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A player with a lion’s heart who taught the Bucs defense to roar

John Romano | Jason Pierre-Paul’s outlook on life have made him a favorite of teammates in the Bucs’ locker room.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul during NFL football practice, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 in Tampa, Fla. The Buccaneers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul during NFL football practice, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 in Tampa, Fla. The Buccaneers will face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. [ TORI RICHMAN | Associated Press ]
Published Feb. 4
Updated Feb. 4

TAMPA — The voice of wisdom is more animated than you would think. It laughs and it sings. It bellows and it snaps. Listen to it long enough, and you start to understand why this is the voice that attracts attention and adoration in the Buccaneers locker room.

Jason Pierre-Paul has been around too long and survived too much to worry about opinions or appearances. He will tell you what you need to hear, and probably some things you’d rather not know. His is a voice that operates without fear or filter, and that makes it more entertaining than it’s sometimes intended to be.

As someone asks him about Chiefs all-purpose lineman Mike Remmers moving to left tackle for Super Bowl 55 on Sunday, the Bucs linebacker begins answering before the question is even completed.

“I don’t even know who that is. Is this the tackle you’re talking about?” Pierre-Paul asked. “I don’t too much care about that. They have to figure that out. I’m just going to play some great football this weekend.”

His impressions of a coronavirus-altered championship week compared to the festivities of Super Bowl 46 that he won against Tom Brady’s Patriots while with New York?

“I couldn’t care less, man. At this point in my life, I’m just trying to win that second ring,” he said. “Put it in the books.”

Related: One man kept Tom Brady from perfection in 2007. Now he’s back.

On his journey from high school basketball player to a football scholarship at USF and, eventually, the Pro Bowl?

“I think God put me in the situation that I am right now. Because I know for a fact that I couldn’t blow up my fingers and still play basketball,” he says without a shred of sarcasm. “The ball would be going off that way, while I’m shooting this way.”

Ah yes, the fingers blown off in a fireworks mishap in 2015. An integral part of the Pierre-Paul saga. Just like the neck fracture he sustained in 2019 in an accident in his Ferrari. Just like the job he used to have at Boston Market, where he would go immediately after football practice because his family needed the money. Just like the story of his parents immigrating from Haiti, with his mother finding domestic work because his father went blind when Pierre-Paul was a baby.

You do not live that life without earning wisdom and perspective along the way. And, in Pierre-Paul’s case, earning the respect of the players and coaches you live alongside of in a locker room.

Bucs outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul celebrates a sack during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay.
Bucs outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul celebrates a sack during the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“The guy is the epitome of perseverance,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He plays with a heart that is as big as a lion’s.”

“He’s somebody you can count on,” linebacker Lavonte David said. “Somebody you can trust.”

“He’s just a freak off the field and on the field,” linebackers coach Larry Foote said. “He’s just crazy. He brings so much emotion to the meeting room. Guys love playing with him.”

If you are creating a timeline of the Bucs’ journey to the Super Bowl, the arrival of Pierre-Paul, 32, would be one of the first entries. Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht traded a third-round pick (and swapped fourth-round picks) for a supposedly past-his-prime Pierre-Paul in the spring of 2018. At the time, the Bucs defense was in shambles and Pierre-Paul was six years removed from his last Pro Bowl.

Since that moment, Pierre-Paul has recorded 30.5 sacks and forced seven fumbles in 42 games. And the Bucs defense has gone from dead last in the NFL in yards allowed in 2017 to sixth in 2020. And Pierre-Paul is back in the Pro Bowl for the first time since he was a 23-year-old in 2012.

Related: The Chiefs are favored, but have an Achilles heel. Literally.

More than that, Pierre-Paul has created a sense of expectation and accountability in the locker room. When the Bucs fell behind Atlanta 17-0 late in 2020, it was Pierre-Paul who angrily challenged his teammates to stop fooling around during halftime. The Bucs dominated the Falcons in the second half and won 31-27 to preserve their spot as the top wild card in the NFC.

“He’s absolutely everything you look for in a competitor, in a teammate,” Tom Brady said on Wednesday. “Not only his play in the game, but how he practices, his work ethic, he’s a relentless guy, a relentless competitor.

“Love playing with the guy, love getting to know him. He’s an amazing guy, an amazing player.”

He’s no longer as dominant as he was in 2011, when he got 16.5 sacks with the Giants as a second-year defensive end, but Pierre-Paul might be a more accomplished player today. With the Bucs introducing a 3-4 defense with coordinator Todd Bowles’ arrival in 2019, Pierre-Paul turned himself into an outside linebacker who played in enough pass coverage to nab two interceptions this season.

In recent days he’s told teammates to make sure they appreciate the world around them. He won the Super Bowl in his second season with the Giants, and then didn’t win another postseason game until three weeks ago. None of this, he said, is guaranteed and he cherishes success more today than he ever did as a young man.

“There are going to be people who say you can’t do (something) because they can’t do it,” Pierre-Paul said. “But in reality, if you put your mind to it and put God first, you can do whatever you want to in life. No matter how hard it seems, just don’t quit. It’s easier said than done, but I didn’t quit at any thing in life.”

Minutes later, Pierre-Paul’s media obligations have ended and he waves as he walks from view, leaving his words of wisdom behind.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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