Physical achievements have not come easy for Joe Pierce. And the 6-foot-2, 200 pound senior center for fifth-ranked Marshall's football team wouldn't have had it any other way.
Born with cerebral palsy, Pierce has refused to allow his handicap to prevent him from enjoying and excelling at his passion -- football. His play this year earned him a spot on the 1987 all-Met team.
Pierce has limited use of the left side of his body and doesn't have total mobility in his smaller left arm, hand and leg. But Dick Pierce introduced his son to sports at an early age and convinced him his handicap was merely an inconvience.
When the defending Virginia AAA Northern Region champion Statesmen (9-1) line up for their Wing-T offensive show, Pierce is the first player to pop out of the huddle and the first to lay down a block for his run-oriented team.
"I think everyone on the field has a handicap of some sort and by the second quarter, I have figured it out," said Pierce, an all-District selection last year. "I use my head as much as I do my body. I look for their weakneses and when I find it, they have to worry about me. With the exception of Matt Jefferson (Mount Vernon all-Met in 1986), I haven't had trouble with any defensive linemen. Our offensive linemen are rather small and can't overpower anyone but we work well as a unit. Plus, our backs make us look good."
Pierce has never asked for any favors, only the opportunity to try. Marshall Coach Neil Callahan and his staff awarded Pierce that chance and haven't regretted the decision for a minute.
"When he came to us four years ago, I saw he was a tough guy who didn't ignore his handicap but had chosen to deal with it," Callahan said. "He was a very smart student and was willing to make the sacrifices to play. His father said there was no problem and the kid really worked to make himself a good player."
One major sacrifice included rising at 6 a.m. several mornings a week for the past few years to work on the nautilus machines.
"I couldn't do free weights (at school) so we worked out a plan for me to use the machines at my fathers's club," Pierce said. "Coach (Callahan) would meet me there each morning. I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate what he did for me. How many coaches would have done that? Some coaches would have looked at me and said, he can't lift, he has a smaller shoulder and can't run very fast and tossed me by the wayside but not Coach Callahan. He was always there for me and I will never forget that. Throughout my career, all of the coaches have treated me fair and given me the chance to succeed."
Dick Pierce said there was no problem getting medical approval for his son to participate. He took the physical examination as required by the Virginia High School League and passed.
"The only problem was Joe was outfitted with a special brace to protect his arm and hand," Pierce said. "'Otherwise, his health was fine and he passed the exam. I certainly have no problem with his playing."
Dr. Jay S. Cox, an orthopedic surgeon and the medical director of the Nation Center for Sports Medicine, said he was not unusual for a person afflicted with cerebral palsy to play football.
"It depends on the degree and it's obvious a person who can perform as well as he (Pierce) can play football without any problems," Dr. Cox said. "He can play at the high school level and possibly at the Division III level, depending on how much mobility he has."
Pierce's teammates have also been very supportive. During practices, he is treated like everyone else and given no favors.
"My teammates have also been great. If I was not comfortable with them, I would not be out here," Pierce said. "But they respect me as a player and a person and that's all anyone can ask."
Dick Pierce said when his son's case was diagnosed as mild and not progressive, he taught him basketball, baseball and football. His son took to the latter one because he enjoyed the physical aspect of it.
"He loved to hit little kids when he was small. His overall speed and agility were affected but he was determined to play," the older Pierce said. "As he grew stronger, he realized his limitations but only wanted the opportunity to find out if he could compete. When I saw him play (varsity), I didn't worry anymore. Now, I rarely watch him, I know he's going to be fine. He always figures out a way to beat the kid in front of him."
Callahan knows his center won't likely forget the snap count since he scored more than 1,400 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) (770 of a possible 800 in the math section). "We've run the ball on everyone so Joe has done some fine blocking for us," Callahan said. "It's tough to fool him."
Pierce said he knows this may be the end of his football career and wants it to end in style.
"Unless I grow six inches and gain 60 pounds in the next couple of months, I would guess my football is over when the States (playoffs) are over," Pierce said. "I think we have a good shot at getting back to the state final. That would be very, very nice. Football has been good to me and I'll miss it. Part of me says I could possible play for a small college somewhere and part of me says, get on with my life. I know my future lies in my mind, not in my body.
"I am just pleased I was given a fair shake by everyone. That's is what people want, a fair shake," he said. "Had I been given a chance and not been able to make it, I would not have been disappointed. Making all-District last year was the biggest thrill for me because it meant others saw me contribute. All I wanted was a fair chance. I got it."