NFL player returns to Smithfield High

Published 11:13 am Tuesday, June 27, 2023

It’s been 38 years since Smithfield High School saw one of its graduates get drafted to play professional football.

Rarer still is when one of those few determined student-athletes, after making it to the National Football League, returns to his hometown to inspire the next generation.

But it happened on June 22 when Arizona Cardinals tight end Chris Pierce Jr., a 2017 graduate of Smithfield High, returned to his former high school’s gymnasium to read to elementary-schoolers for United Way’s “United for Children” summer literacy program.

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Sierrah Chavis, education director for United Way of South Hampton Roads, was able to get in touch with Pierce through her husband, Reginald, who is Pierce’s former coach. The literacy program’s goal, she said, is to show children that “reading can be done anywhere … even from a gym.”

“This is like a full-circle moment,” Chavis said.

According to United Way’s website, more than 21,000 children in Virginia’s 757 area code come from families experiencing extreme poverty, and 50% in South Hampton Roads don’t read at grade level. The program’s focus, Chavis said, is to ensure children are reading proficiently by the time they enter third grade. But that entails intervening much earlier, as 90% of a child’s brain develops before age 5, according to United Way’s website.

Pierce read “Pigskins to Paintbrushes,” an illustrated children’s book by Don Tate that tells the true story of NFL player-turned-artist Ernie Barnes.

Barnes, according to the late artist’s official website, didn’t have a typical childhood – and not just due to growing up at the height of the Jim Crow era in North Carolina. The self-described un-athletic Barnes was drawing in his notebook in a quiet area of his high school when he met weightlifting coach Tommy Tucker, who was intrigued by Barnes’ closeted hobby.

In this, Pierce may see something of himself. Pierce’s father, Chris Pierce Sr., describes his son as being “a quiet kid, but very smart” growing up in Smithfield.

“He’s more like a nerd in an athlete’s body,” Chris Pierce Sr. said, noting he’d told his son “it’s OK to be smart” and to “embrace it.”

According to his father, Pierce dreamed of going pro since he started playing football at age 4.

Pierce played “slaughterhouse football” as it’s known in the town that’s home to the corporate headquarters of international meatpacking giant Smithfield Foods, all four years at Smithfield High.

According to his file at Vanderbilt University, the Division I Nashville, Tennessee, college where he played after high school, Pierce was a four-year starter and two-year captain of the SHS Packers, and was named offensive most valuable player as a senior with 43 receptions, 709 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns that year. During his senior year at Vanderbilt, he achieved his college career high of six receptions in 2020 versus Mississippi State.

Pierce is the second former student-athlete at Smithfield High to make it to the NFL. The first, Reginald “Reggie” Langhorne, graduated from SHS in 1981 and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1985 after playing for Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

“It’s always great to come home,” Pierce said. “Home has a feeling like no other place can.”