goal. I got what I wanted. Loyalty, that’s where I stand.”
Pimpleton will have to give up his quarterback position at Virginia Tech. He’s been penned in as a slot receiver, where he will be able to more frequently employ his speed and pass-catching abilities.
He said he’ll miss being the play-caller and the leader of the offense, but not that much.
“You can be a leader at any position,” he said. “I know Virginia Tech doesn’t take anybody who’s not a leader. As a slot receiver, I will be able to show off much more of my quickness and shiftiness.”
Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield is confident that Pimpleton will stand out in college football.
“He’s going to have such an impact,” Fairfield said. “He’s going to have to climb the ladder and pay his dues because he will be a freshman, but he’s such a playmaker that he will have that impact, whether he turns out to be a punt returner, a kick returner or slot receiver.”
The final mission
Before he turns his attention to college football, Pimpleton has some unfinished business on the field for Muskegon.
It starts this Friday against Mona Shores.
The Big Reds have lost two straight regular season games to the Sailors, costing them the O-K Black Conference championship in 2014 and 2015. Pimpleton was the starting quarterback in last year’s game, which Mona Shores won 21-18.
The Big Reds came back to topple the Sailors in a playoff rematch last fall, but that victory didn’t produce a conference trophy.
A victory in this year’s game wouldn’t, either – not quite. The Big Reds, who are 4-0 in league play, would still have to beat a tough Jenison squad in Week 9 to nail down the title.
Pimpleton is very aware of Muskegon’s league championship slump, and the legacy that he and his team will leave behind. He definitely wants that legacy to include an O-K Black title.
“The conference championship is something we have to have under our belts, for this 2016 team,” he said. “That’s the chip on our shoulder (against Mona Shores). We want to take it away from them.”
The team’s goals go far beyond that.
Everybody knows that Muskegon is the winningest high school football program in state history, and has a pile of state championships.
People also know that the Big Reds advanced to state title games at Ford Field for three straight years – 2012 through 2014 – and lost all three times.
Last season’s drive to end that streak was halted in painful fashion in Lowell, when the Big Reds fell 36-7 to the Red Arrows in regional play.
“We didn’t play our best,” Pimpleton said. “There were no excuses.”
This year Pimpleton and his teammates are laser-focused on ending the state title drought, and proving they deserve their lofty No. 1 state ranking.
“That’s something we always talk about as a football team,” said Pimpleton, whose stepfather, Jeff Brown, played on the 1986 state title team. “We’re like a brotherhood and we all have the same mission – to get the state title. Right after practice sometimes I go home and watch the 2006 and 2008 championship games. Other nights I’m watching the 1986 and 1987 championship games.
“We’re capable of not losing anymore. We’ve just got to stay humble and keep our minds right.”
Muskegon was humbled once this year, when it blew a big first-quarter lead and lost to Stevenson, the Illinois team, 38-35. Pimpleton admits that loss hurt, but says it may have been a good thing in the long run – as long as it turns out to be the only loss.
“It just showed that we aren’t unbeatable, and it was something we have to build from and learn from,” he said. “We took the hunger from that game and brought it with us the next week. Every day we talk about how that one loss on our record is ugly, and we can’t have two.”
Beyond football, Pimpleton isn’t sure what his future might hold. He’s a good student, with a 3.1 grade point average, but isn’t particularly enthusiastic about school.
“I really don’t like school,” he said. “I never have. It’s just not my thing. But I know I have to get the work done to be what I want to be.”
What does he want to be, if professional football isn’t in the cards after college?
“I want to do something to help people,” Pimpleton said. “I don’t know yet what that might be, but I keep praying and asking God about that. Helping people is something I love to do.”
Fairfield has no doubt that Pimpleton will be a huge success at something, because he has the necessary passion, drive and personality.
“He has a very special aura about him that you find in very few young men his age,” the coach said. “Someday people will be talking about him at their company the way we talk about him on the football field. People will say that he has such a personality, that he inspires people, and everything he touches turns to gold.”