MINNEAPOLIS -- For the first time in his life, Michael Pierce got a glimpse into what he expects from retirement. He never had that much free time without playing football.
Concerns over the respiratory issues he dealt with since childhood forced the Minnesota Vikings nose tackle to opt out of the 2020 season last July when no one could predict how the NFL season would pan out.
Pierce, 28, grappled with the precautionary measures he took to ensure he’d be able to play in 2021. Sundays were rough, and the only way he could satiate the itch to suit up was by taking a long ride on his Peloton before watching the Vikings from his home in Alabama.
“There were, for sure, many times where I would say ‘Dang, I could’ve been out there,’” Pierce said on Wednesday. “A hundred and ten percent I felt like, especially as the weeks went on and the NFL got more adept with dealing with the COVID situation, I for sure regretted it to an extent.”
He hated watching how Minnesota’s defense struggled, especially the Christmas Day game when the Vikings allowed the Saints’ Alvin Kamara to rush for six touchdowns. After every game, Pierce got on the phone with Minnesota assistant defensive line coach Imarjaye Albury to go through what he saw as a fan.
But football no longer feels so far away. Pierce got the free-agent treatment Wednesday a year after the pandemic precluded such visits. Rattling off the names of players he will share the field with – many of whom he’s never met face-to-face -- Pierce is eager to play a role in restoring the Vikings’ defense.
“That’s why I signed here, to play on another great defense,” Pierce said. “With everybody healthy and the additions we made and bringing Stephen Weatherly back and Xavier Woods coming in on the back end, I think we’re going to be really good. The work has to get put in, the chemistry has to come and everybody has to gel.”
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman last month equated defensive end Danielle Hunter coming back from injury and Pierce from his opt-out season to “adding two free agents.”
Defense was the focal point for Minnesota in free agency, beginning with the acquisition of nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who is expected to play three-technique. Remaining in regular communication with Albury and Vikings assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Andre Patterson allowed Pierce to feel at ease knowing he wasn’t being replaced, but rather receiving a boost next to him on the interior of the line.
“Obviously Dalvin was a top priority for us,” Pierce said. “I played next to Brandon Williams, another nose guard, so as far as that goes, I think it'll be great. We had one of the top run defenses in Baltimore. I've always kind of known what we had going on, what we were looking forward to doing in free agency. They've done a great job keeping me a part of the loop, but it'll be a great time to compete against him and actually learn from him.
“Until you're done and retired, I don't think you can quit learning, and [Tomlinson has] done a great job being a nose guard and getting sacks, something I haven't been the best at. I'm going to learn from him, and I'm sure he can take some things from me, so it'll be a beneficial relationship for both of us.”
Pierce, who played for the Ravens during the first four seasons of his career, showed up to Baltimore minicamp in June 2019 weighing 390 pounds. It forced the defensive tackle, who spent years as a competitive weight lifter, to re-evaluate his regimen.
When Pierce opted out, Patterson advised him to hire a nutritionist and a trainer. Those decisions appear to have paid off over the past nine months. Pierce said he weighed in at 341 pounds during his visit to the Vikings’ headquarters with his lowest ever body fat.
“I played around 350 in Baltimore, but I’ve gotten as low as 335,” he said. “They don’t really want figurines or action figures or body builders at nose guard. You got to be a little bit heavy to deal with those double teams. So I think I’m right where I need to be. If I shave a few pounds off before the season and end up at 335, that will be perfect -- 335-340 is my range that I would like to stay at. So I’m right in range, man. It’s pretty early for that.”
A Peloton, a newly developed interest in CrossFit to cut “bad weight” and long sessions inside the infrared sauna he built in his home helped Pierce get football ready in his year away. The break reinforced his love for the sport and allowed Pierce to tap into other interests, such as real estate, developing a family foundation and his six-month-old poodle Princeton, which he refers to as his “son.”
When he retires, Pierce will be able to look back on his experience during the 2020 season and the balance it taught him in all areas of his life. That’s something he's eager to carry over to his inaugural season in Minnesota.
“I’ve been ready to roll, man,” Pierce said. “Hounding on my nutrition, got to know my body from an extended amount of time and trying some different things in my diet. Holistically, I think I became a better player and a person. Obviously, we’ll see what the results are on the field. But as far as my body and my mind and everything else, I’ve grown.”