Today is the Fourth of July. A time when Americans celebrate our country with family gathering and fireworks displays. It also marks the one-year anniversary of the day such fireworks nearly ended the career of Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants, changing his career and his life forever.
You know the story by now. Shooting off fireworks during a display for neighborhood children in Florida, Pierre-Paul had a device explode in his right hand. He ended up having his right index finger amputated and lost parts of two other fingers. He lost much more than that.
He nearly lost his NFL career. He returned for the second half of the 2015 season, wearing a massive club that limited his ability to make plays. He lost the potential of a rich, long-term contract as he was heading into a final season before free agency.
Pierre-Paul detailed the story of what happened in an interview with SI.com, and said he knows that in the end he was fortunate.
"I could dwell on it, like, Damn, I wish I had that finger," he says, "but when I look in the mirror, I'm happy. Thank the Lord — it could have been worse."
If you have been a Big Blue View reader for any number of years you probably know this already, but I have never been the biggest fan of Pierre-Paul. Prior to last Fourth of July, I always thought that there was too much outlandish, bragging talk from Pierre-Paul and not enough performance or all-out effort to back it up. The Giants wanted Pierre-Paul to be the center piece of their defense and, far too often, he did not live up to that. They wanted him to be a leader, and he didn't seem to want to be one. Throwing teammates in cold tubs isn't leadership. Bragging about how good you are and not backing it up isn't leadership. Pierre-Paul would also say that it wasn't his responsibility to lead, just to play, and that if guys followed his example they followed.
From afar, because I have never talked to JPP about this or even spoken one-on-one with him probably since his rookie season, Pierre-Paul seems different now. He lost one finger and parts of others, he lost eight games in 2015, he lost -- at least for a year -- a rich, long-term contract.
He appears, though, to have gained so much more. There is a maturity about him, an understanding that despite what happened to him he is still fortunate to have his family and his NFL opportunity, that there are many people in worse situations than his. While he still obviously believes in his ability, he seems to have more humility, more understanding his simple presence on a football field in unprecedented, and more acceptance of his leadership role. He is also happy.
"I overcame that situation, I'm lifting weights, I'm back to what I'm doing and I'm loving, I'm living, I'm happy," Pierre-Paul said in the spring.
Part of the story of Pierre-Paul's transformation is told in the PSA he has done warning of the dangers of fireworks. He says it only took a "split-second" for his life to be dramatically changed.
In the PSA he says "Now I'm just truly, truly blessed to be alive" and warns to keep fireworks away from kids and leave them to the "fireworks professionals."
Pierre-Paul won't be celebrating the Fourth of July. He told reporters he will be out of the country and "you guys won't be able to reach me."
Pierre-Paul doesn't hide his mangled hand around the Giants' facility. Now, he isn't hiding it to anyone.
What kind of player can he be going forward? Giants GM Jerry Reese said before the NFL Draft that "it was kind of a miracle for me that he played last year."
Pierre-Paul, massive club and all on his right hand, played in eight games. He managed pressure, managed to make his presence felt on the field, but had just one sack as the club prevented him from finishing plays.
This year, after one final surgery on the hand, he will play with a custom glove.
"Jason is a terrific football player and we're hoping that the procedure that he had on his hand after the season will continue to feel better for him and he will be able to play with that hand in the condition that it is and we expect him to do that," Reese said.
Pierre-Paul believes that the glove and the fact that he has been able to train normally and practice with his teammates throughout the spring, will help him be a more impactful player in 2016."I will never be completely back to normal, but I am doing everything that they ask me to do. I find ways around it. That is why I am out there today. I am lifting weights, I'm out here with the guys. I won't say it is normal, but it is normal for me. I can deal with it," Pierre-Paul said.
"Last year was just up and down for me. Like I said, I overcame it, I had to play with a club last year, but I knew I wasn't going to play with it this year. That is basically it. I am going to be making more tackles. For what I came back and did, that was awesome, that was amazing, but to be honest, I didn't really have to play last season, it was just to help the team out. I think I did a great job and I wanted to be here, so that is why I came back early."
Coming back to play last year in any form was, perhaps, a sign of leadership, growing maturity and simple desire to play. Who know what kind of player Pierre-Paul can be in 2016? I don't, though my guess is better than last year but not as good as he was in his All-Pro 2011 season.
What is more important for me is to see the person Pierre-Paul is becoming, to see that he is learning to use his situation to help and inspire others.
On a personal level, there was probably a time when JPP didn't have my respect for many of the reasons I already outlined. I'm happy to say he has it now. Perhaps what Pierre-Paul has learned and gained outside of football is more important than how many fingers he has or what he accomplishes on field.
Good for him.