The day was supposed to hold something satisfying and sweet for the Pinkins family.
Parents, brothers and cousins congregated in Columbia a year ago to watch Dondrial Pinkins, then a redshirt freshman quarterback at South Carolina, stake his claim as the Gamecocks' starter.
Everything began to unravel shortly after the spring game began. With every interception - Pinkins threw five - his status as a backup was cemented while his family watched it all unfold from the stands.
"It was heartbreaking," said Pinkins' mother, Delores. "All through high school, he never had a game like that. He said it was the worst game he ever had in his life."
Pinkins has come a long way since that dark day, but not far enough to be recognized as the starter. The 20-year-old from Camilla, Ga., will have an opportunity to make a bigger impression - and to erase the bitter memory of last year - in today's spring game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Every time I read a paper or something, it's mentioned," said Pinkins, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder. "I just try to blank it out and go on with the future."
To Al Pinkins, looking into his brother's future is a more encouraging exercise than peering into his own past. He knows what it's like to leave high school with boundless potential, only to have little to show for it beyond an injury-plagued basketball career at N.C. State.
Now 29 years old and living in Raleigh, N.C., Al remembers being a three-sport star from 1988-91 at Mitchell-Baker High School in Camilla. He recalls going to Auburn on his first recruiting visit and committing on the spot to play football and basketball for the Tigers.
He canceled his visit to Florida, a burgeoning power under the young Steve Spurrier, but wished he hadn't after Auburn's football and basketball programs were slapped with probation.
Spurrier went on to dominate the Southeastern Conference, changing the way college football is played with innovative offensive schemes. Al went to junior college, where he gave up football and played basketball for two years. Then he ended up at N.C. State, where knee injuries and a few good parties kept him from becoming a star.
"I tore my knee up my first year and it really set me back," he said. "I kind of fell into the party life - party here, party there - and never really got back to being 100 percent."
Through regular visits and phone calls, Al is determined to keep Dondrial from repeating the mistakes that blocked his path to the NBA.
"He's always talking about wanting to go to the NFL, and I'm telling him, 'Are you going to do what it takes to get there?"' said Al, who performs vocational training for at-risk teen-agers in Raleigh. "'Are you going to stay in and not go out to the nightclubs the night before a game, so you can be sharp when you're playing the game?"'
"I'm not telling him to be in his dorm 24-7. But he's got to know when to have fun and when not to have fun."
Small town, big talents
Whatever Dondrial, Al and middle brother Torrie do in Camilla, people will know about it sooner or later - probably sooner. Word travels fast in the tiny town of about 7,000 in southwest Georgia, especially if your last name is Pinkins.
"Everybody in the town knows who we are - everybody," said Torrie, a 26-year-old who was a baseball star in high school and at Savannah State. "That pretty much sums it up."
As sports luminaries in Camilla go, there are the Pinkins brothers, former Georgia basketball star Jumaine Jones and a few others.
Al won two state titles in basketball and one as a quarterback, leaving behind a vapor trail of state records. Torrie won a state championship in football, and Dondrial won three straight in basketball as a small forward.
"I guess we kind of set the foundation as far as athletics around there go," Al said.
The brothers are as close to best friends as brothers can get. They keep in touch regularly by telephone despite being separated by hundreds of miles.
Put them on the court, though, and those bonds are buried.
Take the game of 2-on-2 a few months ago on a court in Camilla, Dondrial and Torrie against Al and a buddy. Dondrial had boasted for weeks that big brother was washed up and due a rude lesson.
They played three games to 11, none of them close. Al's team won each one.
"And he was guarding me the whole time," Al said of Dondrial. "I haven't heard anything else from him about that. I'm not a guy that will ride him a lot, but I'll just let him know until we play again that all the talking he did, he paid for."
Making his mark
Al was circling the globe playing semipro basketball when Dondrial was running circles around the competition at Mitchell-Baker. The family mailed him newspaper clippings documenting it all, but that didn't salve the pain of not being there.
"I probably only saw him play about five times when he was in high school," Al said.
One of those times was early, when Dondrial played junior varsity and was known only as Al's sibling.
"They actually had him playing tailback," Al said. "I was like, 'Man, I can't believe they don't have him at quarterback.' After about four or five plays, they ran a tailback sweep pass, and he threw it about 40 yards on the money. I was like, 'Wow.'
"He never played tailback again."
Soon, big schools started to hear about the little Pinkins brother from Camilla. Georgia took notice but seemed somewhat indifferent.
"They didn't come after him like everybody else came after him," Al said. "I think he was kind of hurt. He wanted to go to Georgia."
The pain wore off when South Carolina coach Lou Holtz walked through the doorway and plopped down on the couch in the family's living room. Delores said one of her nephews came close to fainting at the sight of the 65-year-old coaching great.
Holtz didn't tell many of his jokes or dust off any of the signature magic tricks.
"All he said was 'Dondrial, I want you to come play for us,"' Delores remembered.
And that was enough. He made an oral commitment to Holtz and later signed to play for the Gamecocks - never mind that the program was coming off an 0-11 train wreck in Holtz's first year.
"It was a done deal when he saw Lou Holtz walk into that living room," said Al, who has attended most of Dondrial's games at South Carolina, home and away.
A new start
Few high school stars dream of sitting the bench for two seasons, and Pinkins was no exception. When he arrived at South Carolina, he was considered capable of pushing Phil Petty for playing time.
"I thought I was going to play right away," he said.
Petty was a rising junior who looked shaky when not injured during the winless season in 1999, and Pinkins' mobility and arm strength elicited comparisons to former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice, who helped Holtz win a national title at Notre Dame in 1988.
That promise never materialized during the next two seasons, when Petty blossomed and led the Gamecocks from ineptitude to back-to-back triumphs in the Outback Bowl.
A knee injury limited Pinkins before the 2000 season, and the only meaningful action he saw that year was three series in a loss at Alabama while Petty was on the sidelines with a sprained ankle. He was granted a redshirt season because of the knee injury.
Then, a few months later, the spring game.
"It was shocking," Pinkins said. "I guess I just tried to go out and do more than I was meant to do. I was trying to do too many things on my own."
Last season, the emergence of junior-college transfer Corey Jenkins made Pinkins less of a priority. Jenkins played in 10 games while serving as a mobile counterpart to Petty. Pinkins saw mainly mop-up duty in six games, completing three of seven passes for 21 yards and two touchdowns.
Pinkins and Jenkins began spring drills competing for the top job, but Holtz indicated last week that the latter had established himself as the frontrunner entering today's game.
Offensive coordinator Skip Holtz, Lou's son, said Pinkins has come a long way since laboring as an understated understudy to Petty. But he's adamant that becoming the unquestioned leader of the offense is going to require more assertiveness.
"At his position, like it or not, you've got to be a leader," Skip Holtz said. "There are a lot of ways to lead: You can be a quiet leader or you can be a vocal leader. But he's going to have to get a little bit more intensity and understand that you've got to play as a quarterback almost like the barn is on fire. A lot of things have to go through your mind. It's not a lackadaisical position."
For his part, Pinkins said he's working hard to become someone his teammates can rally around. His numbers provided all the communication that was necessary back home at Mitchell-Baker, but that's not enough anymore.
"I think I'm already a leader, but they want me to be more vocal," he said. "I'm kind of a laid-back type of dude. They just want me to talk more and have more fun.
"It's not hard. It's just something I'm not used to."
He's plenty used to hearing the talk about what happened a year ago. With his family watching again today, he'll try to write a new script - for the spring game and for his college career.
"I think he's looking forward to being the starter," Al said. "I think that's definitely in the back of his mind."
Dondrial Pinkins has seen limited action the past two years as a backup quarterback at South Carolina:
Year/Rushing Yds/Passing Yds/Att-Cmp-Int/TD
The Pinkins brothers left a rich athletic legacy at Mitchell-Baker High School in Camilla, Ga. State championships won by each:
Al Pinkins (Class of 1991) - Two in basketball, one in football
Torrie Pinkins (1994) - One in football
Dondrial Pinkins ('00) - Three straight in basketball
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.