LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El was going to return this punt pretty much no matter what.
His last time out on the field, he had waved for a fair catch when he had plenty of room, and he was still mad about it.
So late in the second quarter, down 20-7 against No. 22 Oregon, Pierson-El caught the punt, bounced off a first hit and flew into the open field, springing loose for a 45-yard return and showing shades of his freshman year highlights.
Since that breakout season in 2014, it’s been rough for the returner. He was sidelined for most of last season with injuries, which have held him back from getting many touches in 2016, too.
But after that return against Oregon last Saturday, he says, he feels good. Healthy. He feels like he’s back, thanks to a healthy dose of rehab, patience and his fraternity.
Yes. Add another label to the Pierson-El file.
Punt returner. Wide receiver. Frat brother.
“That was kind of, actually, what helped me get through my injury and everything like that: my frat,” Pierson-El said on Monday.
One of the founding principles of Omega Psi Phi is perseverance, Pierson-El said. And he lives by that and the other three principles: manhood, scholarship and uplift. Which is why he always wears a purple and gold band on his left wrist with his fraternity’s letters.
It’s a constant reminder of what he stands for, he said.
“It just means something to me, and I always just look down to it to think about things I’ve overcome,” Pierson-El said. “It’s just a type of motivation that pushes me to remind me of the men that came before me and men coming after me to continue to stand on what we believe in.”
Pierson-El joined Omega Psi Phi, a historically black fraternity, when he was a freshman at Nebraska, but, in a way, he started living by its principles a long time ago.
When he was a freshman at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va., he admits he was kind of a hothead. One day, his ninth-grade math teacher sat him down after school and told him he had the talent to go places, but that his mindset needed to change. Maybe he should, down the road, think about joining Omega Psi Phi when he gets to college, the same fraternity his teacher had joined in college.
“I asked him about it one day, and he told me I have to go do some research and learn about it and stuff, and my first opportunity that I found that they were actually here I got in contact with a couple of the members in the frat and got close to them and hopped on the first opportunity,” Pierson-El said.
In total, there are close to 100 brothers in Nebraska’s chapters at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Creighton, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and a few small colleges, said Osuman Issaka, president of the chapter in Omaha and a district officer for Omega Psi Phi.
The UNL chapter was founded in 1977 and is mainly comprised of graduate students, said Issaka. When Pierson-El reached out two years ago, Issaka said, he was looking for brotherhood more than anything.
“I think he saw how close we are and how we keep each other accountable and encourage each other,” Issaka said.
The chapter meets once a month: sometimes in Omaha, sometimes in Lincoln, Pierson-El said. During football season Pierson-El calls into meetings since he’s usually bogged down in football stuff.
Yes, they’re boring sometimes, he said, rolling his eyes.
“They’re a headache,” he said. “But it is what it is, but you gotta take care of business.”
Issaka said Pierson-El is a good member, and is really involved. Recently, Issaka said, Pierson-El served as the Nebraska chapter’s chaplain and helped coordinate programs to re-engage with the Lincoln and Omaha communities, including helping out at schools to teach kids how to read and with a coat drive during the winter.
When he got hurt celebrating in the end zone during the Purdue game last October and struggled to get healthy and back on the field, Pierson-El and Issaka talked often. About the injury, the rehab and about keeping a positive attitude, and leaning on the foundations of the fraternity.
“Sometimes, when you get injured, and everything else still goes on around you while you’re hurt, that’s the worst thing you can ever endure,” Issaka said. “We just talked a lot about it and I told him, ‘You’re gonna get it. Your time will come to play. This is your time to rebuild and focus.’ And it wasn’t just me it was other brothers, too.”
The support helped keep Pierson-El’s mind right, he said, and helped him stay positive throughout the rehab process.
Now, he’s healthy and returning punts again. Pierson-El hasn’t had a stellar start to his season. He only has two catches for 20 yards and three punt returns for a total of 42 yards. But after the big return on Saturday against Oregon, he’s reintroduced himself to the Big Ten.
He showed he’s able to swing momentum and games, like he did in 2014, when he returned 34 punts for 596 yards and three touchdowns. He proved against Oregon that teams in the Big Ten, including Northwestern this Saturday, should perhaps think twice before punting to him.
And, all the while, he has constant reminders around him of those who helped him get where he is today.
Before games, Pierson-El warms up in a purple cutoff T-shirt with Omega Psi Phi’s Greek letters on it. Sometimes, he wears it under his jersey during games. He hardly ever takes off the band around his wrist and wants to get some tags for his new backpack and travel bags.
He’s already planning to meet with fraternity members who play for Ohio State and Purdue.
“It’s different because, in this limelight, when we step on the field, that’s the field, that’s business, and outside of this he’s a brother, he’s a friend and that’s somebody that I can look forward to or reach out to,” Pierson-El said. “Once you step on the line, you’re the opposite team and I got a job to do so I’m gonna do it. But, after the game, we’ll talk it up and laugh and joke.”
He loves his teammates, don’t get him wrong, but Omega Psi Phi is a lifetime thing. It was part of who he was before college, and something he plans on carrying with him long after he graduates.
“Yeah, it is different, you have those friends that are headaches, but you love ’em and they’re part of my support system and part of my backbone. They support me with anything, and they also tell me what I need to hear and not what I want to hear,” Pierson-El said. “Iron sharpens iron, and that’s exactly what they’re for.”