Temple's Pierce sees bright future after tough past

Freshman Bernard Pierce is the third-leading rusher in the nation, with 1,211 yards.
Freshman Bernard Pierce is the third-leading rusher in the nation, with 1,211 yards.
Posted: November 11, 2009

BERNARD PIERCE doesn't like to bring himself back to those days when everything around him seemed to be collapsing. To the time in the courtroom when his teary eyes barely could look up at his mother, and back further, to when he balled his hand into a fist that one afternoon, momentarily staining a life he felt was spinning beyond control.

But it's part of the Temple tailback's life. It's what started the current path the gifted, 6-foot, 212-pound freshman is taking. He never thought about going to college, let alone being the nation's top freshman running back. His world was once living day-to-day.

Now look at him.

At 7-2, with seven wins in a row, Temple is enjoying a breakthrough season, and at its foundation is Pierce. He is third in the nation in rushing, with 1,211 yards. He's tied for ninth in the nation in scoring, with 14 touchdowns. He has, or will own, every freshman rushing record in Temple history. And if he stays healthy, conceivably every rushing and scoring mark by the time he's done.

But it always goes back to the journey for Pierce, before the cameras, microphones and klieg lights that await him after another amazing performance. Before the more than 300 members began flocking to the Bernard Pierce Facebook fan page. It goes back to the time when only two people waited for him, or even cared about him - his mother, Tammy Pierce, and grandmother, Ora Pierce.

"I remember, all right," he says. "How can I forget? Back then, that person who did those things isn't the same person I am today. People can change. I've changed. I had to change. If I didn't, who knows what would have happened to me. I wouldn't be here in college, playing football, I'll tell you that. Who I am now isn't who I was then."

Then, Bernard was a standout athlete at Lower Merion High School, but a young man filled with frustration and a short temper. He was a distraction in the classroom, belligerent, a bully, according to numerous Lower Merion sources. Many teachers at Lower Merion didn't have the tolerance to deal with him. Those who took the time to know him did, some Lower Merion administrators said.

Pierce says he did not have a good relationship with his father. Hayward Abney, who was killed in an auto accident last Father's Day, was a sporadic presence in Pierce's life. And Pierce says the crowd he hung with lived by the same credo he did - day-to-day, and who cares about the bigger picture?

It all boiled over one day during Pierce's sophomore year at Lower Merion when, he says, he was pulled into a fight involving one of his friends. A big brawl took place, fists went flying and the anger Bernard had been bottling up exploded.

According to sources, Pierce seriously injured one person, who was hospitalized.

Today, he just shakes his head at the memory.

"I shouldn't have done what I did. I got angry and lost control when I should have walked away," he says. "But I got caught up in it. You see things flying and I wasn't going to let my friends down. Looking back on it, I shouldn't have jumped into a battle that wasn't my fight. I should have walked away . . . But it's a day that changed my life."

It was also the last straw in a series of missteps for Pierce.

Charges were filed, and Bernard was sent to Glen Mills, a school for court-adjudicated youth.

"I always said Bernard was a good kid who made a bad mistake," said Ed Cubbage, Pierce's coach at Lower Merion, now an assistant at Truman High School. "For me, I saw nothing but a strong work ethic from him, someone that when it came to football, he'd do anything he had to do to make himself a better player. He was always respectful to me when I spoke to him. But he had a reputation, a bad reputation. I never saw a bad attitude. Away from football, there were issues. There were a lot of little things, and when the fight took place, that was it."

The world shut down around Pierce, except for Tammy and Ora. No one believed he could turn his life around. They always did.

"I was in the courtroom that day, and we both cried when he was sent to Glen Mills," recalls Tammy, whose name is tattooed inside Bernard's left forearm. "That was the most devastating thing that ever happened in my life when Bernard was sent to Glen Mills. I was a single parent working all day, and then dealing with things like [Bernard] skipping school, leaving off the campus with his friends. I'd get a call that no one could find him. There were a lot of little things like that. But through it all, there was never a time when I didn't see a future for Bernard."

Part of that future was forged at Glen Mills. The first 2 weeks there, Bernard received a crash experience in not taking personal freedoms for granted. He couldn't come and go so easily, but when it was time for Pierce to be discharged, he opted to remain at Glen Mills his senior year. Pierce flourished under head coach Kevin Owens and the regimented Glen Mills system.

"There was no way Bernard was going back to Lower Merion, and staying at Glen Mills is something we spoke about," Tammy says. "I personally didn't want him going back to Lower Merion because I understand how adults can sometimes treat children. Bernard was constantly blamed for a lot of things that he didn't do. I'm his mother, and I'm not the my-child-can-do-no-wrong parent. Bernard wasn't always the perfect kid. He would drive me up a wall for some of the silly things he did and not think. But he wasn't a demon, either. If some of the things said about Bernard at Lower Merion were true, he would have been sent to prison, not Glen Mills. He did a lot of growing up there."

Temple coach Al Golden was well aware of Pierce's history, and still was willing to make a commitment to him. The Temple staff contacted Cubbage, "and a lot of people at Glen Mills, down to the custodians," Golden says. "What we found out was that Bernard learned how to be a man, and how to make better decisions. We heard a lot of the same things, that Bernard was a good kid who made a mistake. We were willing to give him a chance here, because we felt he made a decision not to go down the path he seemed to be heading. We don't sugarcoat things around here. He and his family understood the kind of support he'd get from our staff and Temple. We trusted that he was changed. He trusted in us. We have no regrets on our part."

There's a vision now that was once absent for Pierce. What he's been doing each week is nothing Tammy hasn't seen before. Her son always has done amazing things on a football field. According to Pierce and the people closest to him, he is more selective about his friends ("I've gotten rid of the knuckleheads in my life," he says), he listens, he notices things he didn't before and he's going to class, getting decent grades.

"I still tell myself to be more mature, because I know what it was like going down the dangerous path I was leading," Bernard says. "I have my mother and grandmother to thank for that. They were always there for me when a lot of people I thought I could trust and depend on weren't. I think the biggest difference in me now is that I see a bigger picture out there. I used to be someone who didn't have any morals, who used to think I could do anything I wanted to do."

He still can - on a football field.

Send e-mail to santolj@phillynews.com.

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