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Nov. 13, 2012
Pierson Prioleau (Virginia Tech, 1995-98) was one of the leaders of the salty Hokie defenses of the mid-to-late 1990s. He lettered four times for head coach Frank Beamer, helping Tech to a 26-12 four-year record that included four consecutive bowl games. A three-year starter, he totaled 237 career tackles and had two kick returns for touchdowns. He was named first-team All-Big East in 1997 and earned third-team All-America honors (The Sporting News) that year. As a senior, he led a defense that was first in the Big East in scoring defense, allowing just 12.9 points per game. A fourth-round selection of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1999 NFL Draft, Prioleau played 12 seasons in the National Football League for San Francisco, Buffalo, Washington, Jacksonville and New Orleans. He was a member of the Saints' championship team in Super Bowl XLIV. Prioleau was also a first cousin of former ACC Legend and Georgia Tech All-American Joe Hamilton. A native of Alvin, S.C., he currently lives in Radford, Va.
How did a guy from the Charleston, S.C., area wind up becoming a Hokie?
I grew up more of a Clemson fan than South Carolina, but I really cheered a little for both. I was kind of overlooked by both programs. We had some good talent coming out of our area, guys like Courtney Brown and Joe Hamilton, who is an ACC Legend himself and my first cousin. But I wound up at Virginia Tech after being overlooked by the in-state schools, which turned out to be a good thing, I guess.
You played four years there for Coach (Frank) Beamer and played for some very successful teams. For you, is it any surprise to see him as the active leader in wins among active coaches now?
No, not at all. We started a culture there around the time I first got there, in the early and mid-90s. Coach Beamer built that culture of a blue-collar work ethic, and it has worked. Like the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.
The program had some early struggles when Coach Beamer first went there, then it had started to turn around some just before you got there. But did you feel like the teams you played on were the ones that really got it going there?
Yeah, I tell people all the time: The minute you start talking about Virginia Tech and how it became an annual contender or an annual top 10 team, everybody likes to point to Michael Vick. But I like to point to the 1995-98 years as setting the foundation. My freshman year in '95 was the year we went to the Sugar Bowl and defeated Texas. That was a real important year for the program because we proved that we could compete with the rest of the good teams in the nation. I like to think of the time I was there as the time the foundation was set for the guys who came behind us - the Michael Vicks and so on and so forth.
What made your defensive units so special and hard to score against, particularly the one in 1998, your senior year?
We adopted a very attacking style on defense. We crowded the box with eight men. Coach (Bud) Foster (Virginia Tech's defensive coordinator) was good at that. We sent pressure from many different angles, and we had the athletes in the secondary to cover when we sent those pressures. You can credit the recruiting, and you can credit all the guys I played alongside that year. We took what we were taught to heart, and we were competitive enough to execute it on the field.
Were many of your teammates similar to you in their background and their work ethic?
Well, many of the guys came in with a chip on their shoulders. We had a lot of guys from Virginia and from all over the East Coast that were overlooked by other schools. We looked at it as a great opportunity to play against the so-called name programs like Miami and West Virginia and Syracuse. We took it as an opportunity to show that we, too, belonged.
You had some huge wins during your time there, and you capped off your senior year with a huge bowl game win over Alabama. Was that a highlight for you during your time there?
It definitely was. Part of my senior season was a little disappointing, but we finished it up in a big way against an SEC team in Alabama, which has now become the measuring stick for the NCAA. Going into that year we had such high expectations, but we lost our quarterback in the middle of the season. Then we lost our homecoming game to Temple and we lost our rival game to UVa. But we went to the Music City Bowl and got to play a formidable opponent in Alabama, and we fared pretty well. It was definitely a good note to go out on and a positive way to end my career at Virginia Tech. And it also jump started the next season for the players who remained, which was the year they went to national title game.
There are two whole pages in the Virginia Tech media guide dedicated to `Beamer Ball' and the uncanny ability to produce non-offensive touchdowns. You had two yourself during your time there. Is there just a mentality and a state of mind that is passed on there, that you can always make a play at any time to help turn a game around?
We took responsibility and we took pride as a defensive unit and on special teams, not just in getting the offense the ball but in putting points on the board. It really helps a team out, if you look at the statistics in terms of wins and losses, when a team scores a defensive touchdown or when special teams score. We took that to heart, and Coach Beamer did a good job of playing his defensive starters and also some of his offensive starters on special teams. We actually went into games with the mentality of just not creating turnovers, but of getting our hands on the ball and scoring. We were able to do that, and combined with a solid, ball-control offense and a good defense it worked for us.
Obviously, with it being the pre-ACC days for Virginia Tech, you didn't get to play against Joe (Hamilton). But how closely did you guys keep up with one another, and do you wish you could have gone head-to head?
My mom and his dad are sister and brother. We grew up together. We were together at my grandmother and granddaddy's house daily. So we definitely kept in close touch. Unfortunately, the bowl games never aligned at that time for us to play against each other. But I definitely was a big fan of his. I always bragged about him to my college teammates and my peers. He was a superstar - being a Heisman candidate and a three-time high school player of the year and that type of thing. I enjoyed watching his career.
Did you get caught up in the Hamilton for Heisman campaign his senior year?
Definitely. I think I still have some of the memorabilia they put out. My family and I always kind of kid about it. We drive into town when we go back to visit and there's still a sign up that says, "Alvin, South Carolina - Home of Joe Hamilton.' I enjoyed that ride as much as he did, and so did our family and the whole community. You would watch the programs where they talked about the Heisman candidates. To have someone from your family and your hometown be part of that was just amazing to me.
You were a key player on special teams for most of your NFL career. How much of it do you credit to your experience at Virginia Tech and how much emphasis was placed on them there?
I started my career with the San Francisco 49ers and had a great time there, and then I went to Buffalo. That was kind of like a second chance for me. Buffalo may have been the place where I started the most games as a safety, but Buffalo is also where I went back to my roots as a special teams player. Danny Smith, who is now with the Redskins, was the special teams coach in Buffalo when I got there. I made it known that, `Hey, whatever I can do - no matter how many games I start at safety or corner or whatever, I want to play on all the special teams.'
And that paid off well for you, didn't it?
Ultimately, that was responsible for my longevity in the league. I was able to play 12 and a half seasons. If you look at my stats as a defensive back, they are not really prolific stats. But if you look at all the teams I played on, I either led the team in special teams tackles or was among the top three or four players. I took on the responsibility and relished the role of being a defensive player that excelled on special teams. To be the captain on a New Orleans team that won the Super Bowl (in 2010) and to lead the team is special teams tackles the couple of seasons that I was there, I took pride in that. I often try to explain to the other guys who come into the NFL - particularly guys who weren't high-round draft picks - how big a role playing on special teams can play in creating career longevity in the NFL.
Were you on the field for the onside kick (that helped turned the tide in the Saints' favor) in Super Bowl XLIV?
Yes, I was. I was the opposite-side safety. I'm the guy who ran in at the end and pulled a whole bunch of people off the pile. Originally that play, when we put it in earlier in the season, was drawn up to come to my side. But in the scouting that week, we realized that we had a better chance kicking it to our left, which is where we kicked it. I was a little disappointed we didn't go to right side because I would have liked to have recovered that. But at the same time, it was exciting to execute that play and see it work, because I think it was one of the big plays that propelled us to be Super Bowl champs.
And now you are back in the Virginia Tech area, up around Radford?
Yes, my wife is from Radford. I met her when I was in college at Virginia Tech, which is about 20 minutes away. We have a family here, three boys, and we've made it our home. It's a great place to raise kids. It's where she is from, and it's similar to where I grew up in South Carolina.
And you are coaching high school football?
Yes, I realized that with my love for the game and my competitiveness, I couldn't be away from it that much. I had to keep my hands in it some way, and high school coaching is where I made that decision. It's been fun and it's been interesting. I've learned a whole lot - about coaching and about high school. But it has been fun, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Coaching is what I plan on doing, eventually maybe even on the collegiate or professional level. But right now, spending time with family is what is important, and I am happy to be here coaching high school football.
Do you feel like Virginia Tech and the ACC have been a good mutual fit?
It definitely has. Geographically, the proximity to the North Carolina schools and to Virginia makes it a perfect for that, as well as the style of play. Obviously, I played in the Big East, which is where we first made our name as a football program. But I often wondered why we weren't in the ACC. I think Virginia Tech's addition to the ACC, as well as Boston College and Miami and the ones we have coming in now with Syracuse and Pitt and Notre Dame, it's going to turn this conference into something big, not only in football but in all the other sports. I think Virginia Tech is in it to stay. And who knows? Maybe one day I will get to coach in it, too.