TAMPA ― Jason Pierre-Paul was reminded Tuesday that not a lot of football players come back from a broken neck to play in the NFL.
“Not a lot of people come back from blowing off their hand, too,'' said Pierre-Paul, who lost several fingers in a July 4 fireworks accident in 2015. “I had no doubts.’’
Why should he?
Pierre-Paul’s latest comeback story began the night of May 2 when an emergency room doctor told him he has a cervical fracture in his neck.
One minute, Pierre-Paul was driving his Ferrari down a wet road on I-95 nearly Hollywood, Fla. The next, he struck a concrete barrier that sent his career spinning out of control.
For more than two months he was in a neck brace. For more than five months, he wasn’t cleared to put on a helmet.
When football players learn they have a broken neck, the next question they usually have to answer is, “How would you like to handle your retirement announcement?”
Fortunately, there was no spinal cord damage, no hint of paralysis. But there was also no guarantee the injury would heal by itself.
The plan was to give Pierre-Paul about three months and re-evaluate. If there wasn’t enough progress, he would require surgery that would end his season and perhaps his career.
"I had no doubts,'' Pierre-Paul said. “That’s it.''
When will we learn?
When the Bucs traded with the Giants for Pierre-Paul, he spoke about the fireworks accident that caused the amputation of his right index finger and the tip of his right thumb while severely damaging his middle finger.
At his introductory news conference, Pierre-Paul was asked what he had learned about himself from the accident.
”That I’m unstoppable,’’ Pierre-Paul said.
Last season, Pierre-Paul led the Bucs with 12.5 sacks despite playing in a historically awful defense that allowed 29 points per game.
He was looking forward to playing in a new defensive scheme under Todd Bowles and then, bam!
The Bucs were optimistic of his return, but they also wanted to protect their assets. They weren’t going to rush Pierre-Paul back given the nature and location of the injury.
They voided the final year of Pierre-Paul’s contract and signed him to a one-year, $3-million deal that included $7.5-million in playing incentives.
For every game he is active, he receives $200,000. For every game he plays 50 percent of the defensive snaps, he earns another $200,000. Eight sacks are worth another $500,000. Ten sacks are $1-million extra.
But this has never been about the money. Pierre-Paul has already earned close to $70-million in his career.
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Pierre-Paul, who turns 31 on New Year’s Day, believes he’s unstoppable. He wants to prove it one more time.
He was cleared to return to football activities for the first time during the team’s bye week with some practice squad players. On Tuesday, Pierre-Paul participated in practice with the full squad and the Bucs haven’t ruled him out for Sunday’s game at Tennessee.
"He looked good, he looks fine, he’s healthy,'' coach Bruce Arians said. "He had a heck of a practice today...he’s a little rusty, but he was good.
"He’s come back from some serious stuff and he’s kind of a freak of nature as far as healing. He has a great belief in his faith and I think sometimes that helps heal him.''
The Bucs are 2-4 entering Sunday’s game at Tennessee. Linebacker Shaq Barrett still is tied for the NFL lead with nine sacks but hasn’t had any in the past two games as teams have adjusted their blocking schemes to stop him. Adding a player like Pierre-Paul would be a big boost to the Bucs defense, which is first in the NFL against the run (68 yards) but last against the pass (305 yards per game).
“He’s a good player,’’ Pierre-Paul said of Barrett. “I can’t wait to get out there with him.''
Pierre-Paul said it felt good to be back with teammates practicing.
"All I can say is everything is good right now,'' Pierre-Paul said. “I’m on the right track, completely forward, and I got a lot to do in a short amount of time. That’s all I can say.''
The other thing Pierre-Paul can bring is leadership to a predominately young defense.
"It’s a huge, huge thing,'' Arians said. “Because he has been one of the vocal leaders for a long time and not having his presence, I can already feel the difference. Obviously, he’s feeling his way football-wise but the rest of it, last week going out to practice, coaching, doing those types of things, giving young guys advice.