The world of Zoom press conferences leaves little time for follow-up questions or long, detailed answers, especially when they’re held in the heady aftermath of an exhilarating win such as the one the Buccaneers earned Sunday over the Packers.
So it’s completely understandable for Jason Pierre-Paul to reflect on a personal journey that brings him back to the Super Bowl nine years after winning his first and distill his many thoughts to this:
“Maybe I just got to write a book.”
Maybe he should.
What a story it would be, filled with equal doses of drama and action, of conflict and peril, of joy and sadness, and ultimately, one of triumph and glory. Not the kind that come with tackles and sacks or trophies and checks, though those surely are appreciated. But the kind that comes with gratitude for being alive, with appreciation for playing the game, with acceptance and love for every hurdle or every hardship overcome along the way.
From a career-threatening fireworks accident in 2015 that cost him part of his right hand to a life-threatening automobile accident in 2019 that fractured a vertebrae in his neck, the man they call JPP has emerged from it all, back and stronger than ever, back and better than ever.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Mathias Kiwanuka, the Boston College alum who won a Super Bowl alongside Pierre-Paul with the 2011 Giants and remains close friends with him. “There’s been a couple of headlines, everyone knows the big one with his hand, and I remember specifically being in the meeting when we found out, and it was Barry Cofield who said, ‘If anyone can blow their hand off and continue to be successful, it’s JPP.’
“He is matter-of-fact, takes things one by one. You’ll never catch him outside of himself. He’s one of the most even-keeled people you’ll meet.
“His journey has been tremendous.”
And almost impossible to boil down to a few postgame sentences.
“If I talk about the journey, it’s going to take forever,” Pierre-Paul, 32, said Sunday after the Bucs won the NFC Championship game. “But just a quick brief, man: winning a Super Bowl at the Giants, then the trade from the Giants [before the 2018 season], I was probably at the peak of my career.
“You know, it was hard, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do. And I think [Bucs GM] Jason [Licht] did a great job believing in me and bringing me here to Tampa. And I keep saying, ‘Look where we’re at right now. Look where we’re at.’
“Look where I’m at.”
Of course, the headliner to this improbable Tampa Bay Super Bowl story is the quarterback who escaped New England, and Tom Brady deserves all the attention and accolades heading his way. But until the ball is kicked off in Tampa, Pierre-Paul’s story should be just as widely heard. The 43-year-old Brady may have 11 years on his younger teammate, but JPP is just as much a leader on the defensive side of the ball as Brady is on offense.
With 11 seasons of experience, the Bucs’ lone Pro Bowler this season and a former first-team All-Pro defensive end was an offseason priority for Licht. Of course there were the additions of Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but Licht also re-signed JPP, re-signed Ndamukong Suh, and put the franchise tag on linebacker Shaquil Barrett. That trio harassed Aaron Rodgers into submission last weekend, and hopes to do the same to Patrick Mahomes. Pierre-Paul had two of the team’s five sacks.
“I don’t know Brady personally, but I played against him, I know guys who played with him, I know how intense he is,” Kiwanuka said. “JPP is the yin to that yang. The offense-defense combination is special.”
Kiwanuka, who also lives in Florida, could hear in his friend’s voice early on that Tampa was building something special. And he understands as well as anyone what makes Pierre-Paul tick. Being raised by devoted parents who never let Jason’s dad’s blindness be a barrier to success made him into a man who is similarly devoted to his own family. Pierre-Paul is over the moon that his young football-loving son Josiah is along for this ride.
His toddler daughter may have to be told stories about the season, but she’ll have no shortage of volunteers. Pierre-Paul is the hub of a large wheel of love. Just listen to how Kiwanuka watched last Sunday’s game, with phone in hand for the messages that kept pinging away.
“I’m in a group chat — [Michael] Strahan, [Justin] Tuck, [Fred] Robbins, all these guys — and we’re sitting there watching, live-texting the game, saying, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing this and I can’t believe he’s doing that,’ ” Kiwanuka said.
“It’s not because of what he did for us in the past, but the kind of guy he is. It’s a credit to him and the heart that he’s got. I don’t talk like this about everybody. He’s special.
“He picks up his phone, he talks to everybody, gives you his time. He’s always welcoming. His house is where people go to feel accepted.”
Maybe others would have accepted a different fate than Pierre-Paul did in 2015, when one last attempt to delight his neighborhood kids with the fireworks went so tragically wrong. There was a time it felt all too real that Pierre-Paul might be finished playing football. But he never seemed to get angry, never seemed to lose faith. Always looking forward, always getting better.
Maybe he should write that book.