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Jason Pierre-Paul rises to NFL stardom

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If the gods of football ever gathered to construct the perfect defensive end, they might build Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants' third-year pro is tall and lean, with long arms, springy legs and a strong upper body. More than once coach has called his athleticism "freaky." He once did 13 consecutive back flips from a standing start. Like Hall of Famer Deacon Jones and former Giant Michael Strahan, Pierre-Paul looks like he was born to sack quarterbacks.

Despite his imposing physical attributes, Pierre-Paul's success is remarkable and more than a little shocking. This is, after all, a 22-year-old who a) never played a game of football until he was a high school junior, b) played just one year of major college football, and c) has never seen an NFL game in which he wasn't playing.

Pierre-Paul, who is 6-5 and 278 pounds, is just scratching the surface of his tremendous ability, but his story is already Hollywood-worthy.

"A few years ago, I didn't know what football was," Pierre Paul said. "Now, I totally understand it. I love it now, I really do. I love my job. There are not too many people in the world who can do (this). I look back sometimes, and it's like, 'I made it.'" 

So how did Pierre-Paul become the accidental star and grow from a youngster with zero interest in football to one of the NFL's sack leaders?

The story begins in Florida. Pierre-Paul's parents, Jean and Marie, emigrated there from Haiti 28 years ago. Jean Pierre-Paul went blind when Jason was still an infant.

The only football his family knew was soccer. Jason was raised in Pompano Beach, the middle of five children. His mother worked a variety of jobs to support the family while his dad stayed home with the children.

Pierre-Paul was 15 when his family moved to Deerfield Beach, near Ft. Lauderdale. At Deerfield Beach High School, he went out for the basketball team, because he thought it would help him meet friends. But as a sophomore, he broke his leg (though he went on to letter four times in hoops).

"The reason it got fractured was because I was a center," Pierre-Paul said. "I was setting picks, and every time I set a pick my teammates kept on running into my shin. And it fractured the bone. And one day I was just walking, and my teammate, with the ball, went loose, and I picked up the ball, just a regular way, walking. So I tried to do a layup, went up in the air, and it just cracked."

 Some youngsters stop playing football because of injuries. Pierre-Paul turned toward his new sport because of one. But that wasn't his initial goal.

"I had no interest in it," he said. "Basketball was my only interest. But after I broke my leg the doctors said, 'Don't do any heavy jumping.'' Football doesn't have much jumping in it, so I took football in and that was it."

Deerfield Park advanced to the football playoffs in Pierre-Paul's junior year. He wasn't a part of the team and had never played the game. But Coach Greg Minnis didn't see that inexperience as an impediment.

"One of their ends got hurt," Pierre-Paul said. "I didn't know anything about football. And they came to me saying, 'You look like you can play football,' and I was like
'No, I'm not good.' Coach Minnis said, 'Come out to play, you can probably help us a lot.' I'd tell him I was coming out and I'd always dodge him, go to my car and leave. So one day, he told me 'Come out,' and I said again, 'I'm coming out today.' But that time he met me by my car and dragged me out to the football field. And then, he put me in pads. He just told me to rush the passer. I didn't even know what he was talking about. He just told me to rush, rush. He just said, 'Here's your man, get around him.' And from there, I was just getting around my man. I didn't know anything, but he taught me."

His first-ever game was in the playoffs. The Bucks advanced to the state championship game and lost.

"Everybody started crying," Pierre-Paul said. "I didn't totally understand what was going on. I didn't like football right away. I didn't understand it. There was a lot of yelling involved, I didn't know what the coaches were yelling about, so at first I was like, 'I don't think this is for me.' But when my senior year came around, I started to understand it."

Pierre-Paul stuck with football and as a senior, he helped the team go 9-3 and again advance to the championship game – where they suffered another defeat.

He was not raised as a football player, but the physical aspect of the game never bothered him.

"Actually, it wasn't that hard," Pierre-Paul said. "I was a big body anyway. So all I had to do was wrap. Wrap the running back up or quarterback on tackles. That's something a person doesn't have to teach you how to do. You should be able to do it. I was still playing basketball, so it just converted over to football."

Although he played well, Pierre-Paul attracted zero interest from major colleges because of his inexperience and mediocre grades. As graduation approached, Pierre-Paul's plans were vague. Then Minnis approached him again.

"My coach came to me one day and said, 'Do you still want to play football?'" Pierre-Paul said.  I said, "I don't know.' Coach said, 'What if you could play at a school for free?' That didn't sound like a bad idea."

So in 2007 he enrolled at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Cal. In just his second full season playing organized football, Pierre-Paul was named All-America and first team All-Western State Conference first-team. He led all California junior college players with 14 sacks for minus-101 yards and had 19.0 stops for losses of 117 yards, two fumbles, recovered another, deflected five passes and picked off another for a 20-yard return.

"It was the first time I ever went anywhere," Pierre-Paul said. "I got there and I thought it was going to be easy, like high school. It wasn't, it was way worse. There was so much running and stuff, I was ready to go home. I wasn't ready to do it. I didn't understand the football. It was way different and nobody ever sat down and taught me how this play is this, is off of this, the B-gap, the A-gap, C-gap, they never taught me that. They just lined me up and just told me to go.

"I started crying when I told my mom I was coming home, and she said, 'No, you stay out there, you finish school.' So I took her advice and just stayed there. And then I started getting it, learning on my own, how to read the plays, what's my assignment, coming in early and staying late. I started playing real good, they liked me out there and I had a great season."

The next year, Pierre-Paul moved to Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. The arrow continued to point up as he earned All-America and All-Jayhawk Football Conference first-team honors. Pierre-Paul guided the Greyhounds to a 9-2 record and a victory in the Heart of Texas Bowl. He recorded 67 tackles (50 solo), 10.5 sacks for minus 50 yards, 20.5 stops for losses of 78 yards, as he also recovered two fumbles and caused three others.

"Kansas, there's nothing out there," Pierre-Paul said. "I'd never seen cows walking around, horses walking around. I said, 'This ain't for me.' I knew I was there to finish school and play football. I look back now, and if I had a chance I would have gone there first. California didn't have dorm rooms. Kansas had 'em, it made me look forward even more to what was ahead."

Pierre-Paul emerged as the most coveted down lineman in the junior college class in 2009. The football schools that had ignored him two years earlier now fought for his services. He was heavily pursued by Florida, Miami, Florida State, Kansas State, Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma State. He turned them all down and selected South Florida to play for Jim Leavitt (who is now the San Francisco 49ers' linebackers coach).

"Before I went off to college, Coach Levitt came to one of my All-Star games," Pierre-Paul said. "I didn't know who he was and he came up to me and said, 'I'm coming to get you no matter where you're at.' I didn't know what he was talking about. I went to junior college in California, I went to Kansas. Jacquian Williams (now a Giants rookie linebacker) was at Kansas. South Florida was looking at him because he's from Tampa. He and I were on the team, and I was doing good, so he came and got me. And that was it."

Well, not exactly. When camp opened, Pierre-Paul was home in Deerfield Beach completing two online elective classes he needed to finish his associate of arts degree. He stayed in football shape during his absence from August drills and was able to enroll by the beginning of classes on Aug. 24. The USF coaches spoke to him about the possibility of redshirting, but his performance in practice convinced them to let him suit up and play.

Although he started fourth on the depth chart, Pierre-Paul played in all 13 games with seven starts. He was voted first-team All-Big East and to Pro Football Weekly's All-America first team. Pierre-Paul was third in the league with 16.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He added 6.5 sacks, along with 45 tackles (27 solo).

"I had no training camp," Pierre-Paul said. "I went in, they started sticking me in plays, but I didn't know too many of the plays. But by the third week, when he played at Florida State, I was ready to go. That was my play game."

In South Florida's upset of the Seminoles, Pierre-Paul had three tackles for losses, one sack, one force fumble and two quarterback pressures to go with four solo tackles. He also played in front of 85,000 fans for the first time in his life.

"I was nervous going in there," Pierre-Paul said. "As I got the butterflies out and started playing for all the right reasons, it was easy to me. I got used to the crowd. At Fort Scott, we might have seen 500 people at a game. Now you're talking about thousands."

In his three college stops, Pierre-Paul played in 35 games and recorded 161 tackles (119 solo) with 31.0 quarterback sacks for minus 180 yards, 56.0 stops for losses totaling 248 yards and 13 pressures. He forced seven fumbles and recovered three others and intercepted two passes, including one he returned 18 yards for a touchdown at Syracuse. After playing in the International Bowl vs. Northern Illinois, Paul-Pierre announced that he would forgo his senior season and applied for entry into the 2010 NFL Draft.

By then the league has taken notice of this athletic marvel with the engaging smile, easygoing manner and unlimited potential. Pierre-Paul was a work in progress, but the Giants selected him in the first round convinced the finished product would be a sack machine.

While being chosen on the first round is a thrill for most collegiate players, Pierre-Paul was oblivious to what it meant.

"I didn't know what number one or number two were," he said. "When I got picked, I still didn't know what going on, my mom didn't know what was going on. I just saw everyone overwhelmed. My best friend was so happy, because he understood what was going on. But I didn't. So I was like, 'Explain to me what's going on.' He explained it to me, and I was like, 'Wow, oh my gosh.' And then you're playing football."

The Giants knew Pierre-Paul needed some polishing, but they were convinced they had mined a true football diamond.

"He's one of those guys where he has a lot of things you can't teach," general manager Jerry Reese said the day Pierre-Paul was drafted. "He's a rare, gifted, talented kid. He is just uncommon, I think that's a good word to use to describe his skill set. He's long, fast, athletic, he has a great motor. We think the guy has the biggest upside out of any player in the draft."

"I'm getting better, but I'm not at the top, not at the peak," Pierre-Paul said. "I can be better than where I am right now. People think I'm good, but I think I'm okay. I can be a better playmaker. I want to be. I know I'm going to get the job done. When we go out to battle, I got my sword, I'm ready to battle. My team can count on me."

Jason Pierre-Paul didn't set out to be a football star. But he's well on his way to becoming one.

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