Will Leitch’s dispatches from recent visits to the Giants locker room will run every day this week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Today: an encounter with Antonio Pierce.
Antonio Pierce is naked, and he just brushed past me on the way out of the shower. Even with such slight contact, he can easily knock people over. I actually needed a second to catch my breath. I then, of course, followed him to his locker, like everybody else.
Pierce plays with an anger fitting for a man who was considered too small to be an NFL linebacker. The Redskins signed him as an undrafted free agent out of college, and he immediately drew plaudits for his intensity, though didn’t get much playing time until starting linebacker Michael Barrow went out for the season with an injury. Pierce filled in and established himself as the type of guy who could lift a defense emotionally even more than physically. In a huddle, Pierce commands respect and, yes, fear, which is what the Giants needed when they signed him in 2005. He might not be the freak specimen that Lawrence Taylor was, but he’s just as scary to talk to.
Occasionally Pierce’s relative lack of size and speed are exposed — his inability to cover Brian Westbrook might have cost the Giants a game against the Eagles in December, an issue that will surely need to be addressed in this Sunday’s playoff game — but he’s commonly referred to as the “heart” of the Giants defense. This mostly means he’s the one no one wants to piss off, whether you’re a teammate, opponent, or meek media member trying to get out of his way.
Pierce has been about as mischievous off the field this last month as any player could possibly be and still be allowed to dress for games. He starred in both of the Giants “distraction” dramas in December. First, and most famously, he was with Plaxico Burress when the wide receiver shot himself in the leg at the Latin Quarter nightclub a week after Thanksgiving. Then he maintained his presence in the news section of the Post when video surfaced of him supposedly groping a dancer at a West Side strip club. The video was captured from a surveillance camera and would be unworthy of note if it weren’t allegedly Pierce in the video. (Surely, professional athletes have done far worse in strip clubs.) But it was Pierce. Thus, news.
Sometimes people think athletes, if they perform on the field, can get away with anything. Pierce lives his life as if to test this theory. It’s not that he is out robbing banks or pummeling adult-film stars. Far from it, in fact: He was named the United Way Man of the Year in 2007, he’s the team spokesperson for Giants Academy (which helps disadvantaged youth), and he has an apparently happy marriage and three children with his wife, Jocelyn Maldonado, who hosts Mets Weekly on SNY. But there can’t be very many people on planet Earth who are more determined than Pierce to make sure you understand that they do not care what you think of them.
He spent a
week day this summer as Howard Stern’s “communication intern,” answering questions about his sex life and, amusingly, screening callers. When he was asked about the strip-club video, the day before it showed up on the Post’s site, he defiantly bellowed, “I go where I want. I do what I want to do.”
In the locker room, being interviewed by the media, Pierce glares at everybody, waiting for a stray word he can grab and turn back onto them. In the days after the Plaxico incident, he would stand shirtless, huge, with a look that said, “I know what you want to ask. Just go ahead and try it, motherfucker.” Pierce loves to be the center of attention, but on his own terms. He aspires for a career as a broadcaster when he retires, but he’ll never be a Tiki Barber Maker of Omelets. He’ll be more of a Cris Carter in-your-face guy, the alpha male with lapel microphone.
After the Giants Pro Bowl players were announced, Pierce took questions about why he hadn’t been selected. (He probably deserved to be.) Rather than answer them, he parried them right back. “We’re 11–3, of course we’re gonna have some Pro Bowlers,” he growled. “Which of you reporters had us 11–3? You had the Cowboys winning the division, all of you. How about you? Did you have us 11–3?” He glowered at the reporter next to me, who shrugged out a tight smile and looked away. Another victory for Pierce.
Right after Pierce bowled me over on the way out of the shower, he set up at his locker and began to dress. Before media folk could mass into formation around him, Giants spokesperson Peter John-Baptiste informed reporters that Pierce would not be taking any questions that day. It made sense. It was the day after Plaxico’s suspension, while Pierce was under investigation from the NYPD involving the incident, and nothing he could say was going to do him much good. The reporters did the Charlie Brown Good Grief head-down walk away from the locker, destined to disappoint their editors. Pierce then turned around, wearing only jeans, and fixed his eyes on the ceiling, above everyone, defiant, daring anyone to try to ask him something, anything. I think he puffed out his chest a little. He didn’t need to. It was clear to everyone, just like on the field, who was in charge.
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