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More than football games: Axemen’s Pippen has overcome loss of brother in hopes of putting family in a better place

Bemidji Axemen all-purpose offensive threat DeMario Pippen, center, led the team in all-purpose yards prior to Friday’s game in Wyoming. Pippen’s ultimate goal is to play well enough to advance to the next professional level so he could move his family to a safer environment. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer File Photo

BEMIDJI — Bemidji Axemen running back DeMario Pippen is playing in the Indoor Football League for more than just himself.

The 25-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Ala., lost his brother Antonio in a shooting in 2009 and is determined to provide a better environment for his family.

He sees football as an opportunity to move his family out of the area and to a better place.

“Getting to the next level is the ultimate goal,” Pippen said. “Where I am from is not a good environment to raise kids or even live in. That is why I want to get my family out of there and to a better place.

“I love football, but my ultimate goal is be a hall of famer and to take care of my family,” Pippen continued.

Axemen Head coach Robert Fuller says his goal is always to see players make it to the next level and he is doing what he can to help Pippen advance.

“He is a young man that is strong in his faith and is very devoted to his family,” Fuller said. “If there is a guy that deserves another opportunity, it is him.”

Antonio’s death came at the tail end of DeMario’s first year at Jackson State.

“It was a tough time in my life, I turned for the worse,” Pippen said. “I saw and encountered a lot of things that have helped me become the person that I am today. It made me stronger.

“I am the head of my household now,” Pippen added. “My brother was the oldest, so when he passed I had to take control. It made me turn from a boy to a man.”

The next two seasons on the football field were not easy for Pippen as he totaled just 13 carries for 41 yards in his first three seasons at Jackson State.

Pippen said the first two seasons were difficult because of the schemes of the offensive coordinator but had hope for his junior season when a new coordinator moved him to wide receiver. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury to Pippen opened the door for Rico Richardson — who is now in the NFL with the Houston Texans — and Pippen never got his job back.

With limited action at Jackson State, Pippen decided to transfer to Tuskegee University for his senior season.

“I was going through a lot so I decided to transfer,” Pippen said. “Tuskegee gave me an opportunity, so I made the best of it.”

Pippen made the most of the playing time by running for 584 yards and five touchdowns on 125 carries. He also gained 126 yards on 15 catches to earn an undrafted free agent contract with the Denver Broncos in 2012.

Although Pippen did not make the Broncos roster, the experience of being that close to the next level keeps him going.

“It was a great opportunity,” Pippen said of his NFL tryout. “Denver gave me a chance to show what I could do and I did my best. Looking back, I wish I did more but everything happens for a reason.”

After having his NFL dreams fall short, Pippen returned to Jackson State and last fall he graduated.

Heading into Friday’s game, Pippen led the Axemen with 356 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns. He has made an impact at running back, wide receiver and kick returner. In the March 29 game against Cedar Rapids Pippen even stepped in to play defense when cornerback Adam Lucas left with an injury.

“DeMario has been such a tremendous asset to our football team in just about every phase of the game,” Fuller said. “To have a guy who can do all of the things that he can do and be willing to step in on defense is great. It speaks volumes to his ability as a football player and his character.”

“I was blessed with a lot of talent,” Pippen added. “I am not really a running back or a wide receiver. I am a football player. I just want to be on the field and to make plays in any way that I can.”

Pippen said the indoor game was difficult to adjust to at first but now that he is familiar with it, he thinks the experience will be a strength.

“I like the fact that the field is so small and condensed,” Pippen said. “ Once I start to play 11-on-11, it is going to seem a lot bigger.”

“He definitely has the ability and focus to make it to the next level,” Fuller said. “We are hoping he can achieve that here.”