Sikkema’s Story of the Week
Remember back a few years ago when certain sporting events and even leagues allowed players to put their nicknames on the back of their jerseys? The NBA did this not too long ago. LeBron James, who was on the Miami Heat at the time, had “King James” on the back of his jersey for a game. Ray Allen had “Jesus Shuttlesworth.” It was pretty great. More famously, perhaps, you could go back to the XFL days where Rod Smart made the title “He Hate Me” a household name for wearing it on the back of his Las Vegas Outlaws jersey.
When players are asked to say what nickname they go by, the answers can vary in origin. Sometimes it’s an old high school name they had when they were younger. Other times it’s because of a single accomplishment or an inside joke. Maybe it’s because of an attitude or persona they have. But, some can be more serious. Some can carry a lot of weight; truly be another name; another identity.
For newly acquired Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, if he was asked to put a nickname on the back of his jersey for one game, I don’t think it would be “Hyphen”, “The Prince” or even “J.P.P.”
If there’s a nickname that encapsulates who Pierre-Paul is as a player and a person today, that nickname would be “Don X.”
Pierre-Paul’s story began when his parents, Jean and Marie, came to the United States as immigrants from Haiti in 1983. Six years later, Jason was born in Deerfield Beach, Florida. His parents and sisters, Nadie and Herbie, talked of him in his younger days being like a ball of energy, but almost too big of a ball of energy. In interviews, they’ve said he was almost too much to handle, at times — and that’s where sports came in.
If you look at Pierre-Paul today, you’ll see that he is quite athletically gifted. As he went through high school, Pierre-Paul shot up in height above most of his other classmates, eventually reaching 6-foot-5. As his size became his best attribute among others, Pierre-Paul initially started his athletic career on the hardwood playing basketball. Pierre-Paul lettered for varsity in all four years of high school, but injuries during those four years hindered how much attention he grabbed – Pierre-Paul broke his leg three times in high school, once from an attempt at an acrobatic dunk. As Pierre-Paul grew in size and in power throughout his high school career, Deerfield Beach football coach, Greg Minnis, couldn’t help but take notice; he wanted Pierre-Paul to play on his defense.
Pierre-Paul was not a fan of the game of football initially. He said he really didn’t understand it, and he nor his parents were really that big on the idea of the punishment one took playing football. But, after a relentless effort from Coach Minnis to get him to join the team, Pierre-Paul finally did his junior year. A year later, he was the star of the team.
Minnis wasn’t the only football coach who took notice of Pierre-Paul. At the time, the head coach of the University of South Florida was Jim Leavitt. During his first visit to Deerfield Beach High School, though enamored by the budding defensive end, they told him not to bother with Pierre-Paul; that he was a basketball player. But, two years later, when Leavitt visited again, Pierre-Paul was in his senior year of football and Leavitt told Pierre-Paul that he would come get him and vouch for a scholarship for him.
Unfortunately for Leavitt and Pierre-Paul, Jason’s academic were not what they needed to be, and he was not permitted to accept a scholarship from a Division I school. Instead, Pierre-Paul crossed the country to play for College of the Canyons, a two-year institution in Santa Clarita near Los Angeles.
In his first year at CC, Pierre-Paul recorded 14 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. After his team finished 9-2 that season with Pierre-Paul as the star, he was again forced into an unfortunate situation due to his grades.
There were a few factors that likely went into Pierre-Paul’s poor grades. Certainly a sense of being too good for the school could have existed, and I don’t mean that in too much of a demeaning way. Think about it. For as long as Pierre-Paul was born, he was the best. He was the biggest, he was the strongest, he was the fastest — he was better. It’s natural to think of yourself as too good for lesser tasks. In many cases for athletes, that means school.
Pierre-Paul was also paying his own way through college. His father, Jean, went blind from glaucoma after they emigrated from Haiti, and could not support his family. His mother, Marie, had to go to work just after Jason was born. She learned to drive, became a housekeeper. Pierre-Paul likely knew his talents were better than the school he was at; he likely knew they were good enough to get paid to do it. Perhaps he was only thinking of that next step, which seems selfish, but knowing the background, could have been unselfish in its components.
Pierre-Paul decided to transfer to Fort Scott Community College in Kansas for his sophomore season where he played alongside future Bucs teammate Lavonte David, who was a star linebacker on his way to Nebraska. There he continued playing against top JUCO competition, but with a lower academic bar — and a scholarship in his corner. After the 2008 season, in which Pierre-Paul recorded 10.5 sacks, schools like Kansas State, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Florida, Florida State, Miami and South Florida came calling with scholarship offers. Having a desire to go back close to home, and remembering the faith Leavitt had in him back in high school, Pierre-Paul chose USF.
Pierre-Paul made the move to USF because he knew that, though he was athletically gifted, he was going to have to prove it at the Division I level. In his only year with the Bulls, Pierre-Paul recorded 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks as part of the best defensive end duo in the Big East next to All-American George Selvie. Pierre-Paul even had an interception for a touchdown that year. With three years of exciting tape under his belt and multiple hoops he had to jump through academically just to get himself eligible to play every season, Pierre-Paul decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft.
Pierre-Paul was selected No. 15 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft by the New York Giants. In a surprise to no one who knew of his athletic achievements before the NFL, Pierre-Paul made his first impression on special teams with his incredible size-to-speed combination. After multiple injuries along the defensive line, Pierre-Paul got some playing time and recorded 4.5 sack his rookie year.
The following season became one to remember. Pierre-Paul’s understanding of the game and of the defensive end position took not a jump, but a leap in 2011. With Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck on-and-off the field due to injuries for much of the year, Pierre-Paul’s development became a cornerstone part of the Giant’s run in the playoffs. In 2011, Pierre-Paul recorded 16.5 sacks which helped the Giants not only reach but win the Super Bowl against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
In just six years, Jason Pierre-Paul went from being hesitant about the game of football to one of the best players in the world at his position. That was just par for the course of Pierre-Paul’s athletic life. He was always the best. Not that it didn’t take hard work or commitment. Surely it did. But, whether he was picking something up for the first time or whether he had worked at it for years, Pierre-Paul was just plain better.
He was the best.
He was untouchable.
Or so he thought.
“I remember a big flash, and I heard boom!” said Farraw Germain, the mother of Pierre-Paul’s then eight-month-old son, Josiah. “There was a lot of smoke.”
“As soon as I saw the green light, I jumped,” Pierre-Paul said. “I knew something dangerous was about to happen.”
Pierre-Paul was a man of the people; his people. He loved the Fourth of July. He said every year he would travel back home to Deerfield Beach and light off fireworks with his family. As his success and his financial gains grew, the firework spectacle would get bigger and bigger. In 2015, Pierre-Paul rented a U-Haul van with over, $1,100 dollars of fireworks for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. As the night went on and the van was nearly empty, Pierre-Paul recalls telling his friends he was about done for the evening. But, with just a few fireworks left, he decided he would finish them all and went back over to the van to get the last of them. As he got out one of the last fireworks and tried to light it, the next thing that happened are the quotes above – a horrific disaster.
Pierre-Paul said he got up and could barely see or hear anything. As the white blinding color began to fade, he heard his fiancée screaming. Numb and in shock, Pierre-Paul couldn’t feel anything, that’s when he looked down at his hand and saw what he claims as a scene you only see in movies. The firework had blown of most of the flesh of Pierre-Paul’s right hand. He was quickly rushed to the hospital, and as the shock began to wear off, the pain began to set in.
“You see all your ligaments, your tendons, everything,” Pierre-Paul said. “I saw how the hand really is without skin on it.”
Over the next few weeks, Pierre-Paul would undergo multiple surgeries to try to save not only his right hand, but his NFL career. One doctor told his fiancée, Germain, in those first hectic hours of his time at the hospital that Pierre-Paul’s NFL career was almost certainly done. His thumb was broken and mangled, his index finger was more than likely to be amputated, and his middle finger was deformed. No one knew what was going to happen next, including the New York Giants, who were about to find out the incident had occurred.
New York placed its franchise tag on Pierre-Paul just four months prior, but also had a long term offer of $60 million on the table before the accident. With a lot of money on the line in an uncertain situation, the Giants found it hard to even gain access to their prized pass rusher now laying in a hospital bed. Due to the multiple surgeries he had to undergo, Pierre-Paul was hardly in any state to negotiate or think about things rationally. Eventually, Germain spoke on his behalf, but not much was done from a contractual standpoint.
Following those weeks, reports started to come out about Pierre-Paul that he wouldn’t let the Giants reps see or talk to him or that he wasn’t being truthful with what really happened or the severity of it. This caused a media frenzy. ESPN’s Adam Schefter even tweeted out a media exam picture that showed Pierre-Paul’s index finger no longer there — a picture Pierre-Paul later sued them over for releasing classified, personal medical documents.
With every media outlet chomping at the bit to break the next event of this story, reports started flying with little to no evidence or truth to back them up. Pierre-Paul even recalled watching reports on TV that he had been released from the hospital as he laid in his hospital bed. The reason for this was because it was true. Pierre-Paul was technically released from the hospital two and a half weeks after his incident. But, to avoid the frenzy, to gather himself, his health, his situation, his career, Pierre-Paul remained in the hospital for a little while longer under a different name: Don X.
It was under the identity of Don X that Pierre-Paul had a change of who he was, how he saw himself and how he saw his life. All of the natural gifts – the being better than anyone else; all the success, the fame, the athletic ability that seemed god-like, at times, it all flashed before his eyes as the white light did from that firework.
Take it from someone who loves sports and being active but has way less talent than Pierre-Paul and who has also laid in a hospital bed for far too long, when you’re just laying there your mind wonders, and not in the best of places. You try to stay positive, but you can’t help but wonder if it’s all been snatched from you. If you won’t be able to do certain things again. If you’ll ever be the person you thought you were before.
Pierre-Paul had those thoughts, I’m sure, but I think the result was a positive one given how things have played out.
Pierre-Paul returned to the Giants for even a few games during that 2015 season. His first game back was against Tampa Bay at Raymond James Stadium. He only recorded one sack that year, but him even being on the field was an accomplishment. The following two season, Pierre-Paul recorded seven and 8.5 sacks, respectively, two of the higher sack totals of his career. As time went on, Pierre-Paul became himself again, or as he would say, he became an even better version – a new identity.
Pierre-Paul was seen as the golden standard of athleticism, a man who picked up the game and dominated it. He was almost a superhero, in that regard – in two ways, both in ability and in the fact that superheroes are fiction. Before his accident, Pierre-Paul was seen as untouchable. After the accident, he’s even said in his own words that the way he describes himself now is, rather, “unstoppable.”
“What I learned from my injury, was that I’m unstoppable,” Pierre-Paul said. “I thank my Dad for that because my Dad, he’s been blind for 29 years and he never complained, not once. From that, I know I’m unstoppable. It’s going to take a hell of a lot for me to get off that damn field … sorry for cussing. So, basically that’s what it is.”
At age 29, Jason Pierre-Paul knows he’s no longer untouchable because he’s also no longer a New York Giant.
What he is now is unstoppable – and a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.