Bernard Pierce has made plenty of headlines for his ability to overcome obstacles.
He faces 11 every Saturday, each dead set on stopping his progress, and he’s become increasingly adept at thwarting them: a stiff arm here, a spin move there, an ankle breaking stutter step thrown in for good measure–the cumulative effect of which is, after his three touchdown performance Nov. 19 against Army, a MAC high 22 touchdowns and a growing consensus that he has a future playing football on Sundays.
The thing about Pierce though is, for all his many gridiron successes, his most impressive moves have come off the field. They’ve had to: the series of obstacles he’s faced the other six days of the week have been far more daunting than any defensive scheme Kent State can throw at him.
Pierce grew up in Ardmore where he had a relationship with his father he describes as alternately rocky and insubstantial and so was raised almost entirely by his mother and grandmother. Like many kids from fractured families, Pierce was rambunctious, or worse, growing up.
"I wasn't angry as a kid," he explained, "and I wasn't bad, but I would get in trouble sometimes."
Things came to a head when, during his sophomore year at Lower Merion High School, he got in a fight and punched a fellow student. The student ended up in the hospital and Pierce ended up at Glen Mills–a boarding school for youths in the court system.
"I fought on campus, and they enforced a rule," he says matter-of-factly.
The transition was difficult at first—"It was hard, but I needed the structure" he admitted—but it ended up being essential to his growth.
"It got me out of my childish ways. I learned to be a man there," he said.
He learned to be a football player too. He had a stellar career playing for the Bulls, so much so that he caught the eye of Temple University, and head coach Al Golden.
After a brief courtship that included a promise by Pierce to stay on his best behavior, the halfback signed a letter of intent, suited up the following fall, and then did something that even his staunchest supporters couldn’t have expected: he dominated. The freshman ran for 1361 yards, scored 16 times, and led the lowly Owls to a nine-game midseason winning streak.
The success went to his head though—as it is prone to do when the success is so grand and the head in question is so young.
"I became arrogant," he admitted. "I treated a lot of things as a joke. I got too close to the success and it devoured me."
"I stopped doing the simple things. I wasn't eating right. I was walking through things I shouldn't have been walking through."
It showed. In 2010, Pierce followed up his stellar freshman campaign by rushing for only 728 yards, little more than half the production of the previous year, and missing three games. He entered the season a Heisman trophy candidate, at least a self-proclaimed one, and exited it something very different: a disappointment.
As many a tackler has learned though, while Pierce is difficult to take down, he's even harder to keep there.
"I did a lot more work. I did more strength training, I changed my diet. I started stretching a lot more," he explained of his renewed commitment to the game this offseason. "I learned to always be humble."
The new humility has paid immediate dividends. He opened the season by running for 147 yards and three touchdowns against Villanova, followed it up with a 150 yard three touchdown performance at Akron, then, after a 14-10 loss to Big Ten-leading Penn State, scored five times in a 38-7 rout of Maryland.
Things are going so well on Saturday's for Pierce, he's considering forgoing his final year of eligibility and playing on a different day of the week next fall.
"It's too early for me to decide right now," he said, declining to rule out declaring for the NFL draft. "It's still up in the air."
It's unclear what the future holds for Pierce, but he's certain of one thing: things will turn out for the best, as long as he keeps his legs moving.