Bruce Arians had been the head coach of the Buccaneers for only a few months when he learned that his team’s best pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul, had crashed a Ferrari on a slick Florida road and fractured his neck. “I was hoping he was going to be able to walk,” Arians said during a Zoom conversation with reporters earlier this week. “Football was the furthest thing from my mind.” Pierre-Paul’s mind, however, worked differently. When coach and player connected not long after that 2019 accident, Pierre-Paul was already focused on football. “He told me, ‘I’ll be back,’” Arians said.
Pierre-Paul kept his word. Sidelined for the first six games of the 2019 season, he returned to action late that October, in a Week 8 matchup against the Titans. As he made his way toward Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Pierre-Paul—who’d led the Bucs with 12.5 sacks in 2018 after being traded to Tampa from the Giants—looked almost as if he were swimming, a fish back in water, his long and pliable body propelled weightlessly through and over a sea of shoulder pads. “Lo and behold,” Arians said, “his first play back he gets a sack.”
In 10 appearances during that injury-shortened 2019 season, Pierre-Paul finished with 8.5 sacks, his second-best showing on a per-game basis over his 11 years in the NFL. It was a remarkable comeback for a player whose career had seemed in acute physical jeopardy—and it wasn’t even the first time you could say that about Pierre-Paul.
In 2015, when he was a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLVI champion with the Giants, Pierre-Paul was in his hometown of Deerfield Beach, Florida, over the Fourth of July when he accidentally set off a firecracker in his dominant hand, losing his entire right index finger and portions of his middle finger and thumb. He had one surgery after the next, spent months rehabbing, and somehow returned—initially with a bandage so bulky that it resembled a club—to the business of taking down opposing quarterbacks.
These days, business has been booming. Pierre-Paul forced more fumbles (four) in 2020 than in any year prior and recorded 9.5 sacks for a Bucs team that went 11-5 this season before advancing through the NFC playoffs to the Super Bowl. For the first time since 2012 he earned a Pro Bowl nod, his third, though when he chatted with the media this week he expressed annoyance it wasn’t more like his sixth. He is a vocal leader on an opportunistic Bucs defense that has buoyed the team’s fortunes. “If you come in this building,” said Larry Foote, a former Super Bowl champion with the Steelers who is now a linebackers coach in Tampa, “you know he’s the light of this building.”
Pierre-Paul shines on the road, too: In the NFC championship game in Green Bay two weeks ago, he was mic’d-up as he skipped around, sang, smiled, and sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice. He celebrated just as loudly when his Buccaneers teammate Shaquil Barrett—with whom Pierre-Paul maintains a friendly defensive stats competition—added three sacks of his own in Tampa Bay’s 31-26 win.
With a frame so limber that Foote calls him “Gumby,” and a career so resilient that it seems sprung from the mind of Chumbawamba, Pierre-Paul is an integral part of a Bucs team that is one game away from winning it all for the first time since January 2003. And he is a fitting representative for a roster that has chosen to make new beginnings an essential part of its identity.
“He’s just a freak,” Foote said of Pierre-Paul. “The way he moves, the way he bends.” Arians, too, calls the pass rusher a “medical genetic freak” for his ability to overcome what appeared on first, second, and third glance to be debilitating and potentially even insurmountable setbacks. It’s a descriptor that has been attached to Pierre-Paul since his earliest days in the sport.
When the pass rusher was drafted by the Giants with the 15th pick in the 2010 draft, then-general manager Jerry Reese explained that he’d taken a chance on a raw player with only one year of top-level college football under his belt because he believed him to have the highest upside in the class. “He has some freakish athletic skills,” Reese said, “that we are excited about trying to hone.”
These rare attributes had long earned Pierre-Paul attention. At Deerfield Beach High School, he originally cared most about a different sport, basketball—“my first love, to this day,” he said when asked about it earlier this week on Zoom—but soon became sought after by school football coach Manny Martin in part because of a handshake. “When they shook hands,” a recent South Florida Sun-Sentinel article said about Pierre-Paul’s high school days, “the kid’s fingers went to Martin’s wrists.”
Pierre-Paul began playing football his junior year. He graduated from high school and bounced from one community college to a second, Fort Scott in Kansas, where he lined up in front of his current Bucs teammate Lavonte David. He also worked magic from behind him: “JPP used to do my haircuts in school, in junior college,” David said in a video press conference this week. “JPP is a jack of all trades.” Pierre-Paul then went on to spend a season at the University of South Florida, but game film on him remained limited. At the time of the 2010 draft, the most widely distributed footage of Pierre-Paul was only tangential to the sport: a clip of him winning a bet by executing 13 connected back handsprings in a row on a football practice field.
Pierre-Paul joined a Giants team that had in its previous couple of seasons gone from toppling the 18-0 Tom Brady–led Patriots in the Super Bowl to dealing with a brutal accident that took place in November 2008, when star wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg at a New York City nightclub. By 2011, Pierre-Paul’s second year in the league, he had recorded 16.5 sacks and two forced fumbles and caused a safety. He also was a key part of a team that won a Super Bowl. For opposing quarterbacks, lining up against Pierre-Paul felt a little bit like auditioning for a role in the relentless psychological-horror film It Follows.
Pierre-Paul became the newest link in a glimmering chain of top Giants pass rushers over the years, one that stretched from Lawrence Taylor to Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora to Justin Tuck. According to Clyde Christensen, the Bucs quarterbacks coach who once lived in the same suite with Taylor at the University of North Carolina in the late ’70s, Pierre-Paul has many of the same traits as the Hall of Famer. “He just has a recklessness and a passion for this thing that’s kind of contagious. He loves football. He loves playing. He loves hitting quarterbacks. He gets a kick out of it.”
This Monday, as Pierre-Paul spoke to reporters over Zoom, someone asked what he remembered from his first game back for the Giants after his fireworks incident in 2015—a game that, incidentally, took place in Tampa, where he now plays and where Super Bowl LV will be held. Pierre-Paul said that he didn’t remember much, but soon details began to come. “I know that I gave Donovan a problem,” he said, referring to Bucs offensive lineman Donovan Smith, with whom he is now teammates. He also recalled that after that game, he put a plaque up on the wall of his home office that said “Beat the Odds.”
A few moments later, the moderator on the virtual press call stated the name of the next reporter with something to ask: Osi Umenyiora. Pierre-Paul’s smile suddenly took up half my screen, and the two former teammates began talking exuberantly over each other, making inside jokes about sleeping on buses. “I didn’t even have no questions,” Umenyiora said. “I just wanted to say: You know what to do. You know what to do!”
On Sunday, Pierre-Paul will do what he’s always done: charge ever forward, in this case toward defending Super Bowl–winning quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The 25-year-old Chiefs gunslinger could be more vulnerable than usual, as Kansas City will be without both of its starting offensive tackles—Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher—and will have to hope that Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie can pick up the slack. The composition of this year’s Buccaneers team, meanwhile, looks kind of like the makeup of coastal Florida itself: a whole lot of previously successful and disparate people who have chosen to spend the golden years of their football lives chasing fun, sun, and opportunity with the like-minded souls around them.
The mayor of the proverbial Del Boca Vista is, of course, Brady, that king snowbird whose relocation from New England to Tampa at age 43 led to a whole lot of eyeballs and “TOMPA BAY” needling from people who are now tugging their collars, hard. (Not that I’d know.) The Buccaneers also feature Brady’s longtime Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski and former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette. Beyond Pierre-Paul, the defense includes a seeking-redemption Ndamukong Suh. But JPP is the engine. “Everyone loves seeing JPP out there making plays, because when he’s making plays, the whole defense is making plays,” Brady told reporters this week. “JPP is absolutely like a ringleader in that group.”
Former Jets head coach Todd Bowles is now Pierre-Paul’s defensive coordinator. Midway through the season, Bowles raved about JPP, calling him “a freakish athlete.” Arians, whose background is on offense, told reporters this week that he largely leaves the defensive decisions to Bowles, but that he occasionally offers guidance when it comes to deploying Pierre-Paul: “The only time, and I have to do it very, very seldom,” he told reporters about nudging Bowles, “is tell him to go Cover Zero and blitz more.”
Long known for his aggressive, “no risk it, no biscuit” mentality, Arians told reporters that one of his favorite go-hard-or-go-home texts is the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. “I do apply it to everyday life,” Arians said. “You’re not guaranteed the next day. I hit a lot of balls in the water going for it in two.” (That last part was about his golf game, but it can apply to his play-calling.) Pierre-Paul may not have quoted poetry in this week’s media availability, but he touched on the same outlook. “Tomorrow is not promised, man,” he said when asked what he tells younger players on his team. “The Super Bowl is not promised next year for you guys. It took me nine years to get back to this point.”
That he had both the physical and mental capacity to do so is the kind of thing that is hard to fully appreciate in the moment. Over the past five and a half years, Pierre-Paul has lost fingers and broken his neck, and yet he is currently playing some of the best football of his life. For the Bucs to beat the Chiefs, that will need to continue. Getting to Mahomes represents Tampa Bay’s best hope.
Pierre-Paul wouldn’t have it any other way. Ever since promising Arians that he’d be back, he has yet to stop surging forward, football the only thing on his mind.