A year away, a new day

Ravens: Fed up with his role with the Giants, tight end Aaron Pierce shocked the NFL by dropping out, but he's back, with motivation.

April 21, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Ravens tight end Aaron Pierce would make the same unconventional decision if presented with the same unattractive options.

Healthy players don't walk away from the NFL in the prime of unfulfilled careers, do they? Pierce did. For six seasons with the New York Giants, Pierce tried unsuccessfully to secure a starting job. He never could dislodge veteran Howard Cross from the position. His role under then-coach Dan Reeves had been reduced to that of an H-back, which is basically a glorified fullback/wingback.

By the end of the 1997 season, Pierce had seen enough. He was no longer the promising, third-round draft pick who had starred at tight end for two seasons at the University of Washington, which shared a national championship in 1991. Pierce capped that All-Pac-10 season by catching seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown in a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

After six years in New York as an on-again, mostly off-again starter, Pierce was released in February 1998 by the Giants. During the ensuing free-agency period, the Oakland Raiders and the Ravens expressed interest in him. But there were two big problems in front of Pierce on the depth charts, namely Raiders tight end Rickey Dudley and Baltimore's Eric Green.

So Pierce did what is basically unthinkable in NFL circles. He decided to sit out the 1998 season and wait for a better opportunity to surface.

"Enough people told me I was crazy for doing it. I knew by doing that, an opportunity [to play again] also might be lost, but I thought it was worth the risk," said Pierce, 6 feet 5, 260 pounds. "When you take a year off, your career could be over. I weighed that. I had to come to terms with that.

"I don't think I was being bullheaded or stubborn. There are some things I don't compromise, like my happiness. I don't think it's wise for anyone to be in a job where they're not happy. I didn't want to go into another training camp knowing there was no way I could be a starter. My goal is not to be a backup."

Pierce, 29, finally will get the chance he craves. After signing a two-year, $1.7 million contract with the Ravens last month, his mind is no longer centered on the seafood brokerage business he started a year ago in his native Seattle, or the salmon fishing he enjoyed in his leisure time. He now spends his days in the Ravens' off-season conditioning program. With Green having signed with the New York Jets, Pierce soon will begin to battle veterans Lovett Purnell and Ravens holdover A. J. Ofodile for the starting job.

Numerous people, including Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president of player personnel, told Pierce he would miss the game badly enough to attempt a comeback before long. And, once Pierce started watching televised games early last season, he felt the football bug biting again.

"I'd be watching the games, and I wanted to be out there," Pierce said. "It's something that sort of sticks in your [craw]."

Pierce said the year off did wonders for his tired body. He only hopes the decision allows him to turn a less-than-stellar career into something special.

Not that he hasn't enjoyed a whiff of success here and there. In 1994 with the run-oriented Giants offense, he started 11 games and, though catching only 20 passes, four of them went for touchdowns. The following year, he had his best season, catching a career-high 33 passes for 310 yards. A knee injury in 1996 limited him to just 10 games and three starts. He caught only 10 passes in 1997.

For his career, Pierce has recorded 86 receptions for 927 yards and five touchdowns.

"Aaron is a proven NFL starter who can contribute right away in our offense," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He has experience in an H-back role, and his blocking is pretty solid. He's an upgrade at that position for us."

Newsome has liked Pierce since he scouted him in his early, front-office days with the Cleveland Browns. Newsome had hoped the Browns would draft Pierce in 1992.

Pierce "has the size, the speed and the athleticism to make an impact. We think he can be a factor in the running and the passing game," Newsome said.

The Ravens will have a short minicamp later this month, followed by another in mid-June. Pierce clearly is itching to get started.

"My body is really fresh. I know that will change pretty soon," Pierce said. "And I think I have a fresh attitude going into this. I'm all ready to go."

NOTE: The Ravens have withdrawn a qualifying offer to reserve defensive back and special teams player Donny Brady, making him an unrestricted free agent. The move comes three days after the team made Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister its No. 1 pick, the 10th player chosen overall.

Brady, a third-year player, was a starting cornerback for the Ravens two years ago, but eventually made his mark as a special teams player. He led the team in special-teams tackles in 1997 with 16, and had 14 last year, third best on the team.

The Ravens reported that former Seattle running back Steve Broussard passed a physical and signed a one-year contract.

Sun staff writer Mike Preston contributed to this article.

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