The former New York Giants linebacker is coaching at one of the most storied high school programs in America. But the game looks very different from the one he grew up playing
When Antonio Pierce agreed to coach his son’s high school football team, he wasn’t coaching just any high school team. His son, De’Andre Pierce, is a senior defensive back for California’s Long Beach Poly, which has sent more alumni to the NFL than any other high school in the country. This fall, Pierce and his 4-1 Jackrabbits are the subjects of a six-part documentary series, Football for Life, produced by USA Football, the sport’s national governing body. Pierce, a middle linebacker for nine years with the Giants and Washington, knows the sport as well as anyone, but he found a very different high school game than the one he played back in the 1990s. The Super Bowl champion talked to The MMQB about his being on the front lines of a violent game that’s trying to be made safer.
VRENTAS: What made you decide to coach high school football?
PIERCE: I put myself in a kid’s position, that if I wanted to be a professional football player or playing in college, I would like to learn from somebody who played at the highest level. My son is a senior now, and during his freshman and sophomore years, I was going to the games like every other parent. I walked through the gate one week, and the athletic director said, “Have you ever thought about coaching?” I said, yeah, I always thought about coaching, but the opportunity and the time would have to be the biggest deal. We kind of kept that at that. After last season the head coach resigned, and [the athletic director] gave me a call back. I kind of went full force with a several-year plan of how I could make the program better, and what I think I could bring to the kids, and style of play and mindset. One thing I wanted to do was implement a grade point average. So we implemented a 2.5 GPA in core classes that everybody in the football program has to have. The high school federation in California says you need to have a 2.0, but that’s average, and you’re not going to get kids to really give their all if you just ask them to do what’s average. You have to push them a little bit, especially in the inner city. For me, that’s something I struggled with. My sophomore year in high school, I struggled with being too cool for school, so I wanted to make sure that if a kid had athletic ability, we gave him the resources academically. The principal and athletic director were on board, and we got it going.
VRENTAS: How has your playing career shaped the way you coach?
PIERCE: I played for a lot of coaches with the Redskins and the Giants. I had four head coaches and six defensive coordinators, so I was able to learn a lot from a lot of different people. The most important thing is being disciplined. I use something with the guys we call “ARC”: accountability, responsibility and communication. I tell them to do those three things every day. That will help them out not just in football, but in life. You have to be accountable, be at school. You have to be responsible, do your homework, do what your teachers ask, do what your parents ask. And communication, which a lot of kids struggle with today, being able to express themselves.
VRENTAS: What did you hope to show by having your season filmed for a USA Football documentary series?
PIERCE: USA Football does an outstanding job teaching and talking about fundamentals, and the big push they’ve made with Heads Up football and talking about concussions. I thought it would be positive to show what we do at Poly, and to talk about the same things we talk about every day. Character, unity, brotherhood, family, adversity. Things that you deal with in life, but in football it comes out through the year one way or the other. And it was a great opportunity for our kids to get comfortable being around a camera. To me, that’s just like an interview process. If you can talk in front of a camera, you can talk to a human being and look them in the eye, and that’s a thing that a lot of kids struggle with today. I thought it was good, as far as building young men, to put them in positions with cameras and microphones around them all the time so they are aware what they are saying and doing when all eyes are on them. Every team we have played so far tells me they are watching. That makes me a little nervous that they may be getting some insight. But more importantly, the other coaches tell me they say the same things to their kids. Football is repetitive, a lot of times we all say the same thing as coaches, but sometimes it’s good to hear it from a different voice. They look to Long Beach Poly, a program with a lot of tradition and rich history, and now they see an NFL guy saying the same things to his kids that they are saying to theirs.
VRENTAS: How different is the emphasis on player safety in high school football from when you played?
PIERCE: It’s totally different. Pretty much you were a battering ram in high school when I played, and that wasn’t that long ago, 18 years. Everything is different now: the awareness of injuries, the awareness of how to use proper technique each and every time, the water breaks, the amount of time you can have kids on the practice field. All those things are now trickling down to the high school level. The good part for me is, when you play in the pros, you know how to practice. Go fast, but do it the right way, without hurting yourself or the people around you. Those are the things you are trying to teach young kids. You are trying to teach them how to run full speed without a big impact. At times it is difficult, but for the most part, the kids having been around me 18 months now, they understand. We haven’t really had that many issues with concussions. Guys do a good job as far as knowing, right foot, right shoulder; keep your head away; keep your eyes up. Those are things we work on every day.
VRENTAS: How do you teach tackling?
PIERCE: Sometimes I actually physically do it. I can’t strap a helmet on, but I can show them the right form and the proper technique. We watch a lot of videos too. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks did an excellent job with the tackling video they showed the NFL, and I brought that down to the high school level. I show them a lot of film of the professional level, because most kids want to mimic what they see on TV. Odell Beckham, Jr. caught a one-handed catch and now everybody is trying to do that. The good part about that is you can use those examples to teach your kids. I don’t have all the right answers, but I did a lot of research as far as looking at different videos and different ways to carry out the message. Fun ways to do it, not the repetitive way. Because once kids get bored with something, they kind of shut you down.
VRENTAS: When a player has a suspected head injury, how do you handle it?
PIERCE: He’s out, mandatory, out for a week. Then he has to get a doctor’s note to get clearance, with mom and dad. It’s guaranteed they miss the next week’s game, then they go through the process of evaluation the following week to see if they can play. We haven’t had anything severe where kids have missed more than one week so far. I think every coach around America is aware of it now. You are all talking about safety and proper technique. You see it when you play other teams, that kids are putting more emphasis on tackling lower, not going high. Everybody is not trying to get the knockout hit. In football, you are going to have your hard collisions, but most of the time it is about understanding where to hit and where the target area is.
VRENTAS: Four high school football players have died from in-game injuries so far this fall. Have any of your players asked you about that?
PIERCE: They haven’t asked me about it, but I am sure they are aware of it, just through social media. I tell them all the time: football is not for everybody. There are going to be aches and pains, but if there is something wrong with you, don’t be too brave to speak up and tell a coach and let them know that something is wrong. We have a good open relationship with the kids. We talk to them, and they understand that for every one player that is going to go to college and maybe the pros, for everybody else high school is the end of it.
VRENTAS: You retired due to a neck injury, so you understand the safety risks of the game. Have you had any aftereffects from that injury?
PIERCE: With my neck, it was a simple deal. Either have surgery or stop playing. I chose to stop playing. I get the little nerves that tweak every once in a while, and I’m like, oh, I felt that a little differently, so it is one of those things. You know when you get a little older that there are going to be some impacts from playing football that you will feel later in life. I’m still able to walk out there, coach, and play with my kids, so I wouldn’t change the process.
What I had was a bulging disc in my spinal cord. It was kind of unique, because most times they happen in between the vertebrae, and mine was on the spinal cord. So that was a little scary. They were talking about paralysis, if you didn’t get it fixed and taken out, so I retired. It was tough. You never think you’re going to go out that way. You think you’re going to go out like Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan and John Elway, and win Super Bowls and retire. But for most of us, that’s how you go out.
VRENTAS: Your receivers coach at Poly is former Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. How strong is the NFL influence on the program?
PIERCE: I think a lot of former players want to get into coaching high school football, they just need somebody to get the ball rolling. You can never have one right way to do it, and T.J. and I both came up through the ranks of the National Football League differently, so he brings a different experience to the table. In high school, sometimes you are only as good as the people around you, and he brings a lot to the table. Football at Poly is over 115 years old, and has produced 65 NFL players, including six current players, so there is a lot of history. You never know who is going to show up. For homecoming last week, we had Willie McGinest, Leonard Russell here. Every other day you’ve got somebody who is somebody showing up.
VRENTAS: This year’s Giants team so far looks a little bit like the 2007 Super Bowl you played on, starting off 0-2 and then getting back on track. Do you see any similarities?
PIERCE: You see them battling; they haven’t quit; they haven’t given up on Coach Coughlin. It seems like every year, you think his team is going to tap out on him, and he gets the most out of them. That’s one thing you can say Coach Coughlin has done with the Giants since he’s been there—he’s gotten the most out of each and every team that he’s ever coached. Sometimes the players don’t pan out. But his style, his methods have been the same. I was in the locker room before the game two weeks ago when they got their first win against Washington, and just listening to him talk, it was back to ’07, ’08. He hasn’t changed his method, his mindset, of how to approach the team.
I spoke to the team camp during training camp and the message was, “Just believe.” Everybody on the outside is saying you don’t have a chance; you are a 5-11, 6-10 team. Use that as fuel to make you play better, study harder and fight for one another. And remember it’s a long season. It might not start off the way you want … I was telling them to keep their heads up, and believe in one another, and remember you are fortunate to be playing this game of football. Don’t take that for granted.
VRENTAS: Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator when you won your Super Bowl ring. Now that he’s back, can you see the impact he’s had on the team’s defense?
PIERCE: I think it’s his personality, his drive and the way the guys respond to him. I think the previous defensive coordinator, at certain points, the players weren’t responding. The message was being sent, but the guys weren’t responding to it. And that’s on both parties, the coach and the players. I think with Spags, he brings a sense of calmness, a sense of reassurance, that accountability factor where everybody is accountable at the same level. It doesn’t matter if you are an all star or an undrafted guy.
VRENTAS: What did you tell Jon Beason about playing middle linebacker in Spagnuolo’s defense?
PIERCE: We talked as soon as he got hired. I’ve been a fan of Beason; we played against one another. I told him he’ll love it. It’s a lot of freedom, a lot of opportunities for the ‘Mike’ linebacker to make a lot of plays. The one thing about it is Spags is going to be demanding. He’s going to ask you to know everything he knows and more, because you are going to be the guy making adjustments, and his eyes and ears and voice and physical presence on the field. You can see the difference when Beason is on the field and when he’s not. There is a glaring difference when he is not out there.
VRENTAS: Spagnuolo has had to scheme the defense without Jason Pierre-Paul. How hard is it to adjust to not having your best pass rusher, and not knowing if or when he’ll be back?
PIERCE: The thing about it is, you don’t really know what you are missing, because you never had it. He hasn’t been around in OTAs, in minicamp. Knowing Spags, he did the same thing as he did when Strahan was thinking about retiring in ’07 . You go with the guys you’ve got, and you try to get those guys prepared. You know there is a talent difference that you are missing when JPP is not there, but you’ve gotta compensate with multiple guys. You hate to see that happen to anyone, but more importantly, you hope that [Pierre-Paul] can recover because outside of football, he’s got a family. You wish that he can get healthy and be able to play with his son and do all those things he wants to do physically with his kid. Football, at some point, is going to be an afterthought anyway. So hopefully he’s smart, he can come back healthy and prepared, both mentally and emotionally
VRENTAS: Has coaching high school football given you a new perspective on any part of the game?
PIERCE: I think details. When you are a professional, sometimes there are details you can leave out for yourself because you can get away with it. As a high school coach, you can’t do that. Every detail is critical. Every step you tell them to do has to be shown not just physically, but on paper, written out. It takes you back to Football 101. That’s something that was a learning process for me.