Fifteen years ago, Brett Pierce was invited into millions of American homes on Thanksgiving Day.
Though he didn’t load up on turkey and stuffing, Pierce took part in one of the holiday’s most popular traditions.
Football fans might not have noticed Pierce that evening. But being part of the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game remains a vivid thrill for the former Columbia River High School standout.
“Thanksgiving, it’s just such a great time of year,” Pierce said in a phone interview from his Dallas-area home. “Everybody is hanging out with their family. Once you’re done talking, you’ve got a football game to watch together. At least for a couple of years, I was part of all those people’s Thanksgiving evening, whether they saw me or not.”
The Cowboys, along with the Detroit Lions, always play home games on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a Dallas tradition that dates to 1966 and is always one of the most-watched NFL games of the season — Between 25 and 35 million viewers tuned in each of the past five years.
Pierce played in 18 games for the Cowboys in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, mostly on special teams or as a backup tight end.
Though he didn’t see game action in either Thanksgiving Day contest, being around the team for those festive occasions left an impression.
“There was a lot of extra energy,” Pierce said. “You know you are in a prime-time game. You know more people are watching. Right, wrong or indifferent, whatever I do on the field people might see it. You just hope you don’t screw up.”
On Thanksgiving 2005, Pierce had suffered a season-ending knee injury the previous Sunday against Detroit. But he still keeps his Cowboys jersey from that Thanksgiving game, which the Denver Broncos won 24-21 in overtime.
“It’s just different to be part of the Cowboys,” Pierce said. “It’s one of most amazing franchises in the history of sports where you don’t necessarily have to win to be popular. The Cubs and Cowboys break that rule. It just matters more here.”
At Columbia River, Pierce was an All-American and Columbian Player of the Year during his senior season in 1998.
Pierce then attended Stanford, where he became the Cardinal’s starting tight end as a sophomore. His junior year ended in the season opener when Pierce tore the ACL in his left knee.
Though Pierce’s Stanford football career had plenty challenges, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and master’s in civil engineering.
And though he went undrafted, Pierce gave the NFL a shot. He was signed to the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before being traded to the Cowboys in October 2004.
Pierce still remembers the reaction of his father, Daryll, when he shared the news — ” ‘But I hate the Cowboys,’ he said.”
Pierce tore the same ligament in training camp the following summer and missed the entire 2006 season. After spending 2007 in preseason camp with the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, Pierce retired from football.
But that doesn’t mean football still doesn’t impact his life. Pierce said his NFL years were critical in helping him become a successful businessman.
Specifically, Pierce saw how four different NFL coaches used four distinct management styles in pursuit of the same goal.
Pierce saw how Ravens coach Brian Billick prized structure and organization.
He saw how Cowboys coach Bill Parcells both motivated and alienated players with his blunt, fiery style.
By contrast, he saw how Bears coach Lovie Smith pushed his players in an understated, respectful tone.
And in Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, he saw how those three management styles can be combined and deployed based on what the moment calls for.
“I think back a lot and ask ‘did Mike Shanahan get the most out of me? If so, why? If not, why not?’ ” Pierce said. “In leadership, you have to adapt to each personality. You can’t just shove everyone into the same box.”
The NFL also taught Pierce to never quit, whether it’s battling through injuries or getting cut.
“I got fired four times before I was 25,” Pierce said. “The NFL is the ultimate meritocracy. Either you caught the ball or you didn’t. You have to take advantage of every chance you get.”
Ultimately, being with one of America’s most famous sports franchises for its annual hallmark game is a memory Pierce will always cherish.
“For me, being a journeyman through the league, it was special to be a part of something like that,” Pierce said.