Joining forces

When Cayden Pierce took his first visit to Harding in January, and walked upon the $5.2M indoor football facility before walking into the NCAA Division II’s largest practice facility in the country, he heard a familiar tune  

“I can feel it calling in the air tonight…”

Was there a better sign to reveal Pierce’s new home away from home?

“I instantly got chills,” said Pierce, who spent his entire West Monroe football career walking to the stadium while Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” played over Rebel Stadium’s speakers.

It was a swift decision. Pierce committed to Harding on Jan. 22, and though some schools have come knocking with some last-minute offers, Pierce remains firm in his commitment to the Division II football school.

While fullback suits Pierce better than any other position, he’s proved in his West Monroe career that he can return punts, line up at slot and catch passes or even play halfback as a bullish runner. He’s even tossed a touchdown for the Rebels too. But the H-back position is where Pierce thrived in his career at West Monroe.

“It’s all blessings, but Harding isn’t going away from fullbacks,” Pierce said. “Harding told me they wanted me to come and they believed in me.”

The Harding experience was a new one for Pierce, but it was a familiar one for his soon-to-be teammate Will Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh’s father and head coach of the OCS Eagles, Steven Fitzhugh, played at Harding before him. And now, Will Fitzhugh’s brother, Grant Fitzhugh, plays for the Bison. At Grant Fitzhugh’s signing day ceremony, Steven Fitzhugh pointed to a 1930 helmet at the end of the table that was worn by Grant Fitzhugh’s great grandfather, who also played at Harding.

“I’ve always kind of thought I would be at Harding some day because I’ve grown up loving it,” said Grant Fitzhugh at his signing day back in 2017. “It was important to me.”

With Harding being such a special place for the entire Fitzhugh clan, Will Fitzhugh was more familiar than most with the Bison’s recent success in Division II football. Harding has recorded 77 wins in the last eight years and has been in the Top 25 six of those eight seasons. The Bison were the national runner-up twice during that stretch. 

Still, it took Ouachita Christian’s senior all-purpose back/safety until Jan. 31 to make Harding his future destination. And though the family always hoped to see Will Fitzhugh and Grant Fitzhugh play together on the same team again, the decision in the end was left up to Will.

“They wanted me to make my own decision,” said Will Fitzhugh, who the all-time OCS leader in all-purpose yards. “They know that Harding is a place that I can grow as a person and a football player. I think everybody is excited about it, especially since the last time Grant and I played together he was a senior in high school and I was a freshman.”

Will Fitzhugh ended his high school career with the longest pick six in LHSAA State Championship history during the Eagles’ 67-22 victory against Catholic-Pointe Coupee in the Division IV State Championship Game.

So how did Harding nab two of the most versatile players in Ouachita Parish? Well, it all started during the week of the I-20 Bowl, where the NELA All-Stars practiced a week before playing some of Shreveport’s finest.

“We had schools like Arkansas Tech and Henderson come through, and I gave all of these guys a roster and told them about different players that weren’t getting many offers,” Steven Fitzhugh said. “There are a lot of outstanding football players here, but some kids get overlooked sometimes.”

Grant Fitzhugh was at practice one day observing when he saw Pierce for the first time. Grant Fitzhugh turned to his dad and said, “He runs just like our starting fullback that we have up there right now.”

Grant Fitzhugh talked with Pierce at one of the practices and told him he’d pass his name to Harding coaches. The process went quick. Once Harding coaches saw film of Pierce, they knew they wanted him as a future fullback in their Flexbone offense.

“I think it’ll be a great fit for Cayden because having gone and watched Harding’s offense, they live by the fullback,” Steven Fitzhugh said. “They want a kid that’s going to get three to four yards every time. He’s that kind of back.”

Pierce said the coaches told him they liked how physical he was and they made a strong pitch to get him. Though the facilities impressed Pierce and his family, it was the coaching staff that stood out the most.

“I just talked with them and immediately established a great relationship with them,” Pierce said. “The biggest influence was always going to be where I felt at home the most, and that was Harding.”

Will Fitzhugh is certainly glad Pierce will be making the trip with him. After meeting Pierce and witnessing in person what he can do at fullback, the prospect of playing with Pierce excited OCS’ latest stat-stuffer. But whether Will Fitzhugh will line up beside him on offense or not remains a mystery.

“We haven’t figured that out yet,” Will Fitzhugh said. “They want me to be on the field somewhere, maybe slot-back or safety.”

Should it be offense, Harding’s opponents will get a healthy dose of NELA football for years to come.

“It would be crazy if I played slot-back and Cayden was playing fullback,” Will Fitzhugh said. 

Award-winning sports writer for columns and features since joining the field in 2013. As the first-ever featured columnist of the month at Bleacher Report, Martin cut his teeth with online media before joining the newspaper business in 2014.

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