PITTSBURG, Pa. - The story of how a prospect from a California junior college found his way across the country to Pittsburgh is lost even on the man at the center of it.
To Rafael Araujo-Lopes, it remains something between a mystery and a blur.
“That’s a good question,” the Pitt wide receiver, known to his teammates as “RaRa,” said Wednesday. “I have no idea. To be honest with you, I can’t tell you how or why to this day how I got here.”
A player who caught just three passes for 36 yards as a sophomore for the Panthers last season currently leads the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (235). Those numbers put the speedy, 5-foot-9 junior ahead of a slew of bigger and taller players, a group including former four-star recruits and a consensus all-American.
It’s a product of patience and perseverance, common across college football. Little about his journey, however, has been as conventional.
“It’s really important in college football to be patient,” Lopes said. “You can’t expect it to be on your time. You kind of just have to go through the system, and whenever it happens, it happens.”
Though some of his production has come late in lopsided games, Lopes has finished with at least four catches and 40 yards in three of Pitt’s past four contests. That rise further extends the distance between Lopes and where his college career began.
Following a trying high school career, missing his sophomore season with a torn ACL, Lopes had no scholarship offers. In the face of that rejection, the native Floridian enrolled at Reedley College, a junior college in a town of about 25,000 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a place he not-so-fondly recalled as “a desert.”
“I was really kind of on my own,” he said. “It felt like I was cut off from the world. Being patient, that was the only way you could get through something like that. Because the moment that you’re not patient, especially being in junior college, that’s when you start getting in trouble. You get a girl pregnant or you smoke weed or anything. That’s how you get in trouble, when you lose your patience.”
In his lone season at the school, he had 17 touchdowns in 10 games and earned California Community College Athletic Association all-American honors. That production caught the eye of Pitt tight ends coach Tim Salem, who reached out to Lopes before a scholarship was eventually offered. Lopes had no idea how Salem found him.
Lopes expected the Football Bowl Subdivision to be much like junior-college ball. He would come in, flash his speed and athleticism, and, rather quickly, find his way on the field. His coaches had different plans.
“It’s not like that,” Lopes said. “It’s not like they planned on redshirting me, but you’ve just got to go through the system. Everybody’s path is different, and I didn’t understand that at first. That was really the only culture shock to me, that I wasn’t so much in control as I wanted to be. That’s fine, though. That’s how it is.”
Lopes fought self-doubt and leaned on the same patience that helped bring him there. As he had in the past, he learned to let go.
Over the past two years, Lopes grew to better understand the game and its nuances, from coverages to rotations to the tendencies of opposing players he’d see on film. When combined with his hands and athleticism, that mental enhancement has made him that much more valuable.
“RaRa’s big-time for us,” quarterback Max Browne said. “As far as precision, he's our guy with that. As far as executing the little things, in the slot, I think you're getting a lot more hands-on, some more man matchups, so you have to be a technician in the slot.”
His Pitt coaches have been able to view his progress over the years, and they, too, have been impressed by a player inching closer to being a finished product.
“He has been about as consistent a wideout as you can really have, to be honest with you,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “He does all the little things right. We talk details and some guys doing things wrong. He doesn’t. He doesn’t make many mistakes out there.”