In the past week Andrew Pierce has seen Ohio Stadium like no one else.
He saw it looking down through the night sky a few days ago and then Saturday afternoon he saw it while standing on the 45-yard line and looking up as he waved his arms in appreciation while a crowd of 104,089 cheered him.
Both vantage points have to do with his ability to fly.
At halftime of Ohio State’s 42-0 blowout of the Cincinnati Bearcats on Saturday, OSU introduced the 10 newest members of the school’s Varsity “O” Hall of Fame.
Along with Pierce, a product of Yellow Springs High School, the inductees included two other stellar athletes from the Miami Valley: Centerville High grads AJ Hawk and Mike Nugent.
While both had storied football careers for the Buckeyes – Hawk was recognized as the best linebacker in college football with the Lombardi Award, Nugent as the nation’s top kicker with the Groza Award and both went on to long tenures in the NFL – no one has reached loftier heights, quite literally, than Pierce.
A 400-meter sprint specialist at OSU, he was a six-time All American, won eight Big Ten titles and twice was voted the Big Ten athlete of the year. Eighteen years after his 2001 graduation, his 400 records still stand at Jesse Owens Stadium and indoors at French Field House.
And since leaving OSU, he’s only gotten faster.
He’s a Delta Airlines pilot who regular flies a 727 across the continental U.S. and into the Caribbean and Central America.
He’s also Major Andrew Pierce with the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He’s a flight instructor and a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III instructor pilot with the 89th Airlift Squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
On assignments with the 445th Airlift Wing, he’s flown supplies numerous times to the U.S. war efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the Middle East.
But one of the flights that most resonated with him on this Hall of Fame weekend came just the other night, he said:
“I flew my 737 right over Ohio Stadium coming back into Columbus. Knowing I used to run down there (at nearby Jesse Owens), it was pretty amazing.”
He said being enshrined in the OSU Hall of Fame has been “surreal.”
“I got the best of both worlds here and I loved it.”
Not only was he recognized as one of college track’s best 400-meter men – and that launched a pro career that took him to places like China, Cuba, France, Canada and Trinidad & Tobago – but while at OSU he was able to truly embrace his dream of flying.
He majored in Aviation Airway Management and Operations, got his private pilot’s license while a student, began work on his commercial pilot’s license and was first introduced to the opportunities that would come with the Air Force Reserve.
“Ohio State,” he said with a smile, “was a good place for Andrew Pierce.”
Fascinated with flight
Pierce – whose dad, Alfred, was a policeman in Yellow Springs – was something of a modern day Orville and Wilbur Wright when he was growing up.
He was fascinated with flight.
“At my daycare – and that was long before I got started in track – the husband of the lady there was a retired Army officer and he used to give me posters of airplanes,” Pierce said. “Even back then I think I kind of wanted to pursue that path.”
He said several people in Yellow Springs and surrounding Greene County worked at nearby Wright-Patterson AFB and he also used to watch “the guard unit in Springfield fly their A-7s over our house.”
He said his imagination was really piqued when he met Neal Loving:
“He was a resident of Yellow Springs who was the first black double amputee racing pilot. When I was in second or third grade he came to Mills Lawn Elementary and spoke. He wrote a book later and when I read it, that’s when I really learned his story.
“He was originally from Detroit, went to Wayne State and eventually retired as an engineer at Wright-Patt. One of the racing planes he built is in the Smithsonian now.”
When he was at Yellow Springs High, Pierce said he took part in a program called Community Experience that matched students with people in a profession they were interested in:
“Doug Hammond had his own grass (air) strip there and he had a hangar with some airplanes in it. Me and a classmate used to go there and we’d clean his planes and just hang out. He took us up a couple of times and I loved it.”
Back then Pierce was mostly known for flying around the track.
Yellow Springs High School was a track powerhouse under the tutelage of John Gudgel, a multi-sport star at the school in the 1970s and then a long time educator and coach there.
The small public school won seven state track titles, two of them of which Pierce was an integral part.
In fact, his time in the 400 meters – 47.36 seconds – still stands as the Ohio Division III record.
Although he initially thought of going to the U.S. Air Force Academy or Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Pierce eventually was courted by OSU and joined Russ Rogers’ acclaimed track program.
And the very first semester he was at OSU, he met the girlfriend who would become his wife. She’s now Dr. Tina Pierce and teaches non-profit policy at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at OSU
The couple has four children and the eldest, Andrew, is a freshman at OSU.
Flying with a purpose
Although Pierce would win a pair of gold medals at the World University Games in Beijing in 2001 and sign a pro contract with Adidas, he soon realized he wanted to pursue a career as a pilot.
“And I knew I didn’t want to just fly, I wanted to be able to fly with a purpose,” he said. “I wanted to do service, too.”
He joined the Air Force Reserves and today, 15 years into that career, he’s still coming to Wright Patt some five days a month.
“And I plan on staying a part of it,” he said. “We’ve got a great unit, very good leadership and good planes.”
With Delta, he said he flies some 15 days a month. Living in Columbus, he usually commutes to Atlanta, where he is based.
“I just got off a trip to Seattle where I did a quick turn, spent the night in L.A. and then the next day flew all night into Columbus,” he said. “The following day I went from Columbus to Minneapolis, then to Fort Myers and back to Atlanta.
“Next week it might be Atlanta to JFK, spend the night there and then go to Portland, come back to Atlanta and then go down to Montego Bay.”
Asked what his dream is now, he thought a moment, then smiled:
“I’d say right now I’m living it. I’ve got a wonderful wife who has stayed with me in this crazy life and we’ve got four good kids. Right now I’m really enjoying it all.”
That was evident Saturday afternoon as he stood there in the middle of Ohio Stadium in a gray t-shirt and sunglasses and, as the cheers washed over him,, he looked up toward the heavens — where just a couple of nights ago he had been flying and looking down — and he beamed.