KUSA – When Keishawn Bierria was 8, his hero and devoted father passed away on Christmas Day after a long, determined battle with cancer.
When Bierria was 18 and a week into college at the University of Washington, he learned his mom, Simonne, was diagnosed with leukemia.
So when you say Bierria is facing long odds to make the Broncos’ 53-man roster as a late, sixth-round drafted rookie, please. What else you got?
“Expectations?’’ Bierria said. “Go out there and ball. Play the best football I ever have.’’
An inside Will linebacker at 6-foot, 230 pounds, Bierria figures to first have a great chance to make the Broncos’ roster as a special teams contributor. Even as a 3 ½-year starter for the Washington Huskies, Bierria played on all four special teams units – punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return – all four years.
“Special teams is what I do,’’ Bierria said.
He also has a good chance to make the Broncos’ roster through the resourcefulness and determination he developed independently while growing up in Carson, Calif. See, dad was everything to Bierria and his three brothers – two older (Marques and Dominique), one younger (Trevon). When he died, mom was battling drug use.
Mom’s parents, James and Michelle Whitmore, gained custody of the Bierria boys and Keishawn grew up at his grandparents’ home. He’s lived and the Whitmores since he was 9.
“Still do when I go home,’’ he said.
Mom has since beat leukemia and drugs, and Keishawn is an admitted mama’s boy. Yet, there were times while growing up that he had to grow up faster than his buddies.
Asked if he would be a different person today if he hadn’t gone through so much parental adversity, Bierria paused a while to consider, then gave a thoughtful response.
“I don’t know if I’d be different,’’ he said. “I think the journey I’ve been through, the trials and tribulations my brothers and I had to go through, has shaped the way we are now. My brothers and I are free thinkers. We all had to grow up fast and they’re all great men. We all learned to take care of ourselves regardless of what people think of us.
“It was the same thing my father was doing before he passed away. A lot of people didn’t agree with the way he was living. But the big thing for him was to take care of his boys and make sure everyone was successful. He loved his wife more than anything. Every day I remember he was trying to help her with her drug addiction and it didn’t matter what anybody said to him, that was his wife. Even now I would remember those days when my father would set aside whatever he was doing to take care of his wife.
“The journey would have been different if I my father was here. Maybe, I wouldn’t have been a football player. Maybe, I would have played a different sport like my older brothers. I think growing up without a father that was difficult to overcome because you don’t have – I don’t want to say structure but that protection, that leadership that you need. We had to find it within ourselves. We had to develop earlier into young men.
“I had to make decisions coming out of high school that was a little heavy for a teenager. That was put on my shoulders. I made a decision that was best for me and my little brother.’’
Bierria said he was offered the Washington Huskies’ final football scholarship in 2013. After leading the nation with five fumble recoveries as a redshirt junior in 2016, he graduated – before playing his redshirt senior season in 2017 – with his major in sociology, American ethnic studies and minor in anthropology.
This is a young man with resolve.
“Everything just made us grow up a little faster, made us understand the world a little more, a little quicker,’’ he said. “That’s where we’re at now.’’
Bierria is now a Bronco after he was watching the NFL Draft last Saturday. Bierria’s best friend is Azeem Victor. They were both starting linebackers and road roommates at Washington. Both are 22. Victor grew up in Compton, the nearby town to Bierria’s Carson. Bierria and Victor both have the same agent, Jack Scharf.
Victor was selected No. 216 to the Raiders; Bierria No. 217 to the Broncos.
Those who follow the draft closely know the networks are often a good 5 minutes behind the actual pick. The delay nearly numbed Bierria’s moment.
“At first it was kind of surreal because when I got the phone call on TV I saw the Raiders pop up,’’ Bierria said. “When the Raiders popped up I saw my teammate and the other guy that Jack represents, Azeem Victor, who is my boy, he got picked up by the Raiders, and then I picked up the phone and it was John Elway.
“I was like, wow. I was confused at first. The Broncos had not been calling before the draft so I was kind of surprised. But that was the only trip I took. Teams were calling me saying I needed to sign (as an undrafted free agent) before the draft was over. I was surprised man. I was surprised.’’
Bierria visited the Broncos on April 4.
“I remember … the energy,’’ Bierria said. “When I talked to the head coach (Vance Joseph) we talked about stepping into a grown man’s world. I remember leaving there thinking, I need to prepare myself to take care of my family.’’
Based on the NFL draft’s financial slot system, Bierria can expect a four-year contract worth $2.58 million that includes a $118,408 signing bonus. An agreement is expected before he reports Thursday to the Broncos’ rookie orientation.
The deal won’t make Bierria rich, but it's a nice start and it will help. His younger brother, Trevon, is a starting safety for San Jose State. His older brother Dominique is a tight end for New Mexico Highlands.
Bierria will do what he can to help his mom and grandparents. And he will carry on his father’s ways.
“During the time he was living, he definitely left an impact on me and my (younger) brother. He laid the foundation for us. After that, we lived our own way based on what he taught us.
“He was our coach in just about everything. My dad played multiple sports. Even at a young age we understood the way things were and the way things were supposed to be. He was always there every step of the way.’’