The line lodged itself in quarterback Randy Hippeard’s brain when he was at Virginia-Wise, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school with no NFL pipeline or even unpaved back road. Maybe he still remembers it because it sounded like something out of “Field of Dreams.” Or maybe because he needed to believe it was true:
“It doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.”
It was enough to keep him going from Virginia-Wise to Switzerland, from one now-defunct indoor-football league to another now-defunct indoor-football league. Enough for him to land in the Arena Football League at age 27 and earn Most Valuable Player honors at 31. Enough for the 32-year-old Hippeard to wonder when an NFL team might find him, reward for a long, strange trip through the sport’s farthest reaches.
“There's always a story,” Hippeard said Wednesday, ahead of his Baltimore Brigade’s game Friday night against the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Soul at Royal Farms Arena. “There's always some guy that started in one of the smaller leagues and then jumped here into another league and then jumped into the NFL. ... There's always a story, and I think everybody that plays in these smaller leagues are hoping they're that next story.”
Hippeard’s began in Stafford, Va., where he was a three-sport standout for Colonial Forge High. In football, he was an immediate success, as he would be on every team he has played for. And yet his production felt incommensurate with his station, another hallmark of his career.
Despite leading an Eagles team his senior season to a regional final just three years after the program had started varsity competition, he received just two college scholarship offers. “The staff really didn't know too many people, I guess, to call for me,” he said. One offer was from Division I Akron; it was rescinded midway through his senior season after the Zips made a coaching change. The other was from NAIA Virgina-Wise, a school with a 3,086-seat football stadium and an athletic department now less than three years removed from a move to NCAA Division II.
Hippeard was not a bystander for long at Virginia-Wise. He started all but three games his freshman year, then every game over the next three seasons, winning 25 of 33 overall, success not since duplicated by the Highland Cavaliers. Even as he rewrote the school’s passing records, he said, he never looked into transferring out and up. It was an option; he recalls teammates who “didn’t play one snap” moving on to opportunities at Division I schools.
“I think if I had gone to a Division I school, I definitely think things would have probably turned out a little differently for me,” he said.
He would have had a pro day before NFL scouts, for one. Or at least would’ve known that he could attend another school’s pro day. “I don't know if they’d had somebody that they thought could play at the next level,” he said of the staff at Virginia-Wise. But he’d been told that if he were good enough, they’d find him. So in 2009, he went to Switzerland.
There, in Winterthur, a city northeast of Zürich close to the German border, he reunited with former Virginia-Wise coach Bill Ramseyer. Ramseyer and Hippeard spoke English. Hippeard’s teammates, for the most part, did not.
“It was almost one of those things where you had to actually draw it in the dirt so they'd understand what you wanted them to do if you didn't have somebody that could translate it for you at the time,” he said. Some of the Winterthur Warriors might understand it on a first run-through; others had never played, just guys looking for something to do after work.
In 2011, back home stateside, Hippeard latched on with the Columbus Lions of the Southern Indoor Football League, chosen for the league’s similarity to the AFL. Certainly not for the money. “We made $200 a game if you won,” he recalled, “and $150 if you lost.”
After another season with the Lions, having moved to the Professional Indoor Football League, another league soon to cease operations, Hippeard landed in the AFL in 2013. Last August, he was named league MVP. Four months later, his Tampa Bay Storm folded.
He wonders today what might have been had he started his career in the AFL. Would he have gotten a shot in the NFL by now? Would he be the same resolute, mature person he became? He hopes his story is still being written. He knows it’s already a good one. But time is running out.
“He's one of those guys that knows that if he works hard and puts the time in and he stays true to himself,” Brigade coach Omarr Smith said, “good things will happen.”