The answer for James Pinkney is easy and uncomfortable to recall.
The East Carolina quarterback said being out of school this past semester was the lowest point in his life. Lower than going 2-9 as the Pirates' starting passer last season. Lower than the crush of sacks and hits that often left him bordering on unconscious.
Pinkney, who threw 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last season, was kicked out of school for having bad grades after ECU's fall semester. He wasn't readmitted until he passed summer school, which coach Skip Holtz confirmed on Aug. 2 that he did.
HIGH SCHOOL: Threw for 1,807 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior at Delray Beach, Fla., Olympic Heights
2003 SEASON: Played in eight games, starting the final three, as a redshirt freshman; completed 43 of 87 passes for 422 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions
2004 SEASON: Started every game as a sophomore, throwing for 2,195 yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions; flunked out of school after the fall semester
AUGUST 2005: Rejoins team after passing summer school classes; designated starting quarterback
Pinkney is the only quarterback on ECU's roster with any game experience, which helped lead Holtz to insert him into the Pirates' first-team offense.
"If he does what he's supposed to do, he'll be the starter," Holtz said. "He gives us the best chance to win right now."
During his time away from ECU, Pinkney was left with no money, no scholarship -- and, most important to him, no football.
"The lowest point in the spring was not being able to come into the locker room and be on the field with the fellas [during spring practice]. I felt like I wasn't a part of it. I felt like I was out there all by myself," Pinkney said Thursday. "The lowest part was just not being a part of anything."
Instead of eating at the team's training table, Pinkney quickly learned the hard lesson many others in the world have learned: If you don't work, you don't eat, and, if you don't earn any money, you likely have no place to live.
So Pinkney did what many in his position might find unthinkable and totally belittling -- he became a bus boy at Logan's Roadhouse restaurant.
In Greenville, being the Pirates' starting quarterback and getting a job cleaning tables is different than it is for most 21-year-olds working at restaurants. In Greenville, Pinkney is a celebrity.
After ECU athletics director Terry Holland and Holtz, he may be the most recognizable figure in town. People wearing jerseys bearing his No. 7 are common sights in this city that revolves around everything purple and gold.
At Logan's Roadhouse, the walls are adorned with Pirates paraphernalia. There's a huge mural of Pinkney painted on a wall. It was beneath that mural that Pinkney spent his days busing tables this spring while his teammates absorbed Holtz's offense.
And it was beneath that mural that Pinkney came to understand he wasn't ready to be injected into the real world, away from friends and football. Usually quiet, Pinkney never appeared happy as he worked, seemingly trying his best to go unnoticed as he did his job.
"It made me realize that there are people out here working hard," he said. "It made me get real about life. It hit me in the face that [busing tables] wasn't what I wanted to do."
Pinkney, a communications major, decided then to dedicate himself to academics as well as to football.
"It was humbling. It's an OK job, but that's not what I want," he said.
Even in a low-profile job, Pinkney's high profile in Greenville meant his pain was on display.
"He wanted something to do, and that's what we had for him -- get the exposure out front. It was good for business. Good publicity for him and us," said Ben Rohlfing, the restaurant's manager. "People came in and asked about him all the time. ... He was pretty standoffish, always smiling but shy. ... You could tell he really wanted to play and was into football."
Pinkney, who is from Florida, could have gone home, but loyalty to his friends kept him in Greenville.
"I stayed here because there really wasn't much for me to do in Florida. I stayed here to be around the fellas and be around them as much as I can," he said. "That was really hard for me, not being able to practice with the team, be around the team and be around the players."
Pinkney's teammates at ECU said there was a notable departure from the quarterback's normally happy demeanor.
"He was really down. He knew that he wanted to come back and play," wide receiver Will Bland said. "He knew that he messed up ... All he had to do was play football and go to school. But since he messed up in school, he had to go there and work and pay rent. He probably was embarrassed."
Being embarrassed and away from friends and football might have been just what Pinkney needed, Bland said.
"His attitude has changed. School is more important to him now. He loves football, but he'll make sure his grades are right," Bland said. "I can see how he's changed from when he played, to when he didn't play, to back playing again."Staff writer Jaymes Powell Jr. can be reached at 829-4556 or firstname.lastname@example.org