Chances are, you’ve never heard of Thailand Pierce. And you almost certainly would have missed his recent announcement, such as it was, that he was retiring from professional football. He made that known simply by changing the profile on his Instagram: “Retired Professional Athlete” is the first line of his bio at @tpierce1991.

Pierce, 31, has existed on football’s periphery over the past decade, scratching out a living one small paycheck at a time, clawing his way to just about every corner of the country in search of a new team. He went to high school near Dayton, Ohio, and played junior-college ball in Arizona. He settled in Texas, moved to North Carolina for a bit, and now might go see a friend about a job in Wyoming.

Broke and unable to afford rent, he was homeless for a short time in Phoenix, then bounced around from one tryout to the next in the Arena Football League. A 6-foot-1, 195-pound defensive back, he has played for the Topeka Tropics, the Billings Outlaws, the Texas Revolution, working day jobs here and there to make ends meet, and joining every flag-football team that would have him because he loved the game so much.

The NFL was always the goal. He was certain he could make it. He’s still certain he could make it, the conviction in his voice hard-earned, and harder to doubt. He did have tryouts over the years with the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, but the NFL dream never materialized. He was too slow or too old or too much of an unknown.

“It eats me up every day,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I know I could play on Sundays.”

If he couldn’t make it, the next-best thing, in Pierce’s eyes, arrived in Seattle on Thursday.

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Tariq Woolen is beginning his NFL career at the Seahawks’ rookie minicamp this weekend, a week after they selected the tantalizing, 6-foot-4 cornerback out of Texas-San Antonio in the fifth round of the NFL draft.

Pierce, working in San Antonio as a FedEx delivery driver, was one of the first people to convince Woolen this was all possible, at time when Woolen wasn’t sure what he wanted to do or how to go about doing it. In the process, Pierce has discovered something of a newfound talent of his own, taking on the role of a trainer-slash-mentor, providing the kind of support and encouragement he never really had as a young defensive back.

A powerful thing, someone else’s belief can be.

Finding his footing

Nick Graham couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing at first.

Shut the (expletive) up,” were his exact words, as he recalled two years later. “There’s no way he’s 6-4.”

This happened during a conversation with another staff member during one of Graham’s first days on the job as the new cornerbacks coach at Texas-San Antonio early in 2020. He was trying to assess what returning cornerbacks were on the roster when the other staff member, a holdover from the previous regime, mentioned Woolen — as in, this 6-foot-4 wide receiver who was moved over to cornerback, as an experiment, during the final week of the 2019 season.

Again, Graham couldn’t believe there existed a 6-4 person who was fast enough and fluid enough to play cornerback. The other staff member swore Woolen was real — raw, but real. And word was Woolen wanted to move back to wide receiver.

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Go find him, Graham said.

Soon enough, Woolen arrived in Graham’s office. Only then did Graham begin to believe: Yes, he really is 6-4. “I was like, ‘Whoa!’” Graham recalled.

After Woolen left, Graham immediately tracked down the practice tape from UTSA’s final week of the 2019 season so he could watch Woolen work.

Woolen, on film, did not disappoint.   

“I watched every practice clip,” Graham said, “and I was like, yeah, this dude is not stiff. He can drop his hips and he can get out of his breaks like he’s 5-10.”

Graham was looking forward to spring football with Woolen when COVID-19 hit. UTSA football, like everything else, was shut down. Contact between coaches and players was limited; spring football workouts were wiped out. And this all happened at a pivotal time for Woolen’s development, because he still wasn’t certain if he should move back to receiver or reluctantly stick it out as a cornerback.

It was right around then that Pierce first heard about Woolen and messaged him on Instagram. “I just happened to come across one of his photos on his Instagram page and saw that he was in San Antonio,” Pierce said. “So I contacted him. I basically said: ‘Hey man, if you ever want to get some work in, let me know. He hit me back.’ He said he’d never had a trainer before, so we started working out.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, Pierce and Woolen met regularly in the outfield grass of the UTSA baseball field. “Almost every day that summer,” Pierce said. “And, man, it was hot.”

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Pierce ran Woolen through the various defensive-back drills he’d learned over the years: backpedals, flip turns, post-corner turns, hand techniques. “Stuff that actually translates to the field,” Pierce said.

To supplement the on-field work, Woolen has said he spent a lot of time that summer playing the “Madden NFL” video game as a cornerback he’d built in his image. That helped him learned the basic defensive coverages he would need to know.

“I promise you,” Pierce said he would tell Woolen, “you’re going to be really good. You have a great shot. Just stick with it.”

Once UTSA players were able to return to campus workouts late that summer, Graham got to work with a similar message for Woolen.

“I was like, ‘Dude, listen, you can you can go over there (to the offense) and be an OK receiver. Or you can go to NFL,’” Graham said he told him. “And he kind of just looked at me like that ‘Riq look that he’ll give you. And I said, ‘Seriously, man, you’ve got rare talent.’”

The rise of ’Riq The Freak

Funny enough, soon after they had met him, Pierce and Graham said they separately told Woolen that he not only had the potential to be an NFL cornerback, but that he would be the ideal cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks.

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But ’Riq The Freak, as he became known at UTSA, wasn’t an immediate sensation at his new position. There were definite growing pains. Because of an injury to another cornerback, Woolen had to start the Roadrunners’ 2020 season opener. He was so bad in the first half that Graham remembered thinking at halftime that he might get fired as the position coach before the end of the game.

Once the other cornerback was healthy, Graham decided to bench Woolen for a few games midway through that 2020 season. He needed to sit back and learn.

“He just kept working. He was a sponge,” Graham said. “It’s almost easier to coach those guys, you know, because they’ve never played the position and they don’t have any bad habits. Everything I told him to do, that’s the way he was going to do it, because he didn’t know any other way.”

By his final season in 2021, Woolen became a regular starter (missing four games with a hand injury) while helping the Roadrunners win their first Conference USA championship. He burst onto the scene at the NFL combine, running a 4.26-second 40-yard dash — one of the fastest times ever at the event — and posting the best mark (42 inches) in the vertical jump.  

Graham, who spent parts of three seasons playing cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts from 2007-09, knows people will want to make an instant comparison between Woolen and Richard Sherman. It’s already happening, and it’s largely because their paths to Seattle are so similar: They’re both long, lean former receivers who made the switch to cornerback later in college and got drafted by the Seahawks in the fifth round (Woolen with pick No. 153; Sherman at No. 154).

Graham was quick to point out that Woolen is actually a better natural athlete than Sherman, and “I don’t think Richard would disagree with that.”

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But Graham also cautioned against forecasting any immediate expectations on Woolen.

“Richard Sherman is such a cerebral guy,” Graham said. “Richard plays with his mind — and his mind is different, you know what I mean? Like, ‘Riq is a sharp kid, but he ain’t Richard Sherman.

“… But I always told him, (the Seahawks) would be a perfect fit for him. I look at some of the stuff Pete Carroll does with corners, and I think it really is a natural fit.”

Woolen is eager to get started.

“I feel like the best is yet to come,” he said after getting drafted last weekend. “I know that under a great coaching staff I can become a great player. I’m already a good player, but I feel like I can be great. There is stuff I have to work on and there is stuff I’m good at. I want to work on both of them. That’s what makes a great player. I just want to go there and have fun and be a great player.”

Sounds like he believes it too.