Michael Pierce's decision to opt out of the 2020 season was a fairly straightforward one. He's basically the definition of the "high-risk" category; not only is Pierce the Vikings' biggest player at 340 pounds, but he has serious asthma that he's had to deal with his entire life. His brother and father have it, too. To top it off, Pierce went through a scary bout with pneumonia that caused him to miss a game a few years ago, he told SI's Albert Breer.
"It took longer than expected to get the fluid out of Pierce’s lungs," Breer wrote. "Once it was gone, his respiratory system didn’t recover as the doctors expected, which affected his daily breathing."
Even though the decision may have been an obvious one, that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Pierce is a former undrafted free agent from a small school (Samford) who worked his way up the depth chart with the Ravens, becoming one of the league's better nose tackles. He was rewarded with a three-year, $27 million contract from the Vikings this offseason, and was going to be a big part of the team's revamped defense.
Especially for someone joining a new team and wanting to gain the respect of new teammates, the decision to opt out – even thought it's clearly the right call – can sting.
"It’s hard, especially, not knowing my coaches and teammates that well," Pierce told Breer. "It’s hard emotionally. And from a pure football standpoint, I was starting to ascend. It hit me hard. But at end of the day, what’s worse? Missing the season, or playing eight games and winding up on a ventilator?”
To the Vikings' credit, they've been nothing but supportive towards Pierce with his decision to sit. Head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman encouraged him to opt out, and both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman understand the reasoning as well.
"Michael called and he explained to us his situation, as far as having asthma, and a couple of years ago he had pneumonia, so it just wasn’t safe for him to play," Zimmer said this week. "Really, honestly, if a player doesn’t think he’s safe and should do this, I’m with him 100 percent."
“Our organization puts the health and safety of our players first, and we have always done that, and we’ll always continue to do that," Spielman said. "With him opting out, I’ve told him, ‘We respect your decision for that, and we want to make sure that your health and safety always comes first.’"
All of Pierce's new teammates have his back too, even if they don't know him very well. It's a difficult loss on the football field, but it's important to keep things in perspective. Every player who spoke to the media this week seemed to have a good grasp on that.
"I respect their decision, and everybody has their own reasons," said Brian O'Neill. "It’s not for me to judge whether a guy should or shouldn’t. That’s a personal choice. Obviously, there’s a ton of unknown with the virus and everything going on in the world. I can’t give anybody a hard time for that. I’m fully supportive of any of our teammates making a decision that’s best for their families, because at the end of the day, that’s what is most important.”
With this new time off, Pierce won't just be sitting around. He told Breer that he's working out with a trainer at Godspeed Elite Sports Academy in Hoover, AL, and "plans to be meticulous with his diet" while maintaining a strict quarantine.
He still hasn’t been to a restaurant yet (“and I’m a big guy, I like to eat”), and has only gone to the barber shop once. And that’ll continue. Also, with some time freed up, he’s started to mentor college players who play for old coaches of his, specifically some young defensive linemen, and he’ll continue with that, which he says he has a passion for (he aspires, down the line, to become a college AD). And as for hobbies, he started to play the piano, and has Mary Had A Little Lamb down.
He's gonna miss football in the fall, especially being out there with his teammates, but this was an unavoidable decision. Hopefully everything will be cleared up so Pierce can safely rejoin the Vikings in 2021.
With Pierce opting out, his $5 million base salary is freed up as extra cap space for the Vikings. He gets a $350,000 stipend for the season and accrues a year of service time, but the terms of his deal just shift forward by a year. He'll still be under contract with the Vikings for three years, from 2021 to 2023.
The deadline for players opting out was 3 p.m. central time on Thursday. Pierce is officially the only member of the Vikings to do so.
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