Can this be true?
“My first Super Bowl, I didn’t know anything about it,’’ Jason Pierre-Paul said earlier this week. “I didn’t understand football like that. I was just there, playing football, and I really didn’t know too much.’’
Yes, this can be true. As a matter of fact, this is true.
Those who were there at the very start, in the nascent days of NFL football for the athletic specimen they immediately began calling JPP, can corroborate this, and elaborate on this. Expansively. Nostalgically. Gleefully.
Pierre-Paul, now 32, is finishing off his 11th season in style. He is the best pass-rusher for the Buccaneers as they take on Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Sunday in Super Bowl 2021. Perhaps he will harass Mahomes the way he abused Tom Brady, now Pierre-Paul’s teammate with Tampa Bay, in Super Bowl 46 nine years ago.
The guy has been through so much. He was the best defensive player on a Giants team that won a Super Bowl in his second year. He endured a terrible fireworks accident that permanently damaged his right hand. As the Giants roster around him deteriorated, he struggled amid the losing. He was traded to the Buccaneers, fractured his neck in a car accident and went through yet another rehab. Now he is back in another Super Bowl, older, wiser but still very much JPP, which is to say fun-loving, proud but not self-serious, tapping his foot to his own unique beat.
And those who were there when this ride took off are thrilled for him.
“The guy has had a tremendous career, even considering all of his injuries and all the things he’s had to go through from a personal and physical standpoint,’’ Justin Tuck told The Post. “For him to come back and have the season he’s had this year and to in a lot of ways lead that defensive front, it’s inspiring to see. I’m happy now I get the opportunity to truly be a fan of JPP and not his quote-unquote, captain of the team and trying to put him in the right direction. I’m seeing him really starting to fill-out from a leadership standpoint as well. You can just tell, he’s matured, he’s found a home in Tampa. I couldn’t be happier for him.’’
When Pierre-Paul joined the Giants in 2010 as a first-round draft pick, he walked into a locker room filled with superior talent on defense. Tuck and Osi Umenyiora were established stars. Mathias Kiwanuka was a former first-round pick. It was a room teeming with pass-rush prowess. Pierre-Paul, out of South Florida, was as raw as they come. His teammates did not know exactly what to make of him, but they knew they got a kick out of him.
“Just an athletic freak,’’ Umenyiora said. “I had never seen anything like that before, in terms of just the way he was. The things he could do, the way he moved, the way his body bends, it was awesome to see. The first year you could see him coming on but that second year, boy, what a season. It was fantastic. He was young, he did things all young players do, in terms of their attitude. He was a really fun guy to be around. We love Jason.’’
Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks as a rookie and 16.5 in a breakout 2011 season. Umenyiora’s get-off at the line of scrimmage was unmatched — he was like a panther darting in on the quarterback. Tuck, a powerful master technician, could beat you outside or inside. Kiwanuka had great length and quickness. All of them knew this JPP character was different.
“Regardless of if he’s 30-plus years old now, I still look at JPP as my little protege,’’ Tuck said. “Because I still remember him coming in and having absolutely no idea what it was to play football. He was just the rawest talent I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t tell you who Joe Montana was, who Reggie White [was], he didn’t know anything about football. Nothing.
“But what he did have was an extreme ability that none of us had, right? JPP was and probably is one of the most athletic people I’ve ever been around, especially for his size. I know I was pretty athletic, but no, I was not JPP athletic. How he could bend his body, how he could control his movements in double-teams, in being off-balance, the length he had, the speed he had, just the rawness of his athletic ability. He just had pure talent, it was off-the-charts pure talent. I’ve never seen anybody 280 pounds after practice in full pads take off and do 13 straight backflips. That’s just different. I told him, we all told him, once he put it together, the guy was gonna be phenomenal.’’
Umenyiora says it is “100 percent, not even close’’ that Pierre-Paul was the greatest athlete among the Giants pass rushers.
“And I don’t mean that in a sense that he could run faster, because I was faster than him,’’ Umenyiora said. “Probably Kiwanuka could jump higher than him. But just overall athleticism, he was probably the best athlete on the team.’’
Tuck and Umenyiora learned at the heels of Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, who won Super Bowl 42 after the 2007 season and then retired. Strahan set the standard, but in some ways he was no JPP.
“He was definitely a better athlete than Strahan, that’s not even comparable,’’ Umenyiora said, laughing.
The pass rushers remain close, sharing a group text chain all these years later, reaching out to Pierre-Paul to congratulate him every step of the way. Umenyiora joined a Zoom media interview session with JPP this past week and the two friends could not stop singing and howling. Umenyiora, a football analyst for the BBC, never even asked a question.
“He’s still JPP, there’s no question about that,’’ Tuck said. “I think he wants his legacy to be known as that comeback kid, when everyone wrote him off. I’m super-proud of the dude, I really am.’’