DENVER, COLORADO - Nicholas Pierno was a star at North Carolina State University. When he first enrolled in the school, he was a zero-star recruit. He was a nobody. As a sophomore, he was a Heisman Trophy winner and was on the top of the world.
His junior year he tore his MCL, considered by many to be the end to his pro football dreams due to his reliance on his athleticism. When Pierno declared early and put his name in the S3 NSFL Draft pool just days before the draft, it sent shockwaves across the football community.
"I'm a doer, I strive to take the tangible steps to get what I want," Pierno said.
Does he regret it?
"My rookie year was the hardest year of my life," he said. "I guess because of that I could regret it, but at the same time it's shaped me to become who I am today."
From nearly going undrafted to being on three different teams in a span of a week to then being declared the starting quarterback of the Colorado Yeti, the 20-year-old had stress to deal with. Known for being an outspoken player with a big personality, Pierno was immediately under scrutiny and the mass media's spotlight.
It wasn't a match.
"I was so fucking lost, man," Pierno said. "I was packing my bags up over and over again and moving here and there, I didn't feel wanted."
On the field, Pierno struggled. He threw 35 interceptions as a rookie and mustered a passer rating of just 35.3. The athleticism that made Pierno one of the most exciting players in college football had eluded him as he ran for just 78 yards in 14 games.
There was rumblings that the Yeti were ready to give up on the project, rumblings that were warranted.
Off the field, Pierno began to lose it.
"I was all over the place. I moved to Colorado, but I was spending weekdays flying out to these different cities and going out all night," Pierno said. "I was going about in Los Angeles the nights before games. I don't know why, but the Yeti front office decided not to expose me when they easily could have."
After such a tough year on the field, Pierno said his confidence was shot.
"I thought I had no chance, no worth as an athlete or as a person. I assumed that I was done. My career, everything," Pierno said. "I blamed everybody but myself for the position I was in. The constant acting out, the missed practices, it was how I thought I'd cope with the stress. It was distractions to keep me from focusing on what I was doing wrong.
He continued: "I hated football. I hated it."
Year two wasn't much better as Pierno's passer rating was just a lackluster 50.8. His actions, on and off the field, hadn't changed.
Yet the Yeti still accepted his $4,000,000 option in his third season.
"I don't know why," Pierno said. "I was given a chance I didn't deserve."
Year three showed slight improvements. Outside a week one loss in Arizona, the Yeti went on a four-week span when they were only outscored 84 to 66.
During that span, that's when Pierno hit his turning point. After the Yeti dropped a 31-16 decision to Philadelphia, Pierno threw three interceptions and had a 51.8 passer rating, he went to a dark place.
"I sat in the locker room for hours. No phone, no talking to media, no talking to teammates, just in complete silence," Pierno said. "This was normally the point where'd I'd make excuses for myself and go out to drown my sorrows, but I couldn't move. I was frozen."
Hours passed. Pierno sat, hunched in his locker, cold beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. Eye black still on his face, shoulder pads still being worn. He hadn't even taken his cleats off.
The first person to see Pierno was teammate Andre Bly Jr. the next morning.
"'Dre came and snapped me out of it. At that point, it all poured out me, literally," Pierno said. "I cried. Right there. I realized it was time for me to grow up, face my problems head on and make a difference."
The rest of the Yeti team followed in soon after. The support for their quarterback was unanimous.
"If I had played for any other team, I wouldn't be in the NSFL anymore," Pierno said.
"Where would you be?" I asked.
"I don't know. On my couch. Passed out in an Uber I can't afford. I so lost in the fucking sauce, man."
Pierno paused, "I'd probably be dead."
Pierno made himself available to the media that week and promised that no player would work as hard as he was going to moving forward.
A week later, the Yeti defeated Logan Noble and the Las Vegas Legion on the field, and then off of the field as well.
Pierno's final stats weren't jaw-dropping, but he set a Yeti single-season completion percentage record and broke the NSFL quarterback single-season rushing record.
"I wasn't even at 100 percent in my knees last year," Pierno said. "Just wait until I'm at full speed again this year."
I asked Pierno again if he regretted any of the decisions he made.
"No," he said adamantly. "Every diamond is formed from pressure."
As for his lifestyle, Pierno now stays in Denver during the offseason to work out with his teammates. He went from silent to the most vocal presence in the team's locker room. As for having fun, he's still known for his ability to throw down on a night out, but there's balance.
"I don't go out to distract myself anymore. It's not a mechanism to forget," Pierno said. "It's a way to celebrate life with my brothers and all that we mean to each other."
What's Pierno have going on moving forward?
"It's comeback season.
I'm here to prove people wrong one day at a time."
To ask Pierno any questions, head over to the Yeti's post-practice presser.