Pierce: ‘It’s a bump, and we move on with it.’

Published 3:25 pm Friday, December 5, 2008

Growing up in Compton taught Antonio Pierce how to size up a situation fast.

Yet it wasn’t just sharp instincts that enabled him to beat long odds and move on from one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Los Angeles to become a star linebacker in New York. It’s how Pierce reacted after reading most situations that won him the loyalty of coaches, teammates and fans at every stop, the way he kept his cool while most around him were losing theirs. Now, that judgment is being questioned like never before.

On Friday, authorities likely will ask Pierce for an account of the night in which teammate Plaxico Burress walked into a club with a Glock tucked into the waistband of his sweat pants and wound up shooting himself in the leg. It can’t be an easy story to tell.

According to news reports, he drove Burress to the hospital after calling one of the Giants’ trainers, and police say he returned to New Jersey with Burress’ gun in the glove compartment of his black Cadillac Escalade.

Even if Pierce avoids any legal entanglement, there will be plenty of embarrassing questions about why one of the Giants’ leaders was out at 2 a.m. with one of the team’s leading troublemakers. And say what you want about distractions. The last thing a guy who makes his living covering up the mistakes of others on a field wants to hear is his leadership being challenged.

“There’s bumps,” was about all Pierce would say about last weekend’s incident when he faced reporters Thursday after practice. “It’s a bump, and we move on with it.”

But a moment later, almost defiantly, he added, “This Sunday is no different from last Sunday. It is no different from Week 1. It’s no different from the Super Bowl game. It’s no different from the first game I ever played football.

“When I get on the football field my focus is winning the game, first and foremost, doing my job and helping my team win,” Pierce continued. “That’s what I plan on doing on Sunday.”

No matter what the rest of us think, his teammates expect no less. Coming out of college, NFL scouts viewed Pierce as undersized for a linebacker. And even after he fought his way up from undrafted rookie to the heart of the Washington defense, the Redskins viewed him as expendable.

But soon after he arrived in New York, the Giants began piling responsibilities on Pierce’s shoulders, and he hasn’t disappointed them yet. That sentiment echoed around the locker room all week. Quarterback Eli Manning praised his smarts and others his professionalism, but it was Sam Madison who defined his role best. He called Pierce the glue for a team that has had to weather plenty of distractions before Pierce landed in the middle of one himself.

“This guy,” Madison said, “if you cut him, he’d probably bleed blue.”

Left unsaid by his teammates was that most of them probably would have done exactly what Pierce did. In their minds, the only thing he’s guilty of is sizing up a scary situation fast and doing what he could to help a teammate out of a jam. They’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in a way that guys like Burress will never earn because Pierce has had their backs for three years now. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he’s neither big, powerful or fast enough to erase everybody’s mistakes. But he won their respect because that never stopped him from trying.

“I admire how he goes about his business,” said Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. “People don’t understand how much pressure he takes on his shoulders by being the quarterback of this defense.”

Sunday will be their chance to pay Pierce back, to lift some of the pressure off his shoulders, if only on a football field and only for a few hours. Not that any of them expect Pierce to need help; just the opposite.

“I am about as focused as I could be,” Pierce said. “When distractions come up, you turn a negative into a positive and that is my option.”

But if a teammate blows an assignment, he expects to look behind at the pileup and see the guy who not only figured out what had to be done, but clawed his way through the problem and took care of it himself.

That’s because, as Tuck explained the other day with a knowing grin, “A.P. is always around.”