Players began arriving at NFL training camps July 28, though not everyone showed up. Due to health concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, players were given the choice to opt-out for the season and receive a stipend instead.

Former Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce — now with the Minnesota Vikings — made the decision not play in 2020, he announced July 28. But that choice did not come easy to the 27-year-old, who is in his prime and just inked a three-year, $27 million contract with Minnesota in March.

Pierce has asthma and came down with pneumonia during the 2017 season. He remembers how difficult it was battling that illness as his respiratory system struggled, and he does not want to take that chance with COVID-19.

“I really realized that if something like that gets out of hand, I can not only end up in the hospital, but I could potentially end up in the grave,” Pierce said on Glenn Clark Radio July 29.

When the pandemic shut down sports in March, the NFL was in the early stages of its offseason and therefore one of the only leagues afforded the luxury of time to prepare for how the virus would impact the upcoming season. Though the league was mostly mum on its plans during the ensuing four months, Pierce began training and preparing as if he would play, keeping his health concerns in mind.

But when the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to health and safety protocols for the year, including an opt-out plan, on July 24, Pierce’s future became much clearer and he decided to skip out on 2020. Since he is at a higher risk for the virus, Pierce will receive a $350,000 stipend for opting out, and his recently-signed contract will now begin next season. Players who opt out voluntarily and are not at higher risk for the virus will receive a $150,000 stipend.

“At that point, it’s not really a choice that you want to make, but it’s a choice that you probably should make,” Pierce said.

That decision looms large for both Pierce and the Vikings. At 27 years old, Pierce is in his prime entering his fifth season in the league. Missing out on game action this year will be a blow to his on-field growth, while off the field he will not be able to quickly assimilate to his new franchise.

Minnesota, meanwhile, will have to replace a star disrupter on its defensive line. Pierce spent his first four seasons with the Ravens and recorded 151 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries during his tenure in Baltimore. He was durable, too, starting 14 games last season and appearing in all but four contests throughout his career.

So Pierce stands to lose a fair bit by missing out on the 2020 season. But it’s a sacrifice he said is necessary for his future.

“The prime of my career is only going to last so long,” he said. “But what good is the prime of my career if I end up in the hospital and I don’t recover enough to even play?”

With his season over, Pierce returned home to Alabama and will develop a training regimen so he can stay in shape during his time away from football. He said he hopes to rejoin the Vikings next spring depending on how treatment for the virus is progressing.

Despite the setback, Pierce said he believes he made the best decision for his long-term health and is ready to come back stronger in 2021.

“I wanted to make sure that I not only make it through this year without any hospital run-ins, but I wanted to make sure I’m healthy and well and doing the best I can,” he said. “If I make it through this thing healthy, and I can play another three years, finish my contract, play even more for five more years, that’s a blessing.”

For more from Pierce, listen to the full interview here:

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