Against All Odds: Tony Pierson

There is a tale that goes like this: a talented high school player finds success on the football field, garners attention from multiple schools and has the world of Division I football at his fingertips. When success seems so close he can taste it, it suddenly disappears. His string of bad choices has caught up with him. His dreams of experiencing places outside of the city limits are dashed.  
In East St. Louis, this is generally the rule; Kansas wide receiver Tony Pierson is the exception.
Two years and a Big 12 Honorable Mention later, Pierson found personal and academic success after struggling academically in high school, narrowly qualifying for NCAA eligibility to play at KU against all odds.
At the age of five, Pierson picked up a football for the first time after watching his two older brothers and the kids on their street do running plays, dreaming of the National Football League.
Pierson continued to play football and noticed that his love for the game was showing in his abilities. He was quickly turning into an up-and-coming player and as he left middle school and began his football career in high school, his talent came center stage for college scouts.
“Finally, I got into high school and it really started to happen,” said Pierson, who played football and basketball in high school. “Coaches started looking at me and I told myself I had to start taking this seriously.”
Even after being told he was too small to ever be successful at the next level, his abilities garnered the attention of multiple Division I schools that were interested in his speed and agility as a player. His sophomore year, Pierson committed to the University of Missouri.
Upon entering his senior year of high school, Pierson de-committed from Mizzou, leaving an opportunity for Kansas to seriously pursue him.
“I picked KU because I felt like they were honest,” Pierson said. “Coach (Reggie) Mitchell, who recruited me – I felt like I trusted him, so I came to KU.”
Mitchell, the running backs coach at KU, stepped in to seal the deal. Pierson signed with Kansas in Feb. 2011, but came across an obstacle. While Pierson excelled on the field, his lack of focus in the classroom showed in his grade point average. Pierson was on the verge of not being eligible to play Division I football and becoming like his classmates before him: a capable, promising player unable to progress.
Like so many of his teammates and many past East St. Louis high school stars, Pierson was clinging to his abilities, fearful of never making his mark in college football.
“Some people don’t make it out of East St. Louis because of their grades,” Pierson said, the first member of his family to attend a university. “People fall into a trap of being a thug.”
But Mitchell would never let that happen because he saw himself in Pierson when he was his age.
“We come from very similar backgrounds and basically, I said if I can get a degree, you can get a degree,” Mitchell said. “I was the first one in my family to graduate from college and you’ll be the first one in your family and break the cycle.”
Pierson understood the long road that was ahead of him. He would have to concentrate on his grades if he had any hope of achieving his dreams that were hovering right within reach. He didn’t want to end up a bad example; he wanted to be the exception to the tale of talent lost.
“It was rough because I was on the edge of not playing Division I, but my coaches told me I needed to get my grades situated and pass my SAT test,” Pierson said. “Then I really started to get serious with my sports and my grades.”
After much determination, Pierson graduated with a passing GPA and SAT results to be eligible by the NCAA to be able to play for Kansas.
Once Pierson donned the Crimson and Blue his freshman year, he proved himself a rising star.
As one of the only true freshmen to play for KU in the 2011 season opener, Pierson carried the ball five times for 73 yards including an impressive 13-yard run to score his first career touchdown against McNeese State. He went on to finish his rookie campaign averaging 5.6 yards on 71 carries.
Pierson again proved to be an asset for the team his sophomore year, starting nine games and finishing seventh in the Big 12 for rushing with 69.1 yards per game. In his first two games of the 2012 season, Pierson put together back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts against South Dakota State and Rice. During the Texas Tech game, Pierson rushed for an impressive 202 yards, marking the first KU 200-yard rushing game by a Jayhawk since 2006. He completed his sophomore year averaging 6.5 yards on 117 attempts.
“There is only one way to describe him, he’s so explosive,” said Kansas quarterback, Jake Heaps of Pierson. “He’s such a fun player to watch and be around, he is just a natural at everything.”
Explosive is the only way to describe Pierson, who runs a 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. Pierson’s quickness has been prevalent in his abilities since high school, where he was the star running back, and his speed has helped him transition to his new position of wide receiver.
“The transfer he has made from running back to wide receiver, that type of hybrid position, he’s been good,” Coach Mitchell said. “Just watching him go from the spring into the fall he has made leaps and bounds.”
Heaps and Mitchell aren’t the only ones who see a confidence within Pierson, he sees it in himself too.
“They were always saying I was too small, but I had the confidence in myself,” Pierson said. “I just came here and played to my best ability.”
While it was important to thrive on the field and prepare for his breakout season, Pierson still had another obstacle to tackle: his grades. Pierson struggled in high school to stay focused and the classes only get harder. He knew if he wanted to be successful in college he had to learn how to balance school and football.
Pierson buckled down and concentrated on his studies. After a few semesters of hard work and a lot of dedication, he finally reaped the rewards of his studious habits.
In 2012, Pierson made the honor roll, an accomplishment for any student-athlete, but for Pierson it showed his growth and capabilities.
“You take a guy, who when he first got here he struggled academically in high school, and now he’s got above a 3.0,” Mitchell said. “And if you look at it from that standpoint he’s really grown.”
Having tasted academic success, Pierson hopes to repeat his honors in the upcoming year as he tackles a new set of classes within his major, African American Studies.
While he has goals for the upcoming year, he also has aspirations for his future down the road as well. He hopes to pursue his dreams into the NFL, a feat that may seem unattainable for most, but Pierson has a track record for breaking through boundaries and proving people wrong.
If his career stops after his years with the Kansas program, he will be fine too. Pierson wants to coach at the collegiate level, high school level or even has considered a Physical Education teacher. His love for football crosses over into many other sports as he plans on pursuing a career in anything sports-related.
“If the NFL doesn’t work for me, then hopefully coaching at the high school level or college,” said Pierson, of his future plans. “Something dealing with sports, I know that.”
He is proud of all the work he has done for the Kansas program. He is excited about the coming year and hopefully helping his team to a bowl game. But Pierson is most proud about his own personal growth.
Not only does he do well in his classes, while managing to stay humble about his accomplishments on the field, he has become a more sociable person. Now, Pierson can openly talk to strangers and the media, something he never imagined he could do.
“I think I’ve improved a lot as a person,” Pierson said. “Before coming to KU, I was very shy, but over the years I’ve opened up to people, talking a lot like to the team, anybody.”
Mitchell, whom Pierson considers a mentor, has been able to see Pierson grow on and off the field. Like Pierson, Mitchell sees the personal growth and maturity take form in the formerly shy wide receiver, who now talks to strangers with confidence.
“When he first got here he was really quiet and didn’t want to do interviews and now he’s more open, and more willing to go out of his comfort zone,” Mitchell said. “He’s gotten comfortable being uncomfortable.”
It has been over two years since Pierson graduated from high school. While he still maintains a strong relationship with Mitchell, Pierson now recognizes a change in himself. His confidence on the field now applies to him personally.
“I never would have imagined in high school that I would be where I am right now,” Pierson said, with a smile on his face. “I just have to keep getting better.”
Some rules were meant to be broken.