TAKE nothing for granted

Published August 26 2018
Updated September 3 2018

Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul brought energy to the engagement.

After a particularly grueling day at training camp last month, he accepted the challenge and joined teammates in cheering on more than 70 Special Olympic athletes.

The moment illustrated not only his care for children but the unyielding approach Pierre-Paul brings to everything football.

Whether itís playing with Special Olympians or taking on Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan in joint practices with the Titans, Pierre-Paulís everyday exuberance has caught the eye of Bucs teammates and coaches.

"I guess I wasnít expecting JPP to be the practice player and the leader that heís been so far," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "Iím really fired up about it. Sometimes a guy thatís got his pedigree comes in and is looking for ways out of drills.

"Thatís not him at all."

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At the age of 29, some might have wondered if Pierre-Paul, acquired from the Giants in March for a third-round pick, still had something left in the tank.

Now after watching him rev his motor for every drill under sweltering heat, they realize heís operating with a full tank of motivation.

The fuel in that tank, however, is a surprising blend that rivals the stuff they brag about on gas commercials.

Itís heart, hustle, humility, confidence, perseverance, passion and showmanship.

And desire. Not only does he want to help the Bucs win, he wants to earn NFL defensive player of the year honors.

Yes, Pierre-Paul, is aiming high.

"Itís a high goal, but each year everybody gets the opportunity to do it, right? So why not me?" said the two-time Pro Bowl player. "I should have been defensive player of the year in my second year when (the Giants) went to the Super Bowl.

"Thatís something Iím always striving to get to. At the end of the day, the only way I can prove that is by having great games, getting to the quarterback and stopping the run.

"I still feel like nobody can do it better than me."

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The confidence helps generate Pierre-Paulís trademark petroleum. Bucs defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said whether the scheme calls for the 6-foot-5, 275-pound end to take on athletic tight ends, mammoth tackles or weighty guards ó the team plans to move Pierre-Paul around in its 4-3 scheme ó Pierre-Paul wants nothing more than to whip the man in front of him.

"A lion ainít got to tell you what he can do," Buckner said. "You already know. Itís in his DNA. JPP is a lion."

Yet itís a lamb-like gratitude that balances the lionís heart. The father of a son, he calls kids "the most precious things," and he couldnít stop smiling as he chased the kids through drills during the junior Bucs exercise.

Pierre-Paul says he awakes every day with this youthful joy, largely because he readily admits heís lucky to play in the NFL. Raised by a mother who worked two jobs and a father who couldnít work because he was blind, he calls himself the first "professional anything in my family."

He says his father never let the disability stop him from caring for his kids, and his mother continued to work as a custodian even after Pierre-Paul got drafted.

The work ethic of his parents remains another additive in his fuel, spurring him to endure two junior college stints, then star as an All-Big East defensive end in his lone season at USF before the Giants made him a first-round pick, No. 15 overall, in 2010.

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These days he awakes feeling blessed, and those blessings serve as another key ingredient in his fuel.

He needed every drop after July 4, 2015. An Independence Day firecracker accident threatened his independent pursuit of the game.

It left him without an index finger and only part of his thumb on his right hand. Doctors had to perform multiple skin grafts on what was left of his middle finger.

At the age of 26, he almost lost the game he loves.

"When youíve almost had something taken away and you get a reprieve, you learn to appreciate it if it really means something to you," Buckner said of Pierre-Paul. "And he shared that with the guys. Heís not going to take it for granted."

After he returned in 2015, interestingly in a November game against the Bucs, critics questioned his judgment, but everything about his background, particularly his fatherís determination, sparked his drive.

"Growing up, seeing my father, made me strive," he said. "Thatís why when my accident happened, I didnít really care what anybody had to say.

"At the end of the day, it is what it is. Iím pretty sure if someone went blind right now, they might say their life is over, but itís not. What about all those other people Ö who canít do what you do?"

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With that appreciation, he wants to do more than whip the guy in front of him, more than win awards, more than help build the Bucs back into a playoff contender.

He wants to be an entertainer, like any hip-hop artist or actor. Fans, he says, represent one more part of his drive.

In the end, he just wants it. Every day, every practice, every game.

"I just feel like when you want to do something ó and you have the heart to do it ó do it.

"Life ainít forever."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow @hoop4you.