On a living room floor in Cahokia, Ill., just blocks from where his best friend was murdered, Tony Pierson was prepared for a fight. His older brother, Erin, had wrestled him to the ground, pushing Pierson into the calloused floor.
The brothers would exchange an awkward flurry of shoves and punches, a tussle that suddenly felt serious. As the boys rolled across the room, their grandmother, a kind soul named Dorothy Granberry, picked up the phone to call for help.
“Erin’s fighting Tony!” Dorothy yelled into the phone, speaking to the boys’ mother. “He’s trying to make him go back to school!”
“You’re going back to Kansas!” Erin yelled, his voice rising over the commotion. “You cannot pass this up!”
It was the late summer of 2011, and Pierson was a freshman running back at Kansas. In the months after arriving in Lawrence, he had seen enough. The massive and manicured campus was intimidating. The academic requirements were daunting. Pierson, a spindly athlete who grew up around the streets of East St. Louis, Ill., wasn’t sure he could survive.
“I got homesick,” he says.
On a whim, Pierson hitched a ride back home with a friend. Maybe he would go to junior college, he thought. Maybe he’d just stay around the old neighborhoods, in the shadow of downtown St. Louis. But then Erin, his older brother and mentor, heard that Little Tony was back home, walking away from a college scholarship. So he pulled Pierson onto the family’s living room floor.
He was going to fight his younger brother until he returned to Kansas.
“I just stood up,” Pierson says now, “became a man, and came back.”
More than three years later, Pierson is a senior running back at Kansas, preparing to play his final home game on Saturday afternoon. The Jayhawks will face TCU at 2 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. Pierson’s family will be on the sidelines before the game, and yes, there might be a few tears.
On the surface, it’s easy to say that Pierson’s college career could have gone better. A former four-star recruit with track-star speed, Pierson has toiled under three different coaches. He has switched positions twice — first moving to receiver under Charlie Weis, then back to running back under interim coach Clint Bowen.
Pierson has battled injury, nearly losing his career after suffering multiple concussions during his junior season. And in four seasons on campus, the Jayhawks have won just nine games.
“He really is such a talented guy,” Bowen says, “he could have had an off-the-charts career.”
Pierson understands this, of course, and in some ways, he agrees with it. He wanted more rushing yards, more receptions, more victories during his days in Lawrence. But four years can provide perspective. You want to see a Kansas football victory? Wait until you see what Pierson can accomplish in the next 20 years.
“I think I’ve come far,” Pierson says. “As a student, just becoming comfortable with people and this environment.”
For years, Pierson has told friends and family that he is not supposed to be here, finishing his college football career, bracing to earn his college degree in May.
He grew up in Section 8 housing while his mother, Evalena Granberry, raised three boys and worked long shifts as a hotel maid to make ends meet. He was caught in a contentious custody battle during his high school years, moving in with his father on the Missouri side of the state line. He moved back to East St. Louis for his senior year of high school and saw his childhood best friend, Damas Moore, killed outside a convenience store just seven weeks before their graduation.
“I looked at him like a brother,” Pierson says now. “I don’t even call him my best friend — only 18 years old.”
So much of his time at Kansas, Pierson says, has been an unofficial tribute to Moore, who went by the name Mas. When the boys were growing up, Granberry says, Pierson acted as Mas’ loyal shadow — and vice versa. They played sports together. They looked after each other. They often found themselves camped out in Pierson’s room, avoiding the cold world that waited outside.
“Everyone in Kansas would know Damas because he’d be there so much,” Granberry says. “He’d probably be trying to sleep on Tony’s couch. They’d be kicking him off campus.”
Pierson was always a quiet soul. He rarely expressed his feelings to his mother. His grandmother, Dorothy, used to prod him about his slow ways — he moved slow, he talked slow, he operated at his own speed. Except, of course, when he stepped on a football field. Granberry isn’t sure why her youngest son was so reserved, but it always caused a little bit of worry.
“Tony holds in a lot of stuff,” she says. “And I tell him all the time, Tony, it’s not good to hold stuff in.”
So much of his time at Kansas, Pierson says now, has been about learning to come out of his shell. He trusts easier now; he’s become more comfortable in social settings; he found a champion in Shanda Hayden, the head academic counselor for the football program. As he settled in at Kansas, Pierson became the student who asked for a tutor in every class. He spent so much time around Hayden, that Weis used to refer to Pierson as Hayden’s “son.”
“How’s your son doing?” Weis would ask during meetings.
“He’s really surprised himself more than anything,” Hayden said in an interview last year. “When he stepped foot on this campus, he told me ‘I’ll just end up at the juco anyway, so why does it all matter?’ I said: ‘You’ll prove yourself wrong.’
“And that’s what he’s done.”
Last year, Pierson landed on the 3.0 honor roll, earning KU’s “Crimson Climb” award, designated for athletes who show major improvement in the classroom. Inside the Kansas locker room, coaches and staff still marvel at Pierson’s transformation.
A few weeks ago, receivers coach Eric Kiesau pulled Pierson aside for a quick chat. Kiesau, who doubles as Kansas’ co-offensive coordinator, is in his first year in the program, and it can take a while to connect with players on a deeper level. But Kiesau wanted Pierson to know something.
“In all my years of coaching,” Kiesau told Pierson, “you’ve probably had more impact on me in a short period of time than any other player in 15 years of coaching.”
Now Pierson’s days at Kansas are coming to a close. The Jayhawks have three more games remaining, and Pierson can imagine the end. With a strong finish, he could finish his career with nearly 2,000 yards rushing while averaging more than 6 yards per carry — that despite losing nearly half his career to injury and a foray at receiver. But for Pierson, that’s just part of the story.
“My baby has matured so much,” Granberry says.
Pierson still harbors NFL dreams, and his elite speed could provide an opportunity. But when it’s all over, Pierson would like to be a coach. One day, he says, he could return home to East St. Louis again, and this time he’ll be the one looking for the forgotten prospect.
“I’ve opened up a lot more in the last four years,” Pierson says. “(It’s) just about giving me and my family a better life.”