March 13, 2014
By Jason Yellin KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- By the end of Thursday millions of sports fans will know the name Von Pearson. After making a remarkable one-handed catch during the Volunteers fourth spring practice, Pearson was drawing national attention from ESPN with a SportsCenter Top 10-worthy play. For the 22-year old junior wide receiver, gaining acclaim is just another step in a long path to achieving his life's goals after going off track for a while.
Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni relayed the story of Pearson's happiness of just having an opportunity to play college football following Thursday's practice.
"He goes, `Coach I have seen the other side," Azzanni recounted of what Pearson told him upon arriving in Knoxville. " 'I've served fried chicken, I've done that. Now, I'm at Tennessee in the SEC. I don't want to go back.'
"That's neat to hear him say that. He's done that. He's got an opportunity that someone laid in front of him that he's going to take advantage of. He said, 'Coach, this is easy. Real life stuff, that's hard. I don't want to do that. This is good. I want to stay here.' That's why he is the way he is."
That `hard' stuff is what Pearson had to do upon graduating from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Virginia. Rather than go to college, Pearson went right to work at McDonald's in his hometown. Pearson had a decorated prep career as a receiver, but going to college wasn't part of the equation.
"Where I'm from, everybody just follows everybody," Pearson said earlier this winter. "They weren't the best students of the world, so I really didn't have anybody who went to another level. I didn't have anybody who pushed me."
Pearson's real-life experience gives him a very different viewpoint than the other 13 new Vols who have joined Team 118.
"Von brings a unique perspective and has been a good resource for the other newcomers that are here this winter for the first time," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "His perspective is -- he's seen the other side. He's seen what it's like to work at McDonald's, to do the same thing day in and day out, at an 8-5 job or a 9-5 job."
After dishing out Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets, Pearson decided to make a dramatic change in his life at the suggestion of a friend.
"One of my boys told me there's this JUCO out in California, you should come," Pearson said. "I went to California two weeks later, just picked up everything and left (Virginia).
Pearson went on to star at Feather River College in Quincy, California. He led the all junior college players in catches in 2013 with 93 for 1,601 yards earning All-American honors and conference MVP.
Tennessee was the first school to offer Pearson a scholarship and he jumped at it. Since arriving on Rocky Top, he has been all smiles and filled with enthusiasm.
"I was very thankful to Butch Jones," said Pearson. "He told me `I have seen some talent in you and you can do big things here, I see that you are blessed, I see that you work hard, I just want to give you an opportunity to play at Tennessee'."
Since arriving he hasn't disappointed.
"He comes every day with energy and passion," said Bajakian. "Frankly, it's pretty infectious. I love being around him. He's a guy that the other newcomers have rallied around to try and get the lay of the land. Not so much that he's a junior college player, but just his life experience."
Azzanni, knows Pearson well after recruiting him hard at the school located in the mountains of Northwest California near Nevada. During the Vols' recruiting celebrations, Azzanni recounted a story of visiting Pearson during winter weather conditions where his rental car broke down leaving him stranded for hours.
Unequipped for the weather conditions, Azzanni walked up a mountain to a log cabin gas station where he picked up a meal -- an old can of Dinty Moore stew -- and some bungee cords to help salvage his rental car and keep it moving.
"I was intent on getting to Von," said Azzanni.
Months later, Azzanni is happy to see Pearson's smiling face day after day wearing Orange & White.
"It's fun to coach him," said Azzanni. "Von has endless energy. He'll tap me on the butt when I'm yelling at him, and I love that.
"I'm not sure Von has an off switch which is good. He doesn't have a bad day, he's a glass half-full-all-the-time kid, and we like to be around that."
On Thursday the nation was introduced to Pearson, but Azzanni has seen many of those moves before.
"He is ultra-talented, there is no doubt about it," said Azzanni. "He makes acrobatic catches just like he did at Feather River, he's made a couple here the last couple of days."
On Thursday, he made one that was viewed thousands of times in the first hour it was posted on @Vol_Football's Twitter feed and picked up by ESPN and SportsCenter.
But according to Azzanni, the attention won't go to his head, Pearson has seen the other side and playing college football is privilege, he won't take for granted.
"I don't worry about it," said Azzanni. "Maybe when he leaves this building I do, but he is not wired like that oddly enough. I have to guard against it, but I'm pretty good at keeping those guys level-headed so I'm not worried about it yet." Pearson humbleness is evident.
"I just want to work hard and be a player that everyone likes and gets along with," Pearson said. "I think this is crazy when I wake up and look at my shirt and I'm like, `Tennessee?' From McDonald's to JUCO to Tennessee, it can't get better than that!"