EAGAN, Minn. – From virtual piano lessons to purchasing a poodle, Michael Pierce found ways to fill the void of life without football over the past year.
Pierce, who signed with the Vikings last spring as a free agent, opted out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19 concerns related to his longtime upper-respiratory problems. He spoke at length with Twin Cities media members Wednesday and opened up about being away from football for 12-plus months.
Pierce called the past year "an early snapshot of retirement," although he remained committed to a healthy diet and training regimen.
"But my schedule was wide open. It was the first time I was technically unemployed," Pierce said. "It gave me a lot of time to do some soul searching. I found a lot of things I was interested in, like starting to do piano, and more importantly I got into some philanthropic things."
He noted that he's starting a "family foundation" and also tested the waters of real estate with his family.
While there were benefits to the time away, he emphasized that it also reminded him of the true passion he has for football.
"It gave me some time to see how much I love the game, and I felt that burning desire to be out there with those guys – even when camp started," Pierce said. "Most vets don't normally tell you they look forward to camp, but I missed practice and just missed the camaraderie and friendship. All those things you hear retired guys talking about, I felt that early.
"For me, it will make this season and the coming seasons that much more special," he added.
During a 1-on-1 interview with Vikings.com's Gabe Henderson, Pierce pointed out that he'd never before missed an entire season of football.
"To have that gone left a hole," he said. "Obviously we play this game because we love it, but I didn't realize how deep that passion was. Until I saw the guys run out of the tunnel that first Sunday, and I was like, 'Wow.' "
View photos of DT Michael Pierce who toured TCO Performance Center and the Vikings Museum for the first time.
The decision to opt out was certainly a tough one, but it was a call he made while leaning on the guidance of his childhood doctor as well as his primary care physician in Alabama.
Staying safe and mostly isolated remained a priority for Pierce, who disclosed that he's now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
"From … March until this past month, I just stayed in the house, really. Obviously I had a gym, had a personal chef so I didn't have to leave the house for that stuff. But just stayed to myself as much as I could," Pierce said. "I saw my family a few times. They've been vaccinated, as well. But as far as just like outings and restaurants and typical everyday things, I stayed out of the way, made sure I stayed safe.
"I got tested two or three times just to make sure I was good. But outside of that, it was just being inside [my] home," he added. "It was rough, to be honest with you, but it was necessary."
Pierce did add a companion, though, when he purchased a Standard Poodle in January 2020.
Asked by a reporter for his dog's name, Pierce clarified the pup's family standing.
"My son's name is Princeton," he said, smiling. "He is 6 months. He became my best friend, because we were in the house together each and every day. Love my dog."
And as far as the piano?
It'll be a while before he's performing in any concerts, he admitted.
"This is slightly embarrassing. I started off with 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' and I never really progressed from there. I put that down and tried something else," Pierce quipped. "I've got to start all the way over, to be completely honest with you, but I think I can still play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' … that's the very first song that I learned. I mastered it and then when I tried another song – I can't remember the name of it at this moment – and it didn't go too hot."
In all fairness, Pierce incorporated video lessons as he tried to learn the piano. He hopes to revisit the instrument with in-person instruction at some point. Potentially even from a teammate.
"I do hear that Stephen Weatherly is a musician and he plays like six or seven instruments," Pierce said. "Hopefully I can get a keyboard, and if he's adept at playing piano, we can work that out."
(Editor's note: Weatherly, in fact, plays nine instruments!)
When Pierce wasn't playing with Princeton, dabbling in piano or picking up tennis, which he shared with Henderson, he made plenty of time to watch football. It's been years since he watched the game from "the other side," per se, but he embraced the opportunity to keep an eye on new teammates and stay engaged with the game, as well as with Vikings coaches.
The 28-year-old pointed media members to his Twitter profile, where he says he live-tweeted every game "just like a fan."
"It gave me a different perspective. Like I said, I haven't really met any of these guys in person. I sat in on all the meetings in the spring, obviously. … I've known Stephen Weatherly and Coach Imarjaye [Albury] personally. But outside of that, I didn't know anyone," Pierce said. "So I got to know these guys through a TV screen, like fans would."
Pierce utilized a two-TV setup at home, in addition to his computer.
"NFL Gameday was a big thing for me on my computer – watched the Vikings, and whatever team that my friends would play on … the good matchups around the league, I watched them," he explained. "It was hard, but it's a super-long season, so I think after Week 8, I was mentally OK."
Sunday-morning workouts to help with pregame couch jitters turned into a routine: Peloton ride, sauna, church.
"By that time it was 12 o'clock. Had me a good, nice meal, got me a glass of wine and watched Vikings football just like everybody else," Pierce said. "It was fun. Obviously, I would love to be playing a lot, lot more, but I made the most of it."
Pierce may have joined the Peloton party, but it wasn't his only source of pandemic workouts. Far from it, in fact.
In the fall, he participated in "Squatober," which he described as "super, super fun" for someone with Pierce's power-lifting background.
"It's like 25 days of squat and deadlift – if you're not crazy about weightlifting, I would not suggest it," he laughed. "But I actually got into CrossFit from January to February, and that's when I cut it off and started getting back into full-time football stuff. I learned a lot of different stuff. CrossFit took a lot of bad weight off of me, and I feel like I'm in great shape. I think the strength staff would agree with that today.
"I've been ready to roll, man; hounding on my nutrition, got to know my body from an extended amount of time and trying some different things in my diet," Pierce added. "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."