'Don't ever give up': How patience led to Jared Mayden's success at Alabama
MOBILE, Ala. — Four words have followed former Alabama safety Jared Mayden his entire life: “Don’t ever give up.” The message has been routinely delivered by his grandfather, Donald Pierson Sr., who is a walking symbol of the slogan.
A series of unfortunate events have rocked Pierson’s world over his 71 years on this earth. None of them proved too much for his unwavering spirit.
Pierson was shot in the leg while serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War. It didn’t stop him. After returning home to have his bone replaced by a metal rod, he shipped out back east and continued fighting.
He later reenlisted in the Army National Guard. During the summer of 1994, he was struck by lightning which hit a metal pole he was touching. The shock wave traveled through him, tossing him several feet through the air. The incident resulted in several complications, including a damaged pancreas which led to diabetes. Pierson also suffered severe nerve damage while losing much of his sight as well as a temporary loss of speech and his ability to walk.
The initial prognosis was bleak as doctors told family members that Pierson likely had 48 hours to live. Once he cleared that checkpoint, his expectancy rose to one week, then two weeks up until a month. Even after Pierson cleared the critical stages following his incident, the thought of him ever living a normal life again was all but ruled out — that is by everyone but the gritty Terrell, Texas native himself.
Undeterred by his complications, Pierson worked his way to recovery, eventually regaining his ability to walk roughly two years after the incident. Mayden and his two brothers, James and Jalen, grew up watching their grandfather overcome obstacle after obstacle. They were present during the in-home treatments and held his hand through several shaky steps. Never once did they see a drop-off in their PaPa determination.
“He was always a big influence in my life,” Mayden said. “He told me to keep pushing, to keep on going because at the end of the day it’s going to make you a better man.”
Mayden’s fondest memories with his grandfather center around the football field. Even with his fading eyesight, Pierson attended the majority of his grandson’s games, rewarding his touchdowns with ice cream while doling out some good-natured ribbing on plays he felt Mayden could have made.
One moment that stands out in Pierson’s memory came as Mayden elected to knock down a long pass instead of intercepting it during a third-down play. The star safety tried explaining the decision to his grandfather, stating that it was actually better not to catch the ball as the team would have a better chance at getting more yards from the ensuing punt.
However, Pierson wasn’t having any of it. “Jared, when are you going to get me an interception?” He remembers calling out from the stands.
“He always wanted me to go for the big play,” Mayden said. “He always used to tell me, ‘No cheerleader knows the guy who swats the ball down, they only cheer for the guy who gets the touchdown.’ He’s a funny dude. He’s crazy, but every day he pushed me to be my best and make plays.”
Pierson’s diabetes eventually led to a kidney transplant in 2012. He then developed BK virus which ultimately resulted in him losing his eyesight completely shortly before Mayden’s senior season in 2015. However, that didn’t stop him from attending games, listening to the radio in the stands while his relatives — or “personal announcers” as he refers to them — dictated the action.
While Pierson made sure to be there to push Mayden on the field, he also serves as a guiding presence off it as well. The two talk roughly twice a week with Pierson making sure Mayden stays on top of his prayers while also providing encouragement and a reminder to always be himself.
Perhaps one of the most useful messages Mayden receives from his grandfather is to “take a snapshot of each day.” The ideology revolves around daily self-reflection as Pierson encourages his grandson to wake up each morning focusing on where he is at in life and what steps he can take for improvement.
“Just being able to prioritize what you want to accomplish at the beginning of the day so that your day doesn’t get overwhelming,” Mayden explained. "Either in football or in everyday life.”
That thought process proved essential during Mayden’s junior season at Alabama in 2018 when he considered transferring from the Crimson Tide due to lack of playing time. During that time Pierson preached patience, advising his grandson not to enter his name in the NCAA transfer portal while reminding him of his own humbling road through adversity.
“I told him, ‘Keep your patience and it will pay off for you… after a while,’” Pierson said. “I always added that, ‘after a while.’ I knew if he was patient he would be able to achieve anything he wanted to accomplish. I told him, ‘Soon, very soon you’ll get some time. You’ll make it.’”
Mayden followed his grandfather’s advice to much avail. After opting to remain at Alabama, the defensive back broke into the Crimson Tide’s dime secondary unit midway through the year, following a season-ending injury to cornerback Trevon Diggs. The extended reps helped propel Mayden into a first-team role this past season as he started 11 games at safety, tallying a team-high four interceptions while finishing with 59 stops.
Mayden credits much of his success to his patient approach, stating that his time on the bench taught him how to handle adversity while also providing him with better knowledge and appreciation for the game. His delayed road to starting also saw him bounce around to several positions at Alabama as he received reps at cornerback and Star before finding a home at safety.
That versatility has come in handy during this week’s Senior Bowl as he has been able to showcase his skill set at all three positions in front of NFL scouts. While Mayden likely projects to stick at safety at the next level, he flashed the ability to play on the perimeter when he was clocked at 20.9 miles per hour during Tuesday’s practice, the fourth-fastest speed among Senior Bowl attendees according to Zebra Technologies.
“I really just want to show teams my versatility, that I can play corner, slot corner and safety,” Mayden said. “And then also the way I prepare for practices, showing I’m coachable when I mess up because nobody’s perfect. Then my overall mentality of how I approach the game, how I get to the ball, how I encourage others, how loud I am on the field. I’m vocal. Those are all things I want teams to take away and remember me when they’ve got to go back and make their own decisions.”
Mayden is currently viewed as a Day 3 pick and rated as the No. 21 safety in this year’s draft class, according to NFLDraftNetwork.com. Of course, that stock could rise if the 6-foot, 201-pound defensive back continues to put in strong performances this week.
Either way, the Mayden household isn’t too worried. They know good things are often worth the wait.
“I’ve always told him, ‘Don’t ever give up,’” Pierson said. “I tried to teach him that whatever you want to accomplish, you can do it. Just don’t give up.
“People are going to tell you different things, but if it’s for you, it’s for you. I told him to never let people change your mind because you know people have a habit of doing that. I just told him to hold on to his work ethic. If it’s in your heart to do something, then you do it. I know he’s going to achieve what he sets out to do.”