Jeremiah Davis was an assistant coach at Annandale High School in 2011 when a speedy West Potomac sophomore named De’Mornay Pierson-El caught his attention.
“[H]e popped off the screen,” Davis said in a recent phone interview.
Pierson-El was a receiver in the 10th grade, catching 49 passes for 781 yards and 15 touchdowns while helping the Wolverines win a share of the Patriot District title.
The following year, Davis took the head coaching job at West Potomac and moved Pierson-El to running back. The result: 1,658 yards, 26 touchdowns and a playoff berth.
“The game came to him so easily,” Caleb Williams, a former high school teammate of Pierson-El’s, wrote in an email, “like everyone would be in slow-mo, and he’s moving a mile a minute.”
In 2013, West Potomac lost its starting quarterback to injury in the season opener. With no clear-cut backup, Davis turned to Pierson-El, who had played the position in youth football.
The result: 876 yards and seven touchdowns through the air, 1,007 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground.
“When you put a ball in an athlete’s hands,” Davis said, “he can usually make something happen.”
Seven years later, Pierson-El has the ball in his hands and is making the most of his opportunity — this time as a slot receiver for the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL.
Pierson-El returns to the DMV this week as St. Louis takes on the DC Defenders at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday at Audi Field. The Battlehawks are in first place in the XFL East with a 3-1 record, one game ahead of the Defenders and New York Guardians.
Listed at 5 feet 8, 194 pounds, and wearing jersey No. 15, Pierson-El has 21 receptions for 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The 24-year-old leads the league with an average of 2.59 yards per route run, according to XFL.com.
“I’m very excited,” Pierson-El wrote in an email. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played at home. So much has changed, but I can’t wait for my family to see me in person, performing at the pro level.”
In high school, Pierson-El showed the physical tools necessary for a potential future in football. But while he’s thriving in the XFL, the playmaker known on Twitter as @DontPunt_15 faced obstacles on his path to success.
After a high school career during which he played three offensive positions, picked off passes as a defensive back and garnered all-state honors as a kick returner, Pierson-El found immediate success at the collegiate level, returning punts for the University of Nebraska.
As a true freshman, Pierson-El amassed 596 punt return yards and returned punts for touchdowns against Fresno State (86 yards), and Big Ten foes Michigan State (62 yards) and Iowa (80 yards). His performance earned him second-team All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America.
But after a memorable freshman campaign, Pierson-El battled injuries and never saw the same level of success with the Cornhuskers. He finished his college career with 100 receptions for 1,309 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a senior.
Davis, a former Penn State defensive lineman who is now the defensive coordinator at Westfield High School, remains close with Pierson-El, who Facetimes his former coach before every game. Davis said overcoming adversity in college helped Pierson-El grow.
“He was the man at West Potomac, he was the man since Little League,” Davis said. “… College came and it was immediate success, and then he got hurt. He had to work his way back and you start to question yourself. That made him stronger.”
Pierson-El was also a standout basketball player in high school, earning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2014. His head coach on the hardwood, David Houston III, remembers Pierson-El’s maturation process.
“Between his sophomore year and junior year [of high school] is when I knew he had a long-term career in sports,” Houston wrote in an email. “He had a work ethic; he wanted to work and get better and then he loved to perform. We called him a gamer. He was always ready to perform on game day.
“He had an idea of getting away from this area, and the many distractions that have held similar exceptional athletes from succeeding. He knew the only way he could do that was getting a scholarship. Once he took his visit to Nebraska and saw the level he could get to and be around, he seemed like an awakened person/student-athlete. My conversations with him were so much more mature once he arrived to Nebraska. I knew he could be a pro.”
After going undrafted in 2018, Pierson-El signed a free agent contract with the Washington Redskins, but failed to make the team. After stops with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League and the Salt Lake Stallions of the American Alliance Football League, Pierson-El received another NFL opportunity when he signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2019.
Pierson-El caught nine passes for 70 yards and a touchdown in the preseason, but did not make the Raiders’ 53-man roster. He did, however, spend time on Oakland’s practice squad.
In October of 2019, Pierson-El received an opportunity in the XFL when he was chosen by the St. Louis Battlehawks with the 22nd pick of the offensive skill player portion of the draft.
“It’s another opportunity to play ball and have fun,” Pierson-El wrote. “I’m happy to get the opportunity to play. Not everyone got the invite to the draft pool.”
Pierson-El had never been to St. Louis prior to joining the Battlehawks, but said playing in front of the team’s fans has been his favorite part of his time in the XFL. The Battlehawks play their home games in The Dome at America’s Center, which used to house the St. Louis Rams before they moved back to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.
“Home games,” Pierson-El wrote, “are a different type of atmosphere.”
St. Louis’ first home game was Feb. 23 against the New York Guardians, when Pierson-El had the opportunity to play against former high school teammate Bunmi Rotimi, a defensive end for the Guardians. Rotimi, a 2013 West Potomac graduate, played collegiately at Old Dominion and was briefly with the Chicago Bears.
The Battlehawks got the best of the Guardians, 29-9, with Pierson-El catching three passes for 25 yards, and completing a pass for a 2-point conversion.
Pierson-El has produced 21 receptions on 23 targets this season. He caught a season-high nine passes in a 28-24 loss to the undefeated Houston Roughnecks on Feb. 16, totaled a season-high 71 yards in a 23-16 win over the Seattle Dragons on Feb. 29, and caught a touchdown pass in two contests.
XFL.com said Pierson-El “is the league’s premier slot threat.”
“I mean it’s cool and all, but there’s still work to be done,” Pierson-El wrote when informed of the praise. “The goal is to win the championship.”
The next stop on the Battlehawks’ quest for a title is Sunday’s game against DC, a homecoming for Pierson-El, who will get the chance to introduce his two-month-old daughter, Logann, to family members for the first time.
“I have a whole mob coming to the game,” Pierson-El wrote. “From family, friends, old teachers, old coaches, trainers, anyone you can think of will be at the game.”
Pierson-El’s time at West Potomac left lasting memories for those who saw him play, and still inspires current students. Davis said kids will acknowledge that he was the Wolverines’ coach when De’Mornay played, and some want to wear Pierson-El’s high school number: 5.
“He had a knack for making people miss,” Davis said. “He doesn’t take the hits straight on. That is part of a preservation thing — he’s not the biggest guy.”
Williams was West Potomac’s starting quarterback in 2012, when he was a senior and Pierson-El was a junior. Williams is now an assistant coach for the school’s football and basketball programs.
“I have watched a couple [Battlehawks] games and [Pierson-El] looks a lot more technical,” Williams wrote. “Everyone he is playing (against) now is just as athletic, so it’s who takes care of the little things more, and he’s got the details, for sure. In [high school], he could literally just use raw ability to run circles around people and not get touched.”
Houston said he plans to attend Sunday’s game.
“I’ve seen some high-level athletes,” Houston wrote. “But, to have been around De’Mornay as long as I have, and to see the obstacles he’s overcome … it’s really one of the proudest moments as a coach of a player. He deserves to play at the highest level and his fight and determination to get there is admirable. Things haven’t been easy, and he’s never quit or pointed blame.”
Pierson-El said he would “absolutely” like another chance to play in the NFL. For now, he will try to help the St. Louis Battlehawks win the XFL title, and try to show scouts he has the skills to play at football’s highest level.
All he needs is the ball in his hands.
“What people see now in the XFL is a result of someone getting him the ball,” Davis said. “I have no doubt if he stayed with the Raiders and they got him the ball, you would see the same thing.”
Jon Roetman is a freelance writer who started covering high school sports in Northern Virginia in 2009. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.