Carlson: Think National Signing Day has lost its luster? This defensive lineman knows otherwise
NORMAN — Pierce Hassen marveled as he sat in one of the dozen padded folding chairs reserved for the guests of honor in Norman North’s gym.
He never thought he would be there.
Him having a seat on Signing Day?
Not after what happened back in the summer of 2019.
“After my wreck, I thought there was no chance” of playing college football, he said.
One more season of high school ball, much less anything beyond that seemed far fetched after he was involved in a one-car rollover accident that severed three of his fingertips on his left hand.
But Wednesday morning, Hassen signed a national letter of intent to play at Southwestern Oklahoma State.
“Super excited to have the opportunity,” he said with a smile that was obvious even behind his mask.
On a day that has had its shine stolen by the early signing period and the transfer portal, the February Signing Day had no luster lost for Hassen. This was a day to celebrate what is to come. This was a day, too, to relish what has been done.
The summer after his sophomore year, Hassen (rhymes with Dawson) had set his sights on making the varsity roster at Norman North. He made steady progress as a defensive lineman through middle school and freshman year of high school, but he had been bummed to find himself on jayvee as a sophomore. He planned to change that as a junior.
He went to every workout that summer. Early mornings. Hot days. Long hours. Didn’t matter.
One morning in August, Hassen woke early to go to practice like always. He picked up a teammate, and they headed toward Norman North.
On the way, Hassen nodded off. His SUV crossed the centerline. He awoke in time to avoid a head-on collision and what would’ve likely been serious injury, but his evasive maneuver caused the SUV to roll.
Both boys were able to walk away from the wreck.
But Hassen was not unscathed — the tips of the three middle fingers on his left hand had been cut off and several of his knuckles had been scraped down to the bone, leaving almost nothing.
“I was insanely lucky that I had the surgeon that I had on call,” Hassen said.
Robert Vogel started operating on Hassen a little over an hour after the accident. Bone from his severed fingertips were used to reconstruct his knuckles, and wires and rods were needed to hold everything together.
“I didn’t know how bad it was coming out of the surgery,” Hassen said. “Then they kept me in the hospital for three days.”
When he was finally discharged, his parents talked with Vogel.
“All he wants to do is play football,” Tim and Erin Hassen said.
“You just need to be glad he has a hand,” Vogel told them.
The Hassens were grateful, of course, but Pierce still wanted to play. He started seeing Debbie McConnell, a physical therapist at Norman Physical Therapy. She is a hand specialist, and for five months, she worked with Hassen to restore the range of motion and strength in his hand.
“That was a slow process,” he admitted.
But it had to be done if he wanted to play defensive line, a position that requires grabbing and pushing and shoving of offensive lineman.
Hassen eventually got to the point where he could not only do the techniques but also lift weights. He can’t do every lift as heavy as he’d like — he just doesn’t have the grasp or the power in his hand to sometimes hold the bar — but he can do more than enough.
He became a starter this past fall, even though some hits to his reconstructed hand left him wincing in pain and looking for gloves with more padding. He earned honorable-mention All-City honors, and earlier this week, he was named to the coaches’ all-state team.
“It’s been a journey,” his mom said. “It’s all on him — he’s worked hard.”
The journey isn’t over, of course. Hassen has college football ahead of him, something that still leaves the young man with a near-perfect grade-point average and a super high ACT score searching for words. And all the time spent doing physical therapy on his hand led to a part-time job with McConnell and a career goal of getting into a similar line of work.
“I always liked helping people, and I’ve always wanted to do something in sports,” Hassen said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get away from it.”
A bad car wreck sure couldn’t keep him away.
“I always believed in myself, but after the injury, you kind of doubt,” he said. “But today, it’s just crazy. I still can’t believe that I have the opportunity to go play.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.