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Autographed helmet to be auctioned

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Al Pearce holds a football helmet signed by almost all of the living football coaches who have won a Super Bowl on Tuesday at the Rocky Mount Mills. The helmet will be auctioned off for charity.

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BY WILLIAM F. WEST
Staff Writer

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Rocky Mount native has a football helmet with almost all of the autographs of the living Super Bowl-winning coaches —  and the headgear includes the autograph of one since-deceased all-time great pro gridiron coach.

The amassing of autographs has been a long-running project of sports writer Al Pearce, with the helmet set to be sold at the local Kiwanis Club's yearly charity auction late next week.

"I hope that the helmet brings money that will help somebody get a jump in life that they wouldn't ordinarily get," said Pearce, 76, who lives in Newport News, Va.

Pearce grew up in a working-class household in Rocky Mount before going on to Presbyterian College in South Carolina and teaching high school in Florida for approximately a year. He served in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam, and worked from 1969-2004 for what today is the Daily Press newspaper in Newport News.

While he was a newspaper man, he covered NASCAR, pro football's Washington Redskins and pro football's then-Baltimore Colts. He is a senior motor sports correspondent for Auto Week magazine.

He had been a guest at the Rocky Mount Kiwanis Club meeting because of local interest in his life story. Eventually, he donated NASCAR tickets, which were sold at the 2018 Kiwanis fundraiser, and he told the club of his project.

From there, both he and the club agreed the sale of the helmet would help fund college scholarships granted in the club's name.

The helmet is going to be auctioned at the 2019 Kiwanis fundraiser, which is set for 6 p.m. on May 30 at Benvenue Country Club.

Through the years, Pearce has gathered signatures of champion race car drivers for helmets successfully auctioned to help charitable causes.

He decided to do something different to help raise funds by obtaining a white Redskins helmet from the team’s supply room so he could seek the autographs of the Super Bowl-winning coaches. At the time, he had not decided who would benefit from a fundraising sale of the helmet.

He began crisscrossing the country and at times sent the helmet via mail or a third person, making clear to the coaches that all he was seeking was 15 seconds of their time.

Specifically, Pearce said his message to the coaches was, "I don't want an interview. I don't necessarily want pictures, although if you'll stand there for a second, that would be nice."

Pearce recalls the coaches who gave their time in person, with Mike Ditka being one who stood out as quite humorous.

"Iron Mike," as Ditka is called, starred as the tight end for the late Coach George Halas' Chicago Bears in the early-to-mid-1960s and finished his playing career with late Coach Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. Ditka starred on Landry’s 1972 Super Bowl-winning team.

Ditka was a Landry assistant coach before going on to coach the Bears to victory in the 1986 Super Bowl. Ditka has worked as an analyst for ESPN. Ditka and Pearce met early one morning in a hotel lobby in Bristol.

Pearce said he was standing when Ditka entered. Pearce said after Ditka told him to have a seat, Ditka looked at the helmet and said, "Ah, you've got Jimmy Johnson here. Ah, oh say, you've got Joe Gibbs. Ah, you've got my buddy Dick Vermeil."

Johnson coached the Cowboys to victories in the 1993 and 1994 Super Bowls. Gibbs coached the Redskins to victories in the 1983, 1988 and 1992 Super Bowls. Vermeil coached the then-St. Louis Rams to victory in the 2000 Super Bowl.

Pearce said when Ditka learned he has been a longtime sportswriter, Ditka remarked, "Ah, damn sports writers. Can't trust them people."

“We bantered. We chit-chatted back and forth,” he said.

One of Pearce's successes was getting the autograph of Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll prior to his death in 2014. Noll’s Steelers won the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980.

Pearce said by happenstance he learned of Noll's son being a school teacher in Connecticut, met with the son and showed the son the helmet, which had probably eight to 10 autographs at the time.

Pearce said he asked the son, "Would it be possible for me to send this to your dad to have him sign it?" and offered to pay the postage both ways.

"Sure, he’ll be glad to," he said the son replied.

Pearce also told of meeting Tony Dungy, who played for a time for Noll’s Steelers and who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2007. Dungy is a commentator on Sunday Night Football on NBC.

Pearce said Dungy agreed to sign the helmet, provided the time and place be at 7 a.m. on a Sunday in the lobby of the hotel where he was staying in Manhattan. That was because Dungy was going to go running in the heart of the Big Apple.

He recalled Dungy, after signing the helmet, sought clarification for the reason for the autograph request and asked what charity he had in mind. He had possibilities but had not yet made a commitment.

He said Dungy pulled out a copy of a brochure of a camp Dungy is involved with and advised, "Well, just think about this group here."

He said after he and Dungy talked for a few more minutes, he thought about how cool it was for Dungy to not only sign the helmet while on a schedule but talk for a while.

"And then he had the foresight to bring with him something to give me that maybe would influence me to do something for him," he said.

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