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Flames Feature: Finding A Place to Call Home
As he had done the previous three years, the Forest, Va., native made the trek up the mountains to Charlottesville for training camp at Virginia, since he signed with the Cavaliers in 2003.
Pinigis was coming off his most successful season at Virginia. He had played in every game during the 2005 campaign, with starts against some of the ACC's top programs – Boston College, Florida State and Maryland. The banner year included recognition and honors, including being named the team's Offensive Player of the Week following a battle against Boston College.
The 6-8, 295-pound offensive lineman was poised and ready to return to his role, as he entered the dog days of summer for training camp. However, during the preseason session, the Cavaliers' coaching staff made a switch for the future at right tackle, leaving Pinigis without his desired role with the program.
Like so many other college students have done in years past, when confused about life's direction during a turbulent time, Pinigis turned to friends and family, looking for answers – looking for a place he could call home.
Although head coach Danny Rocco was still a new face in the Hill City, the Flames' new skipper was an "old friend" to Pinigis. During his five years at Virginia, Rocco served as the recruiting coordinator, helping sign Pinigis away from other suitors like Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
"Virginia was very aggressive with their recruiting and it made me feel like they really wanted me," reflected Pinigis. "That is one of the main reasons why I decided to go to Virginia."
After hearing Virginia had decided to go in a different direction at right tackle, Rocco once again took that initiative and assertive mentality, phoning Pinigis to offer him a second chance to play under Rocco, and this time right in his own backyard.
So, just seven days before the opening of the 2006 season against St. Paul's, Pinigis joined the Flames' roster on Aug. 21. To many, the abrupt change and abbreviated adjustment period might seem to be a daunting task, but for Pinigis, it felt just like old times in his new home.
Not only was the offensive lineman back at home with his family, but he was surrounded by friends. He was back playing with former Jefferson Forest High School teammate Stevie Ray Lloyd, as well as, Rashad Jennings, who he battled against when the running back played for their prep rival Brookville.
"In high school, we often sat around and talked about trying to stay together, but everyone went their separate ways as different offers came along," said Pinigis.
Lloyd ventured from Lynchburg down to Blacksburg, Va., to continue his playing career at Virginia Tech. Jennings went the furthest from home, leaving the Hill City to play at Pittsburgh.
However, over the next few years, all three felt the call to return to their roots, ending up back at Liberty. "At Virginia, if you had told me that this was going to happen, that we would all be back together, I would have thought you were crazy," stated Pinigis. "But now, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
Most transfers take their time adjusting to a new program, but not Pinigis. With size and the experience of playing at a higher level, Pinigis was thrust into the starting lineup quickly.
At year's end, Rocco looked like a genius for the late August roster addition. Pinigis was named to the Big South first-team all-conference squad, after grading out the season at 90 percent, the second-highest mark on the squad. He led the team in pancake blocks and allowed just one sack all season.
Pinigis was part of an offensive line which allowed Liberty to rush for 2,035 yards and 23 touchdowns, ranking No. 18 in the country in rushing yards per game (185.0). The Flames finished the season ranked nationally in eight different offensive categories, due in large part to Pinigis and his counterparts on the offensive line.
The most notable of the team's accomplishments came in the win-loss column. The season prior to Pinigis' arrival, Liberty finished the 2005 campaign with 1-10 record, one of the lower points in the program's history.
However, after one year under Rocco, the direction of the program had been righted, as Liberty finished 2006 with a 6-5 record, tying for the best turnaround that season among NCAA FCS schools.
"Helping turn the program around was a lot of fun," stated Pinigis. "It is hard to describe what happened last year, but as the days went on, it just seemed like the attitude and the atmosphere surrounding the program just changed. Everyone was upbeat and we were just having fun."
Besides having the time of his life playing a sport he has loved since starting in the sixth grade, Pinigis' experience at Liberty took a turn toward leadership entering his final collegiate year of competition.
Last spring, during the Flames' annual spring game, Rocco announced the team's captains. Pinigis, along with Lloyd were two of five selections, an honor Pinigis doesn't take lightly, as he knows it comes from his fellow teammates.
"It is definitely an honor to be chosen as a team captain," commented Pinigis. "I'm not a ‘rah-rah' type of guy, as I am more of leader by example. I think my teammates chose me because of my hard work and my willingness to do whatever it takes to win."
But helping his squad win would have to wait at the start of the 2007 season. Pinigis was sidelined for the first two games of the year with a broken toe, leaving the lineman with no choice but to be that "rah-rah" cheerleader.
Two games into the season, Pinigis returned to the active line up against William & Mary, giving Liberty one of the largest starting front fives at the FCS level. The Flames' starting five offensive linemen average 6-5 and 297 pounds.
And the mammoth group has not disappointed this year. Liberty's average rushing yards per game has increased, as the Flames rank No. 22 nationally by running for 202.1 yards per contest. Pinigis and his big-boy companions have sparked an offensive outburst for Liberty. The Flames rank No. 7 in the nation in scoring average (40.0), thanks in part to 19 rushing touchdowns in seven games.
Liberty's O-line has also done its job keeping Pinigis' fellow team captain and quarterback Brock Smith off the turf. The Flames rank No. 4 in the country, having allowed just five sacks.
Although the numbers and the accolades might be grand and add to the record section of the Flames media guide for years to come, Pinigis has one goal in mind as the Flames enter the second half of his final season – winning a Big South championship.
"I would like nothing more than to win a conference championship, alongside my friends and in front of my family," stated Pinigis. And the Flames have already made a convincing statement towards obtaining that desired goal. Last Saturday, Liberty rolled up 50 points in a 50-10 road victory over Charleston Southern, quickly putting Liberty atop the league standings.
As the sun starts to set upon Pinigis' collegiate days, the senior is facing a potential future which most little boys dream of when they strap on their first helmet, back in their Pop Warner football days.
Pinigis, along with fellow offensive linemen Stephen Sene and Marshal Ausberry, are three of several Flames' players whose football prowess has caught the eye of those at the next level. A professional scout appearance during preseason camp and on the sidelines at this year's games is quite a common occurrence, which brings a smile to the senior's face.
"It is really exciting to be a professional prospect and to be considered to play at the next level," remarked Pinigis. "I've always dreamed about it, but now that it is here, it is kind of weird. I realize that it is a tough business and it is hard to get into. I don't want to get my hopes up too high, but at the same time, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to live out my dream."
So Saturday, thousands of alumni return to Liberty Mountain to rekindle the memories of the past, remembering a place that became a second home to them. They will be joined by the big guy donning the No. 73 jersey in their feeling of joy, as Eddie Pinigis is also happy in a place he calls home.
"I really can't put into words how much it means to me to be playing at Liberty," commented Pinigis. "Coming here was the best decision I've made in my life. I'm back home with my family, surrounded by my friends, playing a game I love to play."
By Todd Wetmore
Liberty University Assistant AD – Athletic Media Relations