Von Pearson knows the struggle. Still sees his mom, Jessie Lewis, toiling two jobs just to raise Pearson and his older brother.
Knows about working to help his family --- and also knows, courtesy two painstaking years between high school at Denbigh High and remote Feather River College in tiny Quincy, Calif., about life without football.
So Von Pearson embraces Tennessee and college football because he is distancing himself from the struggles of his past. Because his mom, and his family, are his motivation. He, too, is a veteran of cleaning offices. Of working at a theme park, doing sundry tasks. Pearson freely recounts filling his time away from football with jobs on the fast food circuit, too, hitting up the Golden Arches and a fried chicken joint.
"Basically, my mom was just taking care of me and my older brother with no father figure around. Her working two jobs; my brother watching me when she was at work. And my aunt babysitting me when my brother was at work. So it was hard back then," Pearson recalls. "She was a custodian and she worked at a grill place. They're not the best jobs in the world, but you know how the struggle is.
"I worked at Busch Gardens, and I worked with her in the summers, too, doing custodian work. I worked at Busch Gardens, I worked at McDonald's, Bojangles. I worked at a few places."
Pearson did it all, never knowing it might bring him to the University of Tennessee on the heels of a Junior College All-America season courtesy his nation's-best 93 receptions, 1,601 yards and dozen touchdowns. Now he feels compelled to share his story; obligated to educate the others who haven't seen the hardscrabble sidewalks of Newport News, Va., where the murder rate is more than twice the national average and 82 percent of American cities are deemed safer, per online data.
Pearson wants to share it all.
"The thing about that is, I try to show them that you've got to have energy. Some people like me, I came from a place … I never knew I was going to come to Tennessee where I came from," says the 6-foot-3, 183-pound Vols' wideout. "I'm like 'You've got a full ride, you're a freshman. I'm 23 years old coming to Tennessee.' So I'm just like you've got the opportunity. You didn't have any turnarounds or second chances like I did. Embrace it. Give it energy, all you got."
Butch Jones has seen it, too. The 'Pearson Effect' on his team. The infectious attitude, the one Pearson hardly limits to his peers.
"He fits the description of 'The Energy Bus,'" gushes Jones, referencing the book that was required reading for his Tennessee team this summer. "He's consistent each and every day, and he's grateful for the opportunity to be at the University of Tennessee. He's grateful to be able to play the game of football. For me, that's very, very rewarding. To see where that young man has come from. The gratitude he has each and everyday.
"He walks by me everyday and taps me, he says 'Thank you Coach, thank you for the opportunity.' The kids feed off of that. He's always positive. We talk about, not only leadership, but also being a good teammate, and he's a good teammate as well."
Pearson is refreshingly candid in a hand-sanitizer world of canned quotes. He sees the ESPN 'SportsCenter Top 10 Plays' segment featuring his astounding, how-did-he-do-that one-handed grab from the Vols' spring drills and gleefully admits he can barely watch it enough.
"I mean, nothing had ever happened like that to me," says Pearson, a growing crowd of nearly 30 reporters around him for his first media session as a Vol. "That was my first time. I enjoyed it myself. I'd probably say [he watched the play] about 50 (times). I watched it. It was pretty awesome."
Pearson also, matter-of-factly and bereft of hubris, sees essentially boundless potential for this Tennessee wide receivers corps.
"That's what I like about it; we've got all different types of receivers, from the big to the small to the quick. … Everybody puts something to the table," he says. "... I think we're going to be pretty dangerous. I'm surprised we're not ranked at the top right now."
Jones does not care about any of that. The Vols' second-year coach does, however, care about Pearson's ongoing ability to impact his team --- on the field, in the locker room and in life.
"Absolutely, he's a breath of fresh air. He is the 'Energy Bus.' He brings it every day. He is grateful and thankful for the opportunity to be at the University of Tennessee," Jones says. "And he loves football and he needs football in his life. For me, that's great to see.
"You look at here's a young man who could have gone anywhere in the country, No. 2 junior college player in America, and he's as grounded and humble an individual as I've been around."
Because Pearson sees where he already has been --- and still where he wants to go.