The hardest part was telling his parents. In that respect, Michael Pierce felt no different than other teenagers who knew they were disappointing the people that cared about them the most.
Pierce went to Tulane largely because his father, Michael Sr., was a standout running back for the Green Wave in the late 1980s. The younger Pierce just didn’t transition well on or off the field at the New Orleans-based school.
He was ruled academically ineligible after his freshman season. Pierce brought his grades up the following year, but he couldn’t escape the belief that if he was ever going to make something of his college years and be happy in the process, he was going to have to leave Tulane.
“I was embarrassed,” Pierce said. “Just coming from a household where my brother is a 4.0 student, my dad succeeded in school, my mom succeeded. It was embarrassing. My name was in the paper and people were like, ‘Wow, this kid had a lot going for himself coming out of high school and he’s just blowing it.’ People were turning on me. Letting down my family was the most disappointing thing.”
Ravens’ fans may think the impetus behind Pierce’s meteoric rise from an undrafted free agent out of Samford to the Ravens’ starting nose tackle and a key cog in what the team expects to be a dominant defensive front began at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in September 2016. Needing a strong preseason finale to solidify a spot on the 53-man roster, Pierce strip-sacked New Orleans Saints quarterback Luke McCown and recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
Pierce, however, traces everything back to an epiphany that he had just four miles from the dome, when he left Tulane and vowed to find a better way.
“That was the cornerstone of my life, for sure,” he said. “That’s when I got my life on track.”
Pierce doesn’t blame anybody at Tulane, just like he has no ill will toward the 32 NFL teams that passed on him in the 2016 draft when he was coming out of Samford, a small school in Alabama with a Division I-AA athletic program. Twenty-four defensive tackles were taken in the 2016 draft, but Pierce never had his name called. As far as he’s concerned, he landed exactly where he should be.
Pierce not only made the Ravens as the lone undrafted rookie, he played in all 16 games and started one, accumulating 35 tackles and two sacks. The Ravens thought so highly of him they traded Timmy Jernigan in the offseason. Pierce is now the team’s starting nose tackle with Brandon Williams sliding over to defensive tackle.
“He is coming into his own, and now he is getting more recognition to where people are going to have to start double-teaming him and leave me one-on-one,” Williams said. “Then, when they double-team me, they leave him one-on-one. It is a great relationship that me and him have and a great camaraderie.”
The two close friends, who spent the offseason competing with each other in the weight room, form a 680-pound wall that the Ravens hope will shut down opposing running games and keep blockers off standout middle linebacker C.J. Mosley.
“To have two big, powerful, quick, explosive guys, it all starts in the middle, and Mike has done a great job dominating centers, doing a great job on double teams,” said Ravens second-year defensive line coach Joe Cullen. “But he also has great rush skills, and Mike brings his lunch pail every day. You get the same effort. It’s always 100 miles per hour. He’s tough, he’s physical, and I think he’s been a great addition to the defense.”
Cullen said he’s never coached a defensive lineman with a better combination of size and athleticism than Pierce, which begs the question: how did so many teams overlook him in the draft?
Pierce smiled when he was asked that after a recent Ravens’ practice – the laid back Alabama native is always smiling – and speculated that maybe it was because he was just 6-foot. Otherwise, he said he wasn’t sure and he reacted like he hadn’t recently given the question much thought either.
He played in every game in his college career. He was productive, too, with 145 tackles and three sacks in 47 collegiate games, earning Conference-USA All-Freshman honors at Tulane and then first-team All-Southern Conference as a senior at Samford. The physical gifts were obvious. A video of Piercing squatting 725 pounds went viral on the Internet. Pierce wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine, but his testing numbers at his pro day stacked up well with the defensive tackles who did.
“He could be as good as he ever wants to be,” said Victor Cabral, Samford’s defensive line coach. “I was kidding with him, if ball is ever done with, he can go be an Olympic gold medalist for weight lifting. If he’s not good at something, he’s going to find a way to get better at it.
“He was a running back/linebacker out of high school and he’s been able to transform himself. If you’re 330 pounds and run a 4.8, guys like that aren’t just walking around the street too often. He was special. I knew once he’d be able to get on a roster and to get on a team, he’d be able to do what he does best.”
Pierce grew up emulating his father, so naturally he played running back. He grew out of that position pretty early although he did score a couple of touchdowns as a goal-line back at Samford. He played linebacker at Daphne High (Ala.) and idolized former Raven Ray Lewis. His future, though, wasn’t at linebacker, either.
Michael Pierce Sr., an executive on the Senior Bowl committee, has been advising his son the whole way, but it was Pierce’s first defensive line coach at Tulane, John Hendrick, who gave him confidence that he still leans on. Pierce remembers Hendrick telling him he could be special.
First, though, Pierce needed to find balance off the field. What was so head scratching about his issues at Tulane was he had never had much trouble with academics before he got to college.
“I kind of grew up in a sheltered home. My dad is a pastor. I didn’t think I was mentally mature enough at the time,” Pierce admits. “I’ve always been intellectually capable of doing schoolwork and succeeding in the classroom. But it taught me a lot about being mature, being an adult, taking responsibility for everything.
“I didn’t apply myself as much as could have. I focused on football at first. That definitely happened for a reason. I succeeded as soon as I got to Samford. I made up my mind that I wanted to graduate and even if I didn’t make it to the NFL, I wanted to make something of myself in life.”
Pierce graduated from Samford a semester early with a degree in public administration. He’s planning on going back to school this offseason and working toward a graduate degree. His ultimate goal is to become a college athletic director. There, however, is so much of his already improbable NFL career still in front of him.
“All the things that you can do for a young guy to understand what it takes to make it in this league, you can just look at Michael Pierce’s experience,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He came in – doesn’t say much, works hard, he’s a really good player, learns, plays hard, comes back and does it the next day and the day after that, and the day after that.
“Here, you don’t think of him in those terms anymore. You don’t think of him as an undrafted free agent – that label is wiped away. He’ll always have pride in that – the fact that’s how he earned his stripes, that pathway. But, he’s a starting defensive lineman for us.”