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TAMPA, Fla. – Three years ago, he was Don X.
That was the pseudonym Jason Pierre-Paul used in the hospital after a gruesome fireworks injury mangled his hand and nearly ended his NFL career. The name reflects secrecy that enveloped the injury for the better part of a year. The nightmare was self-inflicted, happening at a Fourth of July party here in his home state that was a tradition among his family and friends. He was rushed to a South Florida hospital after mishandling the explosives, then staring in shock at a right hand with its skin blasted off, revealing ligaments and bones. He underwent several surgeries as the football world worried and waited. New York Giants brass came to visit and didn’t see him, which Sports Illustrated would report was because he was so knocked out from the pain. He lost 30 pounds. When he finally got back to the field, he had one sack in 2015 after 12.5 the year before.
Finally, now, Pierre-Paul is in a different place, in almost every aspect. He is here, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with a new role and possibly a modified position. And he is sharing photos and words of advice about his mistake.
“It happened to me,” he says. “I’m trying to prevent it happening to other people.”
He seems fatalistic about his ability to prevent further catastrophes. “It doesn’t work,” he says. “There’s still people playing with fireworks and losing their hands. I got a couple of DMs.”
He wouldn’t reveal the nature of those messages, but it wasn’t hard to read his expression. They weren’t reassuring.
“If I put a picture out there, you see what happened,” he says. “I’m just blessed to be playing the game of football.”
He may not be able to talk sense into people carelessly using fireworks, but his role as the wise leader has never been clearer. The Bucs made some deft moves on draft day, trading down and then grabbing defensive tackle Vita Vea (carted off Sunday with a calf injury, according to the Tampa Bay Times) to help Gerald McCoy, who has played in six Pro Bowls and zero playoff games. They also added Super Bowl champs Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, along with former Denver Broncos starter Mitch Unrein. But the piece de resistance is “JPP,” who helped the Giants level Tom Brady in 2011 yet hasn’t even turned 30 yet. His reputation is as an ears-pinned-back end rusher, but that may be another case of mistaken identity for Don X.
“We probably feared him more in the running game than in the pass game,” says head coach Dirk Koetter. “A lot of those speed rushers can’t play the run. He’s 280 pounds.”
Pierre-Paul (who went to college locally, at USF) has been the most impressive player in the first week of Bucs camp – a needed injection of optimism with all the angst about Jameis Winston’s suspension. His highlights so far have been on the interior, standing up rushers and shoving the occasional blocker backward.
“I can play the whole line, all across the board,” he says. “That’s what makes me special.”
There won’t be a lot of choice, really. The NFC South is suddenly a rusher’s division. The New Orleans Saints have Alvin Kamara, the Carolina Panthers have Christian McCaffrey (and Superman, of course), and the Atlanta Falcons have Devonta Freeman. All three division rivals have recently been to the Super Bowl and all three have quarterbacks in their prime. (Drew Brees’ prime seems to be endless.) The Bucs basically have no chance against these teams without some pushback in the trenches.
“I want everybody to know I’m still capable of playing the run,” Pierre-Paul says. “If you can’t stop the run, there’s no pass rush.”
There was no pass rush for the Bucs last year. How bad was it? NFL sack leader Chandler Jones finished with 17. The Bucs finished with 22, dead last in the league by three. (If the Bucs had doubled their sack total, they still wouldn’t have been ranked in the top four teams.)
Things weren’t much better for the Giants, even with JPP’s 8.5 sacks last year. They had 27 for the season. So they needed an overhaul as well. Were they smart to offload Pierre-Paul’s large salary hit or did they give up on a recovering franchise player too soon?
If nothing else, Pierre-Paul can mentor Vea and Noah Spence. Heck, he can even share tips with McCoy, who watches videos of Super Bowl teams during the offseason to get inspired for the playoff run he has always worked toward. McCoy arrived here a year before JPP won the Super Bowl with New York, but he’s already on his eighth defensive line coach.
The bullish case for the Bucs is that Ryan Fitzpatrick is only a slight step down from Winston. If so, the rest of the team should be as good or better than the squad many thought would contend for the playoffs last season. This year, there is more experience and depth on defense, and there will be an actual bye; remember in 2017 the hurricane pushed the team’s week off to Week 1.
Don X wants everyone to know his accident was not the beginning of the end. “At the end of the day I proved I came back,” he says.
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