When Tyrrell Pigrome and a few of his high school teammates made their recruiting visits to Alabama, just an hour down the interstate from Birmingham, they donned Crimson Tide jerseys and walked onto the field for the kind of photos that have become social media staples. Pigrome remembers slipping on the jersey well because it’s what he was wearing when he threw up.

The day began well enough, though Pigrome felt queasy. He had hoped eating would help, but it didn’t. After he got sick, an Alabama assistant coach delivered news that was even more disturbing: Pigrome’s dad was in the hospital, suffering from a heart issue.

Pigrome and his father had seen each other the previous day, and before they parted ways, Pigrome said he would check in to let him know how the trip went. The next time he saw him, he was in a coma. Doctors said his dad couldn’t respond but might be able to hear. Pigrome didn’t really know what to say, though, so he just looked at his dad and said he loved him. About a week later, his dad died.

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Pigrome began his senior season as the quarterback at Clay-Chalkville High still influenced by the loss. The night before the opener his senior year, he had a dream in which he saw his dad on a sidewalk, but as he walked toward him, a bus drove between them, and his dad was gone. Pigrome woke up crying. He then threw for nearly 300 yards, and his team won, 38-7.

Pigrome now is entering his redshirt junior season at Maryland, following high school and college careers that have vacillated between significant challenges and resilient achievement. So when Michael Locksley took over as coach in the offseason and immediately pursued transfer quarterbacks, Pigrome could have sought a clearer path to a starting job elsewhere. Instead, the kid nicknamed Piggy kept fighting.

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“He's a kid that has a competitive spirit about him,” Locksley said, “that he's not going to just hand the job off.”

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A way out

After missing nearly his entire sophomore season in high school because of injury, Pigrome was a mostly unknown commodity when he made his starting debut at Clay-Chalkville — in a nationally televised matchup against an out-of-state opponent, no less. But surrounded by a handful of teammates who also would go on to become Division I players, Pigrome turned the start into a showcase, one of those games that over time starts to sound more like folklore, with a long touchdown pass early and three rushing touchdowns, including an 84-yarder.

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“It was an unbelievable start,” then-offensive coordinator Stuart Floyd said. “I mean, it would have been an unbelievable career game for any kid, but that was his first start on national TV. He just surpassed everything that we thought.”

That 44-23 victory over Niceville, a school from Florida’s panhandle, started a winning streak that lasted Pigrome’s entire junior year, which ended with a state title, and through his senior season, too, all the way until the team lost in the state championship game. In the Alabama state record books for touchdowns in a season, Pigrome’s name is listed Nos. 2 and 3.

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Football became the clear avenue out of Birmingham, a city he is proud to call home yet also one that ranks among the nation’s worst in crime rates, where it takes a strong will to make the right decisions.

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Pigrome said he could see firsthand the distinct paths that force teenagers to decide “if you want the fast route to money or if you want to be patient with it and take your time.”

In such an environment, athletic ability goes only as far as the decisions made with it.

“I can’t tell you how many kids he’s probably friends with that have either gotten shot or shot somebody or have been in jail,” said Floyd, now the offensive coordinator at a different school in Alabama, who still talks to Pigrome on FaceTime every week or two. “There’s a lot of stuff he knows that I’m sure never is ever brought to light that we don’t know about.”

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With potentially negative influences everywhere, Pigrome said the key was putting some distance between himself and harm’s way. He might see the crimes. His friends might be involved. He might even be near it. But “don’t try to be in the way all the time,” he said.

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For him, sports provided a refuge, an opportunity to hone self-discipline and an opportunity for a different kind of future.

“It depends on when you really get it,” Pigrome said. “I always liked being around sports and playing sports, but I also liked being outside. It just depends on when it clicks to you. Mine really clicked when I really saw myself playing at the next level, seeing myself and hearing people say, ‘You can go to college. You can do this. You can be the change.’ So I really focused on it.”

The Clay-Chalkville coaches understood the role the football team had in some of their players’ lives. Floyd said the staff ran its program similar to a college one, with high expectations, physically and mentally. The school produced other college players during Pigrome’s time there, including Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins, West Virginia wide receiver T.J. Simmons and Middle Tennessee State running back Terelle West.

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Once the players buy into the team, their decisions are made with that in mind because “we just want something to believe in, we want something to be a part of,” said Jerry Hood, Clay-Chalkville’s head coach when Pigrome was there.

Pigrome visits home about twice a year — every Christmas break and sometimes during a short break in the spring. While he’s at school, his mom might call after work. He will ask how far she is from home and wants her to let him know when she gets inside.

Twists and turns

At Maryland, Pigrome has had an up-and-down career, with seemingly more lows than highs.

In 2017, he won the starting job as a sophomore but tore an ACL in the second half of the opener against Texas. He recovered by the next season but lost the starting job to Kasim Hill, who has since transferred to Tennessee. Pigrome played sparingly until Hill tore an ACL in the 10th game.

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In his first start of 2018, Pigrome shined against Ohio State, threatening to upset the eventual Big Ten champion in College Park. But on the game’s final play, a two-point conversion attempt in overtime, Pigrome found Jeshaun Jones open in the end zone but threw wide. Most agreed the two-point attempt was the right decision, a gutsy move that seemed fitting for a staff and interim coach with nothing to lose. Maryland nearly dethroned a top-tier program. Pigrome just missed.

Even after Locksley brought in graduate transfer Josh Jackson as the likely starting quarterback, Pigrome stayed while other quarterbacks around the country shuffle to new programs where they think they will start. Locksley has praised Pigrome’s improvement this fall, and the coach will name a starter in the coming days.

But after everything Pigrome has been through on his journey from Birmingham, Locksley’s decision won’t be overwhelming. And it might not even be the final chapter.

“No matter what happens on Saturdays,” Hood said, “it’s a good situation.”

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