After opting out of the 2020 NFL season last July because his size and history with asthma made him a risk for additional complications from COVID-19, Vikings nose tackle Michael Pierce got what he called "an early snapshot of retirement."
Pierce, who had been the Vikings' top free agent addition in March last year, heeded assistant head coach Andre Patterson's advice to hire a personal chef. He used Sunday morning Peloton rides, winter CrossFit sessions and a return to his power-lifting background ("Squatober — I got to try that for the first time," he said) to keep his weight down.
He adopted a poodle named Princeton, learned how to plunk out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the piano and started exploring real-estate investments and a family foundation with his parents. On Sundays, he worked out at home, hopped in his sauna, went to church, ate and sat down to watch Vikings games on TV with a glass of wine.
"There were, for sure, many times where I would say, 'Dang, I could've been out there,'" Pierce said Wednesday. "When we made the decision, there wasn't a ton of science behind everything. The mortality rate was climbing every day. I like to stay up on current news. Talked to my childhood doctor, talked to my primary care doctor in Alabama. They're super confident because of my upper respiratory situation that I've battled with throughout my life. I kind of had to lean on those guys and they kind of wanted me to err on the side of caution."
He added that he felt rushed, but "made the best decision for me." Players had until early August to opt out of the season and could not opt back in.
"A hundred and ten percent, I felt like, especially as the weeks went on and the NFL got more adept with dealing with the COVID situation, I for sure regretted it to an extent," Pierce said.
Set to put on a Vikings uniform for the first time in 2021, Pierce said he's already down to 341 pounds — in the range of his in-season playing weight — with lower body fat than he's ever had. He's had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19. He passed a Wednesday workout for Vikings strength coaches, he said, "with flying colors." Afterward, he spent more than a half-hour talking to reporters about the upcoming season with a smile that rarely left his face.
"That's why I signed here, to play on another great defense," he said. "With everybody healthy and the additions we made and bringing Stephen Weatherly back and Xavier Woods coming in on the back end, I think we're going to be really good. … As far as pieces on paper, which accounts for nothing obviously, but on paper everything looks good. It's just about how we jell, go through the offseason, camp, all that good stuff. But as far as right now, I think we're looking more like what you guys are accustomed to seeing."
Pierce, who signed a three-year, $27 million deal with the Vikings on the first day of free agency in 2020, stayed in touch with Patterson and assistant defensive line coach Imarjaye Albury throughout the season. Their contact continued through free agency, he said, and the team's decision to bring in former Giants tackle Dalvin Tomlinson didn't surprise him.
The Vikings plan to put Tomlinson at defensive tackle next to Pierce at the nose tackle spot, hoping they'll get the kind of run-stopping tandem Pierce formed with Brandon Williams in Baltimore.
"I've always kind of known what we had going on, what we were looking forward to doing in free agency," Pierce said. "They've done a great job keeping me a part of the loop, but it'll be a great time to compete against him and actually learn from him. Like I said, until you're done and retired, I don't think you can quit learning, and he's done a great job being a nose guard and getting sacks, something I haven't been the best at. I'm going to learn from him, and I'm sure he can take some things from me."
Whether Pierce and Tomlinson take the field together before training camp is still an open question. Pierce was in Minnesota to work out for the team, look at houses and get a tour of the practice facility on Wednesday, but said the Vikings players haven't decided whether they'll attend workouts as the NFL Players Association continues to push for a virtual offseason program like the league had in 2020.
"I'm going to leave that up to our leadership," Pierce said, when asked if he'd take part in the Vikings' offseason program. "Like I said, I'm new here. I don't want to make any decisions for anybody. But first and foremost, I'm going to play on this team. We have great leadership, and I'm going to fall under whatever they decide to do."
That he is healthy, vaccinated and in shape for the football season, though, has him eager for what lies ahead.
"You never want anybody to walk in on the first day of OTAs or whatever time we decide to report and you just don't have an idea," he said. "Anxiety and all of that kind of stuff would kick in I'm sure from up top. Today was great. I've been working out diligently, and I was proud to show where I am. … For me, it was about proving I'm going to be the player and person they expect me to be. I'm grateful they brought me up here. I'll just keep working from there."