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'I'm not going to stop': How an underdog mentality has fueled Antonio Pierce's career

By Levi Edwards | Digital Team Reporter

When the opportunity has presented itself, Antonio Pierce has always found a way to seize the moment.

The move to make him the interim head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders was a bit of an unexpected decision, as he was serving as the team's linebackers coach at the time. However, Pierce's ability to turn lemons into lemonade as head coach is symbolic to his prior career as a football player – ultimately reaching heights he wasn't necessarily expected to attain.

He's been the ultimate competitor since his youth, raised as an only child in Compton, California. His competitive spirit rang true in everything he did, even playing video games. He'd stay up for hours on end playing Tecmo Super Bowl on Nintendo, the first NFL video game of its day prior to EA Sports' NFL Madden series.

"I always played with Bo Jackson on Tecmo Bowl. Nobody could stop me," Pierce said.

Perry Pierce, Antonio's stepfather, would routinely ruin the party in his stepson's room by turning off the console and forcing him to get some sleep. Antonio had a hard time putting down the controller for the night if he wasn't victorious.

That obsessive mentality of beating the other 31 NFL teams in the virtual realm was replicated, and intensified, on the real gridiron.

"His attention to detail even as a youth was amazing because he hated to lose at anything," said Perry. "Those kinds of things were always prevalent in him growing up. He was always a Raider. It's been instilled in him."

The Compton native spent as many Sundays as he could watching the players he idolized such as Tim Brown at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This influenced him to begin a journey that started as an All-State linebacker at Paramount High School and led to becoming a Super Bowl champion and now head coach.

"Be a student of the game"

One day at University of Arizona football practice, Antonio Pierce was summoned by Head Coach Dick Tomey for circle drill.

The classic fundamental circle drill consists of two players, one offensive and one defensive, lining up and charging at one another with the objective of pushing their opponent out of the circle.

Linebacker Lance Briggs, a sophomore at the time who eventually played 12 seasons for the Chicago Bears with two First-Team All-Pro selections, still remembers that drill clear as day.

He built a strong relationship with Pierce as the teammates roomed together for their two seasons at Arizona. Pierce was an unknown to Briggs and much of the roster when he arrived in 1999 as a JUCO transfer.

With All-Pac-10 selection Marcus Bell the unquestioned star of the defense, Pierce found himself at the bottom of the totem pole. Placing Briggs and Pierce together was a decision from the coaches to see if the two would either sink or swim in the shadows.

"They wanted me to be with AP because he was a student of the game," said Briggs. "That's one thing Antonio used to talk about all of the time with me. He'd always repeat, 'You've got to be a student of the game. Understand what offenses are doing against you. If you understand what's happening, you can play a lot faster.'"

After Bell was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, Pierce and Briggs worked their way into the 2000 season starting rotation where Pierce's competitive mentality really started to show – especially after the aforementioned circle drill.

"I wanted to see it. This was my big bro you know," Briggs recalled. "He put his head down, the other guy put his head down and just railroaded [Pierce] out of the circle. I was like, 'Whoa! What is going on?' But when I talked to him, he just said, 'Man, that stuff doesn't matter. All that matters is the stuff that happens on the game film.'

"The circle drill was huge for us offensive and defensive players. We rallied around that stuff. Antonio's attitude around it was, 'I don't care about this. All I care about is making plays when it counts.'"

Fast forward to the Arizona Wildcats' 2000 season opener on the road against the Utah Utes. The opposing team was headlined by standout receiver and future All-Pro Steve Smith Sr., who like Pierce, was also a JUCO transfer.

It was the first time Briggs started next to Pierce as inside linebackers, playing nearly 110 snaps on defense that game. Pierce lived up to those words spoken to Briggs after losing the circle drill, making the plays when it really mattered.

"He would give me a thumbs up if it's a pass or a thumbs down if it's a run. I would say he was probably 78 percent right," said Briggs. "It was the best situation I could've been in to learn from someone that knew the ins-and-outs of defense and how offenses run their attack."

Not only was Briggs impressed by Pierce's football mind, but with his physicality and hustle. In the 17-3 victory, Briggs recalled his teammate making an all-out hustle play, which he believes was the deciding factor.

"Their receiver caught a middle screen, and he was off to the races. Antonio, he took an angle and just hauled ass to go get him. He ended up tackling him inside the 10-yard line and we had a hell of defensive stop after that.

"That was one of those highlights Dick Tomey put up and he would always say, 'Some Wildcats are going to make a play, and when they do, we want them to want to make another play.' Because of that effort he gave on that would've been touchdown, we won that game."

"He wasn't going to be denied"

After becoming a standout linebacker at Arizona, it was back to the bottom of the hill when entering professional football.

Pierce's name wasn't called during the 2001 NFL Draft; however, he got a shot to prove himself at Washington's Training Camp located at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and was later signed as an undrafted free agent. With this opportunity to make his childhood NFL dreams become a reality, it was time to start climbing back up the hill.

"A lot of guys view the Pac-10 as being soft. When Antonio was a rookie, he told me he was fighting every day," said Briggs. "One of the stories he told me was that he literally fought every day [in Training Camp]. As a linebacker and an undrafted free agent, he had to earn every inch."

LaVar Arrington was the heralded All-American linebacker from Penn State taken by Washington with the second overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, and a teammate of Pierce's at both Washington and the Giants.

But before making it to the league, Arrington's first recollection of Pierce is from August 28, 1999, when the Nittany Lions faced off against the Arizona Wildcats.

"I remembered him because he blew Larry Johnson up on one of the opening kickoffs," Arrington recalled. "He was on that field in No. 45 and then ended up being an undrafted free agent my second year in the league in Washington."

Arrington was deemed the franchise's future cornerstone in the linebacking corps, expected to churn out Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections – which he eventually did. As for a UDFA Pierce, expectations paled in comparison.

"I just remember him being a raw dude," Arrington said. "Undersized. I didn't know if he would make the team."

Just like at Mount San Antonio and Arizona, his persistence would pay off. Not only did Pierce make the 53-man roster, but he also started eight games in 2001.

"His work ethic, his I.Q., his attention to detail was so phenomenal," Arrington said. "It was undeniable that regardless of anything else, this was a dude that you had to have on your team. He had a spirit about him, an underdog mentality. He wasn't going to be denied what he felt was supposed to be his. That was his mentality. That's what it felt like. There was no surprise that he ended up getting on the field and being a starter."

Ryan Clark felt a kinship to Pierce as his path to the league resembled Pierce's much more than Arrington's. The Super Bowl-winning safety signed with Washington in 2004 after spending two seasons with the New York Giants. As an undrafted free agent out of LSU, like Pierce, he had to grind his way onto the roster.

Going into the 2004 season, Pierce and Clark were slated to be backups. However, an injury to starting linebacker Micheal Barrow opened a door for Pierce and he never looked back.

Starting all 16 games, he racked up a career-high 114 tackles along with five pass deflections and two interceptions. Injuries in the secondary also afforded Clark the chance to have a breakout season alongside Pierce.

"Him being the play-caller and me being a younger safety on the team, I just realized how smart he was, how good he was at aligning everybody, putting people in the right spot and anticipating what was coming," Clark said. "Our intelligence on the football field matched."

"We were trying to make it together," continued Clark. "That's what made our thing cool is all the synergy and all the commonalities. Being undrafted and understanding we're probably not as talented as some of the other guys on the team, we found ways to continue making ourselves valuable."

Through the hardships of that 2004 season, Pierce and Clark formed a friendship that's stood the test of time off the field. Clark found a fascination with Pierce as a person, considering how culturally different the Compton, California, product was from himself – a New Orleans, Louisiana, native. Clark would always put on his Sunday best for gamedays, while Pierce routinely donned a Los Angeles Dodgers fitted cap, Dickies khakis and a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors.

They bonded over being young fathers, spending holidays and ritual postgame meals together. This included Clark flying out to Southern California to spend time with Pierce's family and help run drills at his first ever youth football camp.

"We're out there in Compton at camp and the field didn't have any damn grass bro," joked Clark. "It's all dirt, but the kids acted just like AP. It's so cool to see someone go back to where he comes from and he's still the same.

"He's the head coach of the Raiders, but nothing is different about Antonio Pierce from the day I met him until now. He's just smarter and wiser now and has had more life experiences, but he still acts the exact same."

"We're going to be defiant today"

Justin Tuck is one of the last people who would've predicted Antonio Pierce going into coaching.

Tuck was drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft to the New York Giants, the same season a free agent Pierce packed his bags for The Big Apple. Though Pierce was new to the team, it took little time to establish himself as a leader.

One of Tuck's first memories of Pierce is when the veteran linebacker planted a burner phone on Head Coach Tom Coughlin during a team meeting. Coughlin had a strict rule about players bringing phones into the meeting room, so Pierce thought it'd be funny to call the burner with his phone to make his teammates think Coughlin's own phone was ringing.

"I was super surprised when he went into coaching early. Everything he used to do was in defiance of coaching," said Tuck. "But his definition of defiance was, 'How do we make this our own? How do we make this session our own? How do we make this defense our own?' The coaches are here to give us input, but we're the ones who have to apply it."

In hindsight, Tuck can now understand how Pierce has found success in the coaching sphere, labeling him as a "born leader."

Pierce's first three seasons in New York were arguably the best stretch in his NFL career. He had over 100 total tackles each of those seasons, with a combined 25 tackles for loss, 28 pass deflections and four interceptions.

The 2006 Pro Bowler also helped make life easier for Tuck, who had developed into an integral part of the Giants defensive line alongside Hall of Famer Michael Strahan.

"Everybody gives this praise to the quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Eli, Tom Brady. I haven't seen too many of those quarterbacks fool AP," said Tuck. "I'm going to be honest, my first three years in the league, 60 to 70 percent of the plays I made were from being in my stance but not all the way up so I could look back at him and see how he was directing the back end.

"He would tell me what was going to happen before the ball was snapped. I don't have an accurate count of how many times he was right, but I guarantee you he was right more than he was wrong."

Pierce's sharp mind for the game helped propel the 2007 Giants to accomplish the improbable. After finishing with a 10-6 record and landing at the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, they marched on to Super Bowl XLII to face the 18-0 New England Patriots. With the Pats one game away from becoming the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go undefeated for an entire season, Pierce continued to boldly rally his teammates.

"Leading into that Super Bowl run, he was doing things that were very different from any other leadership I've seen," Tuck said.

"Before we got on the plane for the game, he said, 'Wear all black because we're going to the death of a dynasty.' This was before we were about to play the Patriots in the Super Bowl. That was all AP."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was sacked five times in the outing, two of which came from Tuck. Pierce tied a game-high 11 total tackles en route to the 17-14 Super Bowl victory.

During Tom Telesco's introductory press conference as general manager, he was asked to give his scouting report of Pierce as a player and how that may translate over as the head coach of the Silver and Black.

"That's a great question," replied Telesco. "If you look at his career back to high school or junior college first, then goes Division I linebacker, then undrafted and then wins a starting job and has the career he had, obviously he's a grinder and he works because nothing was given to him. You can hang your hat on that as a head coach because there's a lot of players on the roster, they're the same way. Not everyone on your roster is Davante Adams. So, to have that mentality, that dog mentality that I'm going to outwork people, it's great to have.

"He was a player to be reckoned with for a long time because of his instincts, his smarts, and he could run to the football. As we were looking for defensive players, if you can just point to the head coach, 'Hey, if you can play like him, you can play for us.'"

The same question was also asked to these individuals who have personally played with Pierce. All these men played with him during vastly different portions of his career, but there was one common phrase used to describe him: leader of men.

"He doesn't have NFL head coaching experience. He doesn't fit the mold of what most people would say is NFL head coach material," Tuck said. "But I know a few things about AP, and it's that he has a passion for the game and a passion to lead and develop players."

In a lot of ways, Pierce is still playing linebacker, he's just traded in the green dot on his helmet for a headset on the sideline. The leadership traits are the same. The football mind diagnosing plays is the same. The intensity he brings stepping on the field is still the same. Even his vocal, defiant manner is the same.

And nothing indicates that changing as he embarks on this new journey.

"Just like I thought I'd become professional player and thought I'd win a Super Bowl one day – there's no difference in the position I'm in now," Pierce said recently. "I see myself in this position, and hopefully one day sitting at that podium with the Lombardi Trophy next to me too. That's my goal.

"Until that happens, I'm not going to stop."

Take a look at the best photos from the Las Vegas Raiders Foundation inaugural Silver & Black Gala, an event focused on mental health awareness and fundraising for the Legal Aid of Southern Nevada's Resiliency & Justice Center.

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