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August 15, 2011

Blacksburg Brotherhood

By: Jimmy Robertson

The Hopkins brothers are the latest brother tandem on Tech’s football squad and are looking forward to teaming up as starters on the Hokies’ defense this fall

The picture frame resembled most any other in any other typical family home in America.

Only this one lay shattered in pieces, the result of a squabble between two brothers in a wrestling ring disguised as a living room.

Jackie Hopkins, the strong mother of the two troublemakers, came into the room, saw the frame and directed her anger to the oldest of the two, who, in turn, was the innocent one. Meanwhile, the youngest, the one who errantly tossed a frozen water bottle that doomed the picture frame, sat and watched, too scared to challenge his mother’s authority.

Remembering the moment still brings a smile to Derrick Hopkins’ face, though not because he dodged his mother’s wrath that particular day roughly 10 years ago.

“He didn’t tell,” Derrick said.

Close on the field and off it, brothers Antoine (left) and Derrick Hopkins plan on shoring up Tech's rush defense this fall.

“He,” of course, being Antoine Hopkins, Derrick’s tormentor that day and his older brother by 23 months. It was Antoine who willingly accepted the punishment for Derrick’s transgression.

“I was teasing him, and he doesn’t have very good aim,” Antoine said, smiling “He hit that picture and broke it. I was the oldest, so I got in trouble.”

Similar stories about brothers get told on a daily basis, so Antoine’s gracious act comes as no surprise. In fact, the Hopkins brothers’ relationship has no surprises. They simply do what brothers do, following the ageless adages of brotherhood.

Brothers are best friends and the bitterest of rivals. They love and hate with equality. They outlast marriages and survive deaths of grandparents and then parents, and they shake hands following quarrels that would sink any other friendship. They knock each other down, dust each other off and then go drink lemonade. They possess a near unbreakable bond, one that often lasts a lifetime.

The Hopkins brothers have been picking on, and picking up, each other since birth. That won’t change now, as the duo, now members of the Virginia Tech football squad, join forces as starters at the defensive tackle spots for the Hokies entering the 2011 season.

These two have been practically joined at the hip since they came into the world. They shared friends and played the same games, usually basketball, with other kids in their neighborhood. For young kids, they lived the life.

“We were like a normal family,” Derrick said. “We lived together and stayed together and supported each other all the way through middle school and high school and now. It was just a normal life.

Antoine Hopkins

“He [Antoine] picked on me a little bit, but that was just being normal brothers. We didn’t fight or anything like that. We were close. We helped each other out.”

“I used to tease a lot,” Antoine admitted. “Then once we got older, there wasn’t a whole lot of fighting. It just wasn’t like that.”

Most of that goes back to the firm child raising of Jackie and Gary Hopkins, who raised them and the youngest son, Justin, in a nice neighborhood in Highland Springs, Va. Jackie and Gary provided a loving home, but put up with no nonsense. Their boys knew it, too, and never really got into trouble.

“No suspensions, no detentions or anything like that,” Derrick said, going down the list. “We were always good. My neighborhood was a quiet neighborhood. We were always playing basketball outside. You didn’t see any crime or drugs or anything like that. There weren’t any shootings or robberies. It was a good neighborhood.”

Gary Hopkins started his kids on a path toward football stardom when a neighbor told him about a recreation league team. He convinced them to go out for that team when Antoine was 7 and Derrick was 5 more or less because he wanted to see if his kids would enjoy the sport.

They ended up playing it and have played it every fall since those days. They still played basketball, and Antoine actually liked it more early on before sacrificing it as time went by. He grew out of it – literally.

“That was the sport I wanted to play,” he said. “Then I became 6-1 and 300 pounds. I had to put that dream out the window.”

Derrick Hopkins

Most of the time, the Hopkins brothers played on the same team and on the defensive line next to each other. They became separated for a brief spell when Antoine went to middle school, and then for another brief period when Antoine went to Highland Springs High, while Derrick was in middle school. But eventually, the two of them became standouts at Highland Springs.

Following a senior year in which he recorded 61 tackles, including 19 for a loss, and three sacks, Antoine earned first-team All-Met honors by The Richmond Times-Dispatch and second-team All-Group AAA honors. He was one of the top prospects in the state of Virginia and received multiple scholarship offers. He ultimately chose to attend Virginia Tech.

“It was close to home,” he said. “I wasn’t going too far away from home. It’s as simple as that. If anything happens [in Highland Springs], it’s not that far away. It was a good situation here, too. I had a chance to play early. This was a good opportunity for me.”

Antoine’s departure left Derrick to fend for himself. For the first time, Derrick’s big brother wasn’t in the house or hanging out with him at school or lined up next to him on the football field. It made for somewhat of a strange period.

But brothers often like to be their own persons. Derrick quickly adjusted and liked his newfound freedom as the oldest child in the house.

Plus, there was an added benefit to Antoine’s leaving.

“There was more food in the house,” Derrick laughed. “There was more spaghetti left or a few more pieces of chicken. When he was there, there would be none left. Then he left, and there’d be three or four pieces left and I’d clean it up.

“But nah, it wasn’t that much different. I’m my own person. I had my own friends. There wasn’t much of a difference at all.”

Derrick got the best of his big brother in the awards category. He recorded 59 tackles, including 13 for a loss, his senior season, and was named the Capital District defensive player of the year. He earned first-team All-Group AAA honors and became one of the top 15 prospects in Virginia.

Most assumed Derrick would follow Antoine to Virginia Tech. But Derrick remained open-minded in the process. He considered other schools, including Georgia, which made him an offer. In the end, though, he chose Tech, and the Hopkins brothers became yet another brother tandem to come to Blacksburg, joining the likes of Beau, Brett and Blake Warren; Jonathan and Kevin Lewis; Nekos and Wiley Brown; Chad and Cody Grimm; Kyle, Corey and Vinnie Fuller; and others.

“It wasn’t a given,” Derrick said of his college decision. “People always ask me that. I thought it was the best move for me. It wasn’t like that, but people try to make it like that.”

Last season, the two of them were reunited, both on the field and off it. Derrick played as a true freshman, seeing action in 13 games and recording nine tackles, including 1.5 for a loss. Antoine started in 12 games last season as a redshirt sophomore, taking advantage of a season-ending knee injury to Kwamaine Battle. He finished with 45 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss, and two sacks.

Antoine retained his starting job coming out of spring practice, and Derrick joined him, winning the spot vacated with John Graves’ departure. Derrick, whom defensive line coach Charley Wiles called “unblockable” this spring, appears poised for a great season after being named the top newcomer on defense coming out of spring practice. He continues to push his older brother and may surpass him as the best player in the family.

“I don’t get caught up in all that,” Antoine said. “My job is to be the older brother and play my game. I want to be a better player, but I don’t want him to be a lesser player than me. And our younger brother, hopefully he’ll be better than both of us. That’s the whole game plan.”

“We’re a close family,” Derrick said. “If someone says he did better than Derrick at this or Derrick was better than Antoine at this, then we’d congratulate each other. There’s no jealousy in the family.”

Both of them need to be great players for the Hokies in 2011. Tech lacks depth at the defensive tackle positions, but perhaps more importantly, the Hokies need to become a little firmer up front. A year ago, Tech’s defense gave up an average of 4.7 yards per carry – the worst in Bud Foster’s 16-year tenure as defensive coordinator.

“No question, those two are ultra critical for us,” Wiles said. “We need for some defensive tackles to step up, but Derrick and Hop [Antoine] separated themselves this spring and they only helped themselves this summer. They’ve been playing and working at an elite level and that needs to continue.”

They possess bright futures off the field as well. Derrick plans on using his math skills to become an accountant, while Antoine, a human development major, is a whiz at computers. He has the ability to dismantle a computer and quickly put it back together, following along the lines of his father, who does the same thing in his profession. Antoine wants to follow in Gary’s footsteps, except he wants to run the business.

For now, though, the immediate concern is teaming up on the field again, just like they’ve done so many times in the past, and helping the Hokies win another ACC crown.

“The older you get, the more you realize that a lot of people don’t get to play with their brother,” Antoine said. “There’s stuff you could say in a whole paragraph, but I can look at him and nod and he’d know exactly what I’d mean. We know each other, and we know what’s on the table.”

The Hopkins, head to head

1. Are you more like your mom or dad?
Derrick: I’m more like my mom. He’s more like my dad.
Antoine: I take after my dad, but I think I have some traits of my mother’s.

2. Okay, then who is more outgoing?
Derrick: He is. I’m not really shy, but I like to keep to myself sometimes.
Antoine: He’s a little more of a partier. I’m more laid back.

3. Who is more patient?
Derrick: Oh, I am. We’ll be around my little brother and try to teach him something, and he’ll get frustrated with him. I’ll stick with him a little longer than he would.
Antoine: I’m more patient. I love kids. I worked at a daycare this spring. I’m laid back. You could put me in a room with 20 kids, and I’d be laid back.

4. Who is the better student?
Derrick: I am.
Antoine: He is.

5. Who is the better dancer?
Derrick: I am. I take after my mom. She loves to dance. My brothers take after my dad. They can’t dance.
Antoine: He is. I can’t dance at all. I have no rhythm.

6. Who is better at video games?
Derrick: He’s better at COD [Call of Duty]. If you play Madden or a sports game, then I am.
Antoine: COD, that’s me. I’m not that good, but I don’t think he’s that good either.

7. Who is the better basketball player?
Derrick: He is.
Antoine: I am. All day.

8. Future plans (excluding football)?
Derrick: I’ll probably be an accountant.
Antoine: Hopefully, I’ll get this computer business started up and have that running. I have a friend in Richmond who I may go into business with. I’m going to get my degree and I’m taking as many computer classes as I can. I’ll get my certifications. That’s the plan.