Concerns over Pierre-Paul's ability to qualify academically, however, scared Division I schools away, and he left Deerfield Beach High with the junior college route as his only realistic option. "If you get your head together," Martin told him, "and do what you need to do for the next three years, you'll be able to take care of your family for the rest of their lives." Martin would know: He spent five years as a defensive back for the Oilers and the Bills. When one coach asked Martin if Pierre-Paul was a Division I--level talent, Martin went a step further: "I see the kid playing on Sundays."
The first stops were a pair of jucos, beginning with College of the Canyons, a Santa Clarita, Calif., school that had exhumed its long-dormant football program nine years earlier. Pierre-Paul's 14 sacks in 12 games earned him All-America honors, and the following year he left for Fort Scott (Kans.) Community College. There the JPP lore grew to include not merely 10½ sacks and another All-America nod but also the Lazarus-like tale of how he was taken out of a game on a stretcher with a neck injury, brought to the hospital for an MRI, returned with a doctor's note clearing him to play, sacked the quarterback twice, broke two fingers, then went back in to sack him again.
All the while a Division I assistant was keeping tabs. Kevin Patrick, the defensive line coach at South Florida, had lived a half hour north of Deerfield Beach and remembered talk of an athletic basketball player who took up football late in high school before heading to junior college. Says Patrick, who weathered Kansas blizzards to lure Pierre-Paul back to the Sunshine State, "You keep track of those guys."
Pierre-Paul joined Patrick and the Bulls just two weeks before their 2009 opener, but it didn't take long for him to turn heads. In his first drill he put a blocker on his ear. Pierre-Paul got his first start in the third game of the season and a week later keyed an upset of No. 18 Florida State with a sack, a forced fumble and three tackles for loss. Soon the word spread. Pierre-Paul began popping up on draftniks' big boards, creeping ever higher, on the strength of his All--Big East season (he had 16½ tackles for loss) as well as the prospect of what the novice could become.
And so, less than five months after arriving on campus, Pierre-Paul entered the NFL draft. He watched the selections surrounded by family at a Miami Beach hotel. When the call came welcoming him to the Giants as South Florida's highest-ever pick, he didn't have to say a thing to Marie. She just grabbed a handkerchief and dried her son's eyes.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE WIN IN DALLAS THE COMPARISONS became inevitable. Here was another once-dead-in-the-water Giants team on a late-season upswing, revived by a dominant pass rush. A chorus of fans and media began likening this year's team to the one that four years earlier had used its Michael Strahan--led front to slay the perfect Patriots. At times this year's D-line, though often slowed by injuries, could be even more dangerous. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's chaotic NASCAR package, employing Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck and Umenyiora on the line, left opponents to pick their poison. "You can't double everybody," coach Tom Coughlin said. "It gives us a chance to play some Giants football."
The team's narrative sounded familiar, but Pierre-Paul's circumstances were drastically different. He was 19 and at a California junior college when the Giants won Super Bowl XLII. Now he's potentially the next member of Big Blue's pass rusher pantheon, maintaining the legacy of Strahan et al. He's the inspiration for a fan repurposing an old Naughty By Nature song into You Down With J.P.P. He's the reason number 90 jerseys are a growing staple of MetLife Stadium crowds. His five-year, $20 million contract has put his parents in the market for a new home, one with a grand master bedroom and safer surroundings.
Yet some things remain unchanged. Pierre-Paul still calls Marie after every game to say he's O.K. And at age 23, with just six seasons of gridiron experience, he's still learning the game. Ten days before the Super Bowl, Pierre-Paul offered a reminder. When a reporter suggested that many second-year players would be wide-eyed facing Tom Brady on such a grand stage, Pierre-Paul, who had never so much as watched a Super Bowl, shrugged it off.
"Me not knowing anything about my opponents is a great thing," he said. "I just play."