East St. Louis, Illinois, consistently ranks at or near the top of national listings in unemployment, poverty and violent-crime rates.
Nobody has to look for trouble there. It typically is more a matter of being lucky and wise enough to outrun it.
Tony Pierson, fastest member of the Kansas University football program, has done it and is closing in on a degree. Given that he came out of such a woefully underfunded school system, he has made many proud of him for staying on the course.
“Anybody associated with our program that knows Tony on a day‑to‑day basis is a Tony fan,” KU interim head coach Clint Bowen said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t be. The young man is as polite and good‑hearted a guy as we’ve had in the program for a long time. He’s a special individual, works extremely hard in the classroom, on the football field.”
And then Bowen paid Pierson as nice a compliment as can be stated about one of his players.
“I’ve never once heard a negative comment said about Tony in all the time I’ve been here,” said Bowen, who rejoined KU’s coaching staff after Pierson’s first season.
Pierson rushed for 101 yards in Saturday’s 34-14 victory against Iowa State, moving past Homer Floyd and Delvin Williams into 18th place with 1,606 career rushing yards on KU’s all-time career list. Not bad considering he spent all of his junior season and half of this one as a wide receiver.
“He missed a few games in his career (concussions), which is unfortunate because he really is such a talented guy he could have had an off-the-charts career,” Bowen said. “He obviously is having a good career, but I don’t think his talents have always been shown as much as what’s truly in that guy’s body.”
Pierson has averaged 6.2 yards per carry, topped among the school’s top 20 rushers only by Laverne Smith and Gale Sayers.
Yet, it’s seldom his football skill that teammates and coaches discuss when Pierson’s name surfaces. That’s how likeable they find him.
“He’s the greatest,” offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau said. “He’s one of my favorite players. I told him this about probably two, three weeks ago, I told him, ‘Tony Pierson, in all my years of coaching, you’ve probably had more impact on me in a short period of time than any other player in 15 years of coaching.’ It’s just because he works so hard, his work ethic is admirable. You watch him work, that’s a hard working son of a gun. I told him, ‘Tony, whatever you do, you play football, you go to the business world, you’ll be successful because of how hard you work.’ And he never complains. Never. He’s unbelievable.”
Professors and academic-support staffers report any problems with athletes to the head coach, who either addresses them or assigns the tasks to the players’ position coach or both.
“He’s getting good grades,” Kiesau said. “He’s never on a list. From where he’s come and where he’s at now, that’s what you want all your kids to go through and succeed. He’s going to do it. He’s definitely going to do it.
“A lot of kids, when they come from those kind of backgrounds, they find a lot of excuses, and they want to point the finger. He doesn’t let anything deter him. He’s smart. He knows what he wants. He wants a degree, and he talks about that.”
Kiesau said Pierson also was a good student at wide receiver, learning a new position and making “such huge strides from when I first got here to this point, and you kind of wanted to see him continue that.”
The departure of Darrian Miller, followed by preseason injuries to Brandon Bourbon and Taylor Cox, and an in-season injury to D’Andre Mann (expected back this week) necessitated a return to running back for Pierson. That was just part of it, though.
“It came down to we knew we had to get Tony the ball,” Bowen said. “At wideout at the time, whether it be break downs in pass protection or break downs with just not getting the ball delivered there, it was difficult to get him the amount of touches he needed playing wide receiver. A guy that is arguably the one guy that can break a play for us on our team, he had to get more opportunities, so that’s what led to him coming back to tailback.”
The blocks missing for most of the season were there against Iowa State. Pierson responded with the fourth 100-yard game of his career and first since he rushed for 202 yards in an overtime loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock in 2012.
The holes will be smaller in the final three games, at home Saturday vs. TCU and on the road against Oklahoma and Kansas State, but that won’t discourage him. It takes more than that.