Once the subject of derision — much of it brought on by his own reckless decision to put himself in a dangerous position on that fateful night of July 4, 2015 — Jason Pierre-Paul has since turned into one of the greatest feel-good stories in sports.
He put himself in harm’s way and paid a heavy price that night, losing 2 1⁄2 fingers on his right hand after fireworks exploded prematurely. As he lay in a Miami hospital, he was pilloried on social media and lambasted on television, radio and the Internet.
But inside Pierre-Paul’s heart bloomed a sense of hope that even he never knew existed.
He heard and saw the disdain and the mockery, and he was as wounded internally by the mean-spiritedness of it as he was by the explosives that decimated his hand and imperiled not only his career but his very survival. Yet he also discovered a belief in himself that carried him through those dark moments.
While few gave him much of a chance to play again, Pierre-Paul nurtured a conviction that he would be back. As it turned out, one very important man in a position to determine his future believed it, too.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese maintained an unmistakable confidence that Pierre-Paul somehow could overcome his physical challenges and return. Perhaps not at the same level he had been at before the injury, but it certainly was worth seeing if there was a way.
So Reese ignored calls to release Pierre-Paul, as if that somehow would teach him a lesson and allow the Giants to maintain some sort of moral high ground. Instead, he patiently waited to see if Pierre-Paul might return, and by the middle of that season, the time was right to bring him back.
It was a remarkable return and a testament to that inner resolve Pierre-Paul had clung to. On Nov. 8, 2015, with his injury protected by a bulky club that essentially turned him into a one-handed player, he was back. Pierre-Paul played the entire game and helped the Giants beat the Buccaneers, 32-18.
He played the rest of that season and produced only one sack, but more importantly, he was an inspiration not only to his teammates but to the world at large. He showed a newfound maturity after surviving his harrowing ordeal, often sharing his story with other burn victims, many of them children, by visiting hospitals and holding himself up as an example of what can lie on the other side of recovery.
He had to change everything about his life after taking so many things for granted. (I’ll never forget after that first game in Tampa when Pierre-Paul had to place his tie in his mouth while attempting to finish putting it into a knot.) He never expressed bitterness about his ordeal, using it only as a means to help himself and help others.
Playing last year with a glove that allowed him greater movement and flexibility, Pierre-Paul produced seven sacks and recaptured the dynamic pass rush he was known for before the accident. The Giants made it to the playoffs even though Pierre-Paul missed the final four games because of a sports hernia, but his absence was a major factor in their inability to put sufficient pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a 38-13 wild-card loss.
So Pierre-Paul demonstrated in 2016 that he’s still a force, and now that belief in himself has been rewarded. He signed a four-year contract worth a reported $62 million Friday, meaning there is a very good chance he will spend the rest of his career in a Giants uniform.
It is a richly deserved deal for a player who not only has the talent to help the Giants reach another Super Bowl but a man who has grown up in front of our eyes by overcoming a life-changing ordeal that occurred in the blink of an eye. He transformed himself from an attitude of entitlement that many professional athletes invariably develop to a spirit of hopefulness and appreciation that everyone around him can appreciate.