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NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Washington State at Central Michigan Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

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Kalil Pimpleton reflects on Muskegon upbringing, CMU journey as NFL Draft looms

The versatile Central Michigan standout paved a hard road to get to the threshold of his professional football dreams. With his hand on the door, Pimpleton reflects on what got him this far.

Mounds of snow are agglomerated in every boundary of the stadium. The maroon and gold end zones are complemented with a backdrop of heavy white frosting. The typically-green field is dressed in a thin white coating, and millions of flakes glide through the air as the wind whips wildly around the stadium.

While the conditions resemble a Christmas in Minnesota or a January playoff atmosphere at the historic Lambeau Field, it’s March 15 — six days away from spring in the town of Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The high is 36 degrees, the low is 17, and this scenario is the setting for a job interview Central Michigan wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton has waited for his entire life.

New England Patriots offensive assistant coach Joe Judge, who served as the head coach of the New York Giants in 2020 and 2021, requested a punt return workout for Pimpleton. With Central Michigan’s indoor facility lacking the size to accommodate moonshot punts, Judge’s session was relocated to Kelly/Shorts Stadium, where the Chippewas gear up for game days in the fall.

“That was motivation for me,” Pimpleton said of the snowy conditions. “It boosted my adrenaline and it excited me because not only was I asked to catch punts for an NFL team, but it was in conditions that aren’t very ideal for that type of event. If they see me doing well in the conditions that we were under, they could only expect me to do better when the conditions are in our favor.”

Punt after punt sailed into the cradle of Pimpleton’s hands over the course of the workout. Some of the drills involved Pimpleton corralling one handed punts while carrying a football in his other arm. One particular feature was noticeable during this specific drill — the lack of gloves. Pimpleton was fielding punts barehanded in the snow.

“I don’t like to train with gloves,” Pimpleton said. “Once I started holding more than one ball, I felt more comfortable taking the gloves off. It’s definitely the Michigan in me.”

The thought of catching high-arcing, downward-accelerating punts barehanded in the snow may sound like hand torture to some, but Pimpleton is a Michigan man through and through. His hometown of Muskegon, Michigan, is an integral part of his blood.

It is the same setting where he first met fellow Central Michigan starting receiver JaCorey Sullivan back in elementary school. From playing for the same youth football league to sharing the spotlight at Muskegon High School to receiving first-team All-MAC selections together at Central Michigan, the two have endured almost every stage of football side-by-side. The only stage left to conquer is the one they dreamed about back in their elementary days.

“It’s something me and him have dreamt about since we met,” Pimpleton said. “We were two of the stars on each of our (youth) teams. We used to challenge each other to who would get more touchdowns this week, or more touchdowns at the end of the season. That went on until we started playing together in middle school. It was the same challenges — who was gonna get the most touchdowns, who was gonna get the most yards.”

When not dominating youth football leagues, Pimpleton and Sullivan used to stay the night at each other’s houses and create themselves on Madden, adding their created avatars to NFL rosters. That could soon become a reality for both Chippewa wideouts.

“To be in this process now, to go through little league, middle school, high school, and college together, to be in each other’s ear and encourage each other and challenge each other to reach our full potential — it’s definitely a blessing,” Pimpleton said. “I wouldn’t ask for anybody else to go through this process with. We’ve been in this together since the beginning and we’ve got this far, so it’s only right we continue this together and make an impact for our city.”

Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan celebrate CMU’s 2019 MAC West Division title with friends and family.
James H. Jimenez

Now the dynamic receiving duo is looking to give back to the city that molded them.

Last July, Pimpleton and Sullivan co-founded a youth skills camp in their hometown — the beginning of a tradition which they plan to prolong even after their NFL career trajectories take shape.

“That’s our way. That’s our platform at this moment, is football,” Pimpleton said. “A lot of kids came out and had fun. We took them through a plethora of different drills, offensively and defensively. We let them hear our story and gave them some words of wisdom before we left... We plan on doing this for years to come and we’re already in the works for this year’s camp. And that’s for years to come — bigger and better every year.”

While Pimpleton’s legacy in the community of Muskegon is in the process of being established, he has already cemented himself as a campus legend to the Chippewa faithful in Mount Pleasant with his electrifying play and infectious attitude.

As with most #MACtion stars, Pimpleton’s legacy, which had been largely a regional secret for those in the know, would find its way under the national spotlight on a Wednesday night game in November for all to see.

Trailing 14-0 against the team’s fiercest rival Western Michigan, and with Central Michigan’s bowl and division hopes on the line, Pimpleton provided the spark — not only for the game, but for the season — on special teams. With 5:03 remaining in the half, Pimpleton broke the shutout and a 12-year program skid by returning Central Michigan’s first punt return touchdown since Antonio Brown in 2009.

“At the time, we needed something going. We were down 14-0 and I remember telling JaCorey, ‘I don’t care where this ball is punted, we need something to happen. I’m gonna return it,’” Pimpleton recalled.

After waiting 12 years for such a moment, the Chippewa faithful needed to wait only five minutes more before another house call from Pimpleton. This time, the star receiver fielded the punt from the three-yard line and raced 97 yards across Waldo Stadium for the go-ahead touchdown.

It was a genuinely head-turning performance for Pimpleton, who became the first player in NCAA history to have two punt return touchdowns and 100 receiving yards in a single half.

Pimpleton’s three touchdowns in a five-minute span ensured the Chippewas would remain in front of their rival before the halftime break, and allowed Central Michigan to pick up a stunning 42-30 trophy game victory on the road.

“I definitely felt like that was a turning point in our season, but it was a team effort,” Pimpleton said. “It definitely felt good in the moment to beat our rival Western and have the success that I did that game, but all credit goes to my teammates. I thank them in those moments which allowed us to have success for the rest of the season.”

Those Wednesday night fireworks sparked a five-game win streak for Central Michigan through the end of the season. The Chippewas finished with the MAC’s best overall record and landed in the historic Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl in El Paso... but that wasn’t their original postseason destination.

Central Michigan originally was slated to battle Boise State in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl. But due to an onslaught of COVID-19 within the Boise State locker room, a whirlwind of events paired the Chippewas with Washington State — another team which lost its bowl opponent due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

“When people say, ‘Man, it felt like a movie,’ that’s literally what it felt like,” Pimpleton said. “We were able to travel to three different states [Michigan, Arizona, and Texas] in less than a week... It got a little bit chaotic when we didn’t know what was gonna happen. We were getting out of practice and found out they were looking for a new team to play in the Arizona Bowl and then we instantly heard we could be going to Texas for the Sun Bowl. But that left it fun because we were gonna come at whoever was on the schedule.”

Central Michigan indeed capitalized on its makeshift opponent, storming out to a 21-0 lead on the Cougars before ultimately closing the deal in a 24-21 decision. The New Year’s Eve triumph marked the Chippewas’ fourth bowl victory in history and one of, if not the most, important wins since the program’s inception when considering the caliber and history of the bowl.

“Credit to my team for not flinching,” Pimpleton said. “We didn’t switch up the gameplan too much. We had a few tweaks but they stayed composed as well and we never panicked. It’s a credit to everybody’s demeanor and approach to the game.”

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Washington State at Central Michigan Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

The Sun Bowl victory marked the end of the road of a storied college career for the three-time All-MAC receiver and 2021 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year. As suggested by his accolades, versatility is one of his Pimpleton’s calling cards as he prepares for the next level. A former running back, Pimpleton traces the abilities he learned from his old position to the playmaking he exudes as a receiver and punt returner.

“As a running back, you have to be able to be patient,” Pimpleton said. “You have to be able to see the hole before the blocking is set up. You have to be able to know if you’re attacking the hole and it’s closing to bounce outside. I have that true running back nature and as a football player, I’m at my best when I’m running the ball. That’s what makes me a good punt returner but also a good receiver because once I have the ball in my hand, I’m able to make a guy miss or make something out of nothing.”

Whether it be wide receiver, running back, or return specialist, Pimpleton has the tools to thrive in any role that is asked of him on football’s grandest stage.

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