One day before veteran players reported for training camp on July 28, the Minnesota Vikings learned their biggest free-agent acquisition would not step on the field until 2021.
Michael Pierce, a former Baltimore Ravens nose tackle who signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Vikings in March, was one of 67 NFL players who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the coronavirus. The 6-foot, 340-pound defensive tackle was put into the high-risk category of player opt-outs after consulting with team doctors and trainers, a decision that was based on living with asthma and a scary bout with pneumonia during the 2017 season.
Pierce's $3 million base salary in 2020 will now be his salary for 2021. He will receive a $350,000 stipend by opting out of the season because he falls into the high-risk category.
As a top-five run-stopping nose tackle, the 27-year-old Pierce has just begun to enter his prime years in the NFL. But playing now, amid heightened risks for those who deal with respiratory issues, was a hazard that could derail his career.
"I would like to play three to five more years or however long my body allows me versus me potentially ending up in the hospital," Pierce told ESPN. "With someone investing this level of funds in a player, they never want to hear that you're not going to play. For me, it wasn't anything they didn't know already (because of the physical/medical check he went through before signing in agency), so it was a lot easier for me to bring this up to them. They were super supportive and they understood where I was coming from."
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is behind Pierce "100%," but his decision sent the team into scramble mode. Nose tackle was a major need for the Vikings, who released two-time Pro Bowler Linval Joseph and expected Pierce to fill that void.
And back home in Birmingham, Alabama, it has left Pierce trying to stay healthy, get better physically and mentally, and learn a little piano as he prepares for a fall without football.
Andre Patterson, the Vikings' co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, bestowed two pieces of advice on Pierce upon learning he was opting out: No. 1, Stay safe. No. 2, Watch how you're taking care of your body.
While Pierce's teammates are in the thick of preparation for Minnesota's Sept. 13 opener against Green Bay, Pierce is already training for the 2021 season.
"All I told him to do is make sure he hires a good trainer and hire a great nutritionist because my focus is on the guys who are here," Patterson said. "I got to get these guys ready to go play. I got to get them to go be able to play well so we can do what we want to do."
During his last season with the Ravens, Pierce showed up to minicamp in June 2019 at 390 pounds and was not allowed to practice. He ended up dropping 30 pounds over a five-week period, but the experience taught him a valuable lesson.
"I had an issue last year that I just told myself that I would never repeat," Pierce said. "Once I hired a chef and got everything zeroed in from last year I haven't had any problems. It's fairly simple once you understand how your body works.
"It's just about wanting to be better. Wanting to not only impress them with my play on the field but impress them and let them know that I have been working while the team was working and taking care of business on the field. For me, it's about having pride in yourself and doing the right thing. Obviously when I show up [next spring], I want to impress those guys on and off the field."
Pierce was training at EXOS Pensacola at the Andrews Institute before the gym shut down at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in late March. He packed up his belongings in the beachfront condo he was renting and made the short drive to his parents' home in Mobile, Alabama to live for three months while the home he purchased in Birmingham was being built.
"It was like high school vibes all over again," Pierce said.
Pierce converted the family attic into a home gym, complete with a Bowflex trainer, elliptical and exercise bike. As the pandemic spread, Pierce had regular conversations with his parents and agent about how he should approach his health concerns with the season.
Once it became clear Pierce would not play in 2020, his trainer overhauled his workouts. Instead of pushing weights throughout the latter portion of July so he could show up to camp at his strongest, Pierce's focus became cardio and lowering his body fat.
"We're kind of retooling my body," Pierce said. "Lots of sprint work, alactic conditioning with all those cardio machines that people use nowadays. I hate it, but it works."
Pierce, who has since moved into his new home in Birmingham, spends five days a week working out with his trainer and Ravens offensive tackle Andre Smith, his former teammate who also opted out for the 2020 season.
His days start off with a 6 a.m. wake-up, a cup of coffee and morning reading. Two hours at the gym end around 12:30 p.m. and are followed by lunch and a session in the infrared sauna he built in his home. To improve his flexibility, Pierce signed up for hot yoga classes on Wednesday and Saturday. After dinner, Pierce jumps on his Peloton for a 45-minute ride, all with the focus of getting in the best shape of his career.
"I played under 350 [pounds], and I'm under that now," he said. "Whether it's 330, 325, I don't care. It's about me playing well, being effective and not being tired. Weight is a number for me. I don't want to drop too much weight but at the same time be a well-tapered athlete who can do everything I've grown accustomed to. I'll be a lot smaller than most people have seen me at, but it won't be anything too drastic to where I can't perform the way I need to perform."
Aside from workouts, Pierce aims to better himself in his free time. He reads about ways to improve his finances, from "The Millionaire Mind" to "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." He mentors young defensive linemen, especially those whose seasons are affected by the coronavirus pandemic and have their football futures in jeopardy. He uses his own story as an undrafted free agent from Samford to provide guidance on the path they can take in the future.
And recently, he has uncovered a new skill.
"Piano is my thing now. I fell in love with it," Pierce said. "You view these beautiful homes that have these grand pianos that nobody knows how to play. I ended up buying a piano that plays itself out of being lazy and seeing that I wasn't going to be playing football this year, I figured I might as well start."
To date, Pierce has taught himself "one and a half" songs. His crowning achievement? Learning how to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
"For some people that might not be an accomplishment, but for me it's pretty good," he said.
Pierce plans to show up in the spring ready to compete for the job he was in line for this year, but this fall he'll watch someone else take over his role.
Shamar Stephen, the only teammate Pierce has actually met in person, slid over from three-technique to nose tackle early in camp, a more natural fit for the veteran lineman, according to Zimmer.
Pierce is already anticipating Sundays being hard. He has relied on a network of former teammates, particularly those who have missed seasons because of injury, for advice on how to beat the FOMO (fear of missing out) and stay positive.
"That's the hard part," Pierce said. "Obviously I hadn't met many of my teammates in Minnesota yet. It's super hard seeing those guys actually going through camp and doing all this stuff. You get antsy even when nothing's going on.
"It's been rough, but at the end of the day I know I'm doing this for my health and it's going to be rough to watch those games from the house for sure. When the games come on I'll be rooting for the guys just like everyone else at home."