VANCOUVER -- If football had fairy tales, Buck Pierce would be wearing glass cleats.
Pinch him. On the eve of the biggest game of his life, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback finds himself back where it all began, in the place that let him go, playing in Sunday's 99th Grey Cup for the city that gave him a new home. And new hope.
"Moments like this," Pierce said, when asked about the source of motivation in a star-crossed career too often defined by more pain than pleasure. "You get one shot at this. One shot to leave it all out there and leave your mark on this game. I just enjoy playing, having a goal to go after and try and reach. The competitiveness in me won't allow me to stop. I believe what has been my burden in the past has also been my blessing. And also what makes me tick as a quarterback."
What makes Buck Pierce tick? Don't look for the answer now, on the precipice of an unlikely Grey Cup championship. Look back, to last September, when Pierce broke down in the office of Bombers GM Joe Mack, pleading for his football life.
"Please don't give up on me, Mr. Mack," the quarterback said, over and over. "Please give me another shot. I'll play for nothing. Please, Mr. Mack.
Cinderella was nowhere in sight.
-- -- --
Let's get one thing straight: the name of Buck Pierce in these parts is synonymous with courage. Fair enough. But if you want to really know why Pierce never gave up on football even though the game tried to give up on him, just look around the family dinner table.
Younger brother Flynt, 27, was a beat cop in Las Vegas a few years back when an emergency call came: a mother and three children trapped in a burning house.
"Just like in the movies," said Tim Pierce, Buck's father. "Kicked the door in, because the fire department hadn't showed up yet, and pulled them out to safety. The mother was pretty much unconscious on the kitchen floor, delirious. He (Flynt) had to pick her up and carry her out. It was just part of the job, one of those things you do in the moment."
Moments like this.
Flynt was awarded the medal of valour.
Older brother Dylan, meanwhile, spent the early part of his career with the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, searching for drug traffickers and plucking desperate Haitians out of the Atlantic Ocean. Not all of them were alive.
"Of course, (there was) a lot of saving lives down there," Tim Pierce said. "Some stories that didn't turn out as well, too. People trying to escape that country. Pretty sad. There's some success stories, but a lot of heartache."
"I'm just a football player," Pierce said. "My brothers put their lives on the line every day. You know, people call me tough and say I'm a warrior at times, but these guys really exemplify what that's about for me. I feel I need to pick up the slack sometimes just to get to their level."
Go figure, Pierce wasn't about to surrender last September, even with his throwing elbow in a brace after suffering a grotesque dislocation against the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Labour Day.
His season was finished. His career -- a frustrating roller-coaster of injuries, both freak and worrisome, interspersed with excellence -- was hanging on the patience of a general manager, Joe Mack, under widespread heat to cut Pierce adrift. Just as the B.C. Lions had done the year before.
"It was very emotional. And sincere," Mack recalled, of the meeting that would ultimately define the resurrection of both Pierce and the Bombers franchise over the next 10 months. "I mean, I never contemplated doing anything, but you could tell it really concerned him. It was a very touching moment."
Moments like this.
"When they were young," Tim Pierce recalled, of his three sons, "they'd all like to huddle. In the living room or in the basement or out in the yard. They'd put their arms around each other and yell, 'All for one and one for all!' It was kinda like the old Three Musketeer chant. That's just something they did. That's the way they are."
Buck, Dylan, Flynt. The names of all-American Musketeers, if you wrote the script.
"I think they have a real good base to pull from," Tim Pierce explained. "Family is important to them. They pull for each other. They know it's more than just about their jobs. It's about family and being big people.
"I don't know how that happened. I think they were just born that way, just fearless. Each one of them are that way, with what they do."
Yet, there was Pierce, last September, imploring, "Please, Mr. Mack."
Of course, Pierce was concerned. Speculation about his health over his seven-year career with the Lions and the Bombers is a cottage industry. Concussions, contusions, collisions, contortions.
"I mean, they (doctors) said I might not ever be able to throw again, especially at this level," Pierce said.
So when Mr. Mack looked Pierce in the eyes and told him the Bombers weren't going to give up on him, the quarterback made a vow.
"To have that kind of faith in a guy and belief," he said. "The willingness for a GM to stick to his guns like that for a player that a lot of people were probably telling him, you know, move on from. That struck me as amazing. Especially in this business."
"I made a decision at that point to stick around all year and prove to Mr. Mack and this organization that I was 100 per cent... that I would be the guy to lead this team to a Grey Cup."
Pierce was determined not to go anywhere. Literally. For the 30-year-old from sunny California, that meant Kenny Ploen and car heaters.
"I've immersed myself in Blue Bomber culture," he said. "I stuck out a winter. I got frostbite. There were days my car wouldn't start. So I've been there. I understand what it's like, and I loved it. I just really became part of that tradition and that's what's really made me hungry to bring it (a championship) back home.
"I met Ken Ploen. I met Joe Poplawski, Don Jonas. I met all these legends. I was attracted to that and wanted to be a part of that. It was something special to really get yourself so involved. And to be a starting quarterback in that city is something special."
It was a match made in purgatory, remember. When Pierce arrived in the summer of 2010, fresh from the Lions' scrap heap, the Bombers franchise was leaking goodwill profusely. The brand had been tarnished under the tumultuous reign of former GM and head coach Mike Kelly, and newly hired Mack and rookie head coach Paul LaPolice knew the rebuilding process couldn't begin without a quarterback.
"When I first got off the plane in Winnipeg, I was greeted with open arms," Pierce said. "People respected the way I played the game. I think they related to me somehow. I'm a small-town boy who doesn't come from a whole lot of money and is from a family of people who work real hard. I think they saw that in me. That's what I saw in them (the fans), too. (Winnipeg is) a place that embraces a player like myself. We really hit it off."
Why not? The team was desperate for a leader on the field. The franchise was groping for a leader in the hearts and minds of the long-suffering faithful.
"He identified with the community right away and fits Winnipeg like a glove," Bombers president Jim Bell said. "He's seen as much more than a football player, quite frankly. He's seen as an ambassador for our club.
"He has an intangible about him that just personifies what Blue Bombers football is all about. Just the way he carries himself. That doesn't come along every day.
"I'm not surprised to hear about the medals or the careers his brothers are in," Bell added. "To me, they share the same genetics, the same makeup. They're just those types of men. Not types of athletes, types of men."
Flynt is now based in Medford, Ore. Dylan, 32, is on duty off the coast of northern California. They already know only too well, as their father said, that some stories end better than others. Some successes, some heartache.
Perhaps that's why brother Buck doesn't lack for perspective, even though those aforementioned adjectives have defined his career. He's just a football player. But one who had a dream, nonetheless.
"It's so nice to have something play out the way you put it in your head," he said. "This has been my goal ever since the Grey Cup was announced in Vancouver. I wanted to be the starting quarterback for that game. I wanted to lead a team out onto that field Grey Cup Sunday.
"To have that confirmation that all the hard work and all your dedication pays off... that's an amazing thing. It's very rare. To see people stick beside you and stick up for you in this business is tough to do. I want to win for this organization more than anything. I want to bring a Grey Cup back to Winnipeg. I just know what it will mean to that community and the organization. And myself."
Mr. Mack never did give up on Buck Pierce. The quarterback never gave up on himself, either.
Why? For more moments like this, of course.
All for one, and one for all.