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Former teammates cheer on JPP in group chat

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The group of former Giants defensive linemen stays close through what can best be described as a never-ending text chat. Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, Mathias Kiwanuka and Fred Robbins communicate virtually every day, while others occasionally stop by.

"That's been going on for a long time," Tuck said this week. "That chat is mostly staying on top of each other to make sure that we're doing the right thing in our retirements to be as successful as we were in football. Monday through Friday, honestly, we're mostly just talking about health, life, business, that type of stuff. I would say we rarely talk about football."

Except when they join a much larger group - the millions of fans across the country watching NFL games.

"We're all sitting around watching football on Sundays, so anything that goes on we chime in, ask guys what they thought, so on and so forth," Tuck said. "I would say we rarely talk about football. We only basically talk about football if it's some hot button topic that's hitting the air waves at that moment in time or on Sunday."

They found such a topic on Jan 24, when one of their own, former Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, twice sacked Aaron Rodgers to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, 31-26, and advance to Sunday's Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs in Tampa.

It will be JPP's second Super Bowl. Nine years ago, he had two tackles and batted down two Tom Brady passes in the Giants' 21-17 victory against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Brady is now his teammate on the Bucs.

"(The group's comments during the title game) were generic – 'JPP is having a good game, Tampa's defense looks well,'" Tuck said. "Obviously, we were rooting on Jason, hoping he makes it out. When he won the game, just celebrating the fact that one of our guys is back in the Super Bowl and has a chance to win another Super Bowl, but also the fact that we are very understanding of what he went through to get back to that spot. I think we're all looking at it as, in some cases, as anybody that has a little brother. We're all in that category of being a big brother to him in some capacity and we're obviously just rooting him on."

As Tuck referenced, Pierre-Paul has had a remarkable NFL journey, one that includes soaring highs and devastating lows.

When the Giants selected him 15th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, then general manager Jerry Reese proclaimed Pierre-Paul "has the biggest upside of any player in the draft."

As an NFL sophomore in 2011, JPP demonstrated why. He used his size (6-5 and 275 pounds), astonishing athleticism and splendid quickness to become a fierce and persistent pass rusher. He had 16.5 sacks, one less than the combined total of Umenyiora, Tuck and Kiwanuka, and the fourth-highest total in Giants history. Pierre-Paul was selected to his first Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. He was twice selected NFC Defensive Player of the Week in December – when he was also named the Player of the Month. One of his most memorable plays that month was blocking Dan Bailey's 47-yard field goal with one second remaining to preserve a Giants victory in Dallas. And JPP was a catalyst on a Giants team that won the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.

"Just relentless," Tuck said. "He made plays that were somewhat remarkable in some cases. It just seemed like he had 'go-go gadget' limbs. I remember some of the sacks he made, it seemed like he was tackling the quarterback and his arms would get there like two seconds before the rest of his body would. He was a prototypical lanky, powerful, fast defensive end. If you're thinking about it from the perspective of how you create someone to play that position – big hands, long arms, explosive, fast-twitch power, leverage, he had all that. I think he showcased it in so many different ways where he was able to make moves on the outside and go around the lineman or power them to the quarterback or make an inside move to beat them on that side as well, he showcased all that that year, and he still is."

Although his sack total dipped to 6.5, Pierre-Paul was selected to the Pro Bowl again in 2012. In later seasons, he twice scored touchdowns on interception returns and once after scooping up a fumble and running 43 yards to the end zone. In 2014, he started all 16 games for the first time and recorded 12.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits. JPP was confident he'd exceed those numbers the following season.

But on July 4, 2015, his career took a dramatic turn when he suffered severe injuries to his right hand in what he this week called a "fireworks incident" near his Florida home. He underwent several surgeries, including the amputation of his index finger, and missed the season's first eight games. He played the second half of the season with his hand encased in a cumbersome wrap and finished with just 1.0 sack.

He was able to wear a glove beginning in 2016 and totaled 15.5 sacks the following two seasons. On March 22, 2018, the Giants traded Pierre-Paul to Tampa Bay for a third-round draft choice and a swap of fourth-round selections. In three years with the Buccaneers, he has twice played every game and totaled 30.5 sacks. But in 2019 another off-field incident – a one-car accident – left him with a fractured neck and forced him to miss the first six games. Undaunted as always, JPP tallied 8.5 sacks in 10 games and increased that to 9.5 and intercepted two passes this season, when he was selected to his third Pro Bowl.

"No matter how hard it seems, don't quit," Pierre-Paul said. "It may sound easier said than done, but I've never quit anything in my life."

Those who see him every day admire his persistence and mental toughness.

"The guy is the epitome of perseverance, for … the car wreck, the fireworks," Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said on a pre-Super Bowl Zoom call yesterday. "JPP plays with a heart that is as big as a lion and high, high energy. Guys love playing with him. When he speaks, they listen. He doesn't speak a lot because he lets his play do his talking. But when he speaks, everybody listens."

"I've honestly played against JPP quite a bit and absolutely love getting a chance to know him and be his teammate," Tom Brady said. "He's absolutely everything you look for in a competitor and a teammate. His leadership – not only his play in the game but how he practices, his work ethic – he's a relentless guy, a relentless competitor. He's got incredible mental toughness. When you look over at that and see him out there, everyone loves seeing JPP out there making plays. When he's making plays the whole defense is making plays – it's Shaq (Barrett), Ndamukong (Suh) is making plays, Vita (Vea), then you have Lavonte (David), you have Devin (White) making plays, you have the secondary making plays. He's a great leader of that group. When he's going, everyone is going. He brings a lot of juice. I love seeing him out there, I love playing with the guy and I love getting to know him. He's an amazing guy, an amazing player."

On Sunday, JPP will have an opportunity to earn a second ring, starting for the first team in history to play in the Super Bowl in its home stadium – and Raymond James Stadium is where he starred at the University of South Florida. He has received numerous accolades and compiled 89.0 career sacks, 159 quarterback hits, 20 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries. Pierre-Paul's teammates and coaches like and admire him.

But he is far from satisfied.

"I feel like I should've been in the Pro Bowl six times," JPP said. "Even last year when I broke my neck and came back and got eight-and-a-half sacks in 10 games, I should've been in the Pro Bowl, but it was already voted. But I don't play for the Pro Bowl, I play for the people, I play for my family, I play for the name on the back of my jersey, which is 'Pierre-Paul,' so every time I hop on the field I've got to represent Jason Pierre-Paul. I know my son is looking at me, my daughter is looking at me, my whole family is behind my back, so I play on a whole other level. It's unmatched. I haven't gotten the respect I needed or got yet, but I'm not tripping. Next year I will be back, and I will be back better than ever, way better than ever. And I will be 100 percent next year, so imagine me doing something on 75 percent, imagine when I'm 100 percent."

"If he didn't have the injuries, you're probably talking about a 100-plus sack guy and he probably would be a five or six Pro Bowl type of player," Tuck said.

After an eventful nine-year wait to return to the Super Bowl, Pierre-Paul's motivation is to take advantage of the opportunity he and the Bucs have Sunday against Kansas City.

"I'm 32 years old," he said. "I've got a couple more years left in me and I'm out the door. But I know what it is to get to this point. A lot of guys have been in the league longer than I have. This is going on 12 years, guys have been in the league 15, 17 years. Philip Rivers, look at him, never won the Super Bowl, but he's a great, phenomenal quarterback. It's hard to get to this point and once you get to this point, just realize how blessed you are and don't take it for granted because it could take you nine years or it could take you none, might not even get to this point. So just take everything as it comes. I tell young players, do what you need to do to hype yourself up. Be excited – I'm excited – and do what you need to do because you never know when this chance is going to come back again."

View photos of former Giants and current Buccaneers defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

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