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New York Giants' first round NFL draft pick Jason Pierre-Paul beat the odds

BY Ralph Vacchiano


Sunday, April 25th 2010, 4:00 AM

On a ride to the hospital on the edge of Kansas, 1,300 miles from home, Jason Pierre-Paul was strapped to a board as the medics tried to cut his helmet off without moving his neck. During the entire trip, he just kept saying the same thing, over and over: "I've got to get back to the game ... I've got to get back to the game."

It was, after all, a big game between Fort Scott Community College and their archrival Coffeyville - and as his coach, Jeff Sims would later learn, Pierre-Paul was a big-game player for Fort Scott. It was 2008 and Pierre-Paul was at his second college in two years and only in his third season as a football player. It was then, in the second quarter of his second game, he slammed his head into a Coffeyville running back. Pierre-Paul fell to the ground.

"My neck!" he screamed.

As the ambulance sped away, Sims focused his attention on the game, trying not to worry about his young player. But then, early in the third quarter, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

"I turned around and he's standing there saying, 'Coach, I can play,'" Sims recalls. "I said, 'No, you can't Jason.'" It was then, Sims says, Pierre-Paul reached behind him and retrieved his hospital release forms he had stuffed in his pants.

"The doctor looks at them and says 'He's good to go.'" remembers Sims. "So I said 'Well get in.'

"And he says, 'Coach, I don't have a helmet. They cut it off my head.'"

Pierre-Paul returned to the field after the injury, the ambulance ride, and some time inside an MRI tube. He eventually found a new helmet and went on to record three sacks in what was left of that 15-0 Fort Scott win. But that wasn't the most amazing part of the story to those that knew him from back in Deerfield Beach, Fla. They remember a kid who almost didn't play football because he was afraid of getting hurt. And even Pierre-Paul admitted he once had to be "dragged" to the sport, which he didn't play until a playoff game during his junior year in high school.

Everyone knew he was a freakish athlete from the start. But no one figured that four years and three colleges later, he'd end up being taken by the Giants with the 15th overall pick of the NFL draft.

Beating the odds, though, is nothing new to the 6-5, 270-pound defensive end out of the University of South Florida … and Fort Scott before that … and the College of the Canyons in California before that. He's been doing that since he grew up. He's the son of Haitian immigrants in a poor, neighborhood dominated by Haitian and African-American gangs. With violence all around him, he grew up with his mother Marie, a woman who worked long hours as a hotel maid to support five children and a husband (Jean) who went blind when Jason was 3 years old.

Somehow, Pierre-Paul was never harmed by the "sad circumstances" surrounding him. He managed to avoid the gangs and violence, too.

"At the time when Jason was going to school here, we had a lot of fights between Haitian-Americans and black Americans. That was one of our big issues, that there were blacks fighting against blacks," says Francine Baugh, the assistant principal of Deerfield Beach High School. "It got to the point where people were actually being killed. They were shooting and bringing guns to fights in the neighborhood.

"But Jason never got caught up in that and let me tell you why. I tell kids all the time that once you're not involved in some type of activity in school you can get caught up in other activities, such as gangs. But the football team was Jason's family. And on the football field, you're not Haitian, you're not black, you're not white, you're not Spanish. You're just a Deerfield Beach Buc. And that was something special."

It was clear that Pierre-Paul was something special too, almost from the moment he first stepped on a football field after a few years as a high school basketball star. He played well enough in his only full season that he got a scholarship offer from Central Florida. But he didn't have the standardized test scores to qualify, so he headed for junior college in California where he also struggled with his focus and his grades.

Sims says that was no problem when Pierre-Paul finally arrived at Fort Scott. "Once he got structure, he was fine," Sims says. "We just had to point him in the right direction."

That was true on the football field, too. Once he figured out what to do, his athletic ability took over. He had 24½ sacks and was a junior college all-American his first two college seasons. And there was no doubt, according to Sims, that Pierre-Paul was at his best in the biggest games.

"Honest to God, Jason was one of the best players I ever had in big games," he says. "And I've coached a few NFL players and several Division I players. Some are good just when they're good. But Jason had a knack for taking it to another level in big games. He knew when it was time to play."

Like, for example, his breakout performance last season for South Florida against Florida State. "That was a school he always wanted to play for when he was growing up," Sims says. "I think he knew that was a stage." It showed. Pierre-Paul had a sack, a forced fumble, two quarterback pressures and three tackles for a loss against the Seminoles. It was the highlight of his 6 ½-sack season with the Bulls.

And the best part is that everyone seems convinced Pierre-Paul's best is still to come.

"This young man, his ceiling is so high," says Kevin Patrick, South Florida's defensive line coach. "He hasn't played that much. His growth is going to take off like nobody else's in the draft.

"He's a sponge with very little water in it. He's just soaking it all up right now. And when he learns, he's got the physical tools to be a dominant player. I believe that this young man is going to be an All-Pro. How many 6-5, 270-pound kids can run like that and do backflips?"

Ah, the backflips - the thing that made him a YouTube sensation and one of the most talked-about players in the draft. He was caught on tape, prior to the International Bowl in Toronto, having a contest with his teammate, linebacker Kion Wilson, to see who could do the most.

Pierre-Paul, with a running start, uncurled his lanky frame and flipped 13 times.

"The most I ever did was 23," Pierre-Paul said at the scouting combine back in February. "If Kion Wilson had done 15, I would have done 23. I can do 23 no matter what. Without stopping."

No one who has seen him in action would doubt him. And even if he couldn't, those that know him wouldn't doubt his determination. He may be, in his words, "just God-gifted" when it comes to sports, but he's never taken those gifts for granted.

"He worked," Baugh says. "You know how some athletes walk around here and they think they got it made? Because (Pierre-Paul) came from some extremely sad circumstance financially, he worked his butt off to provide for his family."

And he let nothing stand in his way - not his fear of getting hurt (after breaking his leg multiple times while playing high school basketball), and not getting carried off a quiet field in Kansas with his head strapped to a board. That wasn't all he overcame in that game against Coffeyville, either. He returned and fought through another gruesome injury, too.

"On the second sack after he got back, when he hits the quarterback, he hits the ground and he breaks his two middle fingers," Sims says. "They're pointing sideways and he's looking at them and one of the (young) girl trainers sees the fingers and runs the other way.

"So he comes to the sidelines and the doctor straightens them out. And you talk about toughness? He goes right back in and gets another sack."

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