ON A MID-DECEMBER EVENING IN DALLAS, IN FRONT OF a TV audience of nearly 25 million, Jason Pierre-Paul introduced himself to America. It was a Sunday, or Football Night as promoted by NBC, and the stakes of the game were high: With a win over the Cowboys, the Giants, then 6--6 and on a four-game losing streak, would sit atop the NFC East. Pierre-Paul was again filling in for the injured Osi Umenyiora at right end and in position to make a statement.
The first of what would be Pierre-Paul's team-high eight tackles came 9:42 into the game when he sent Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo tumbling into his own end zone for a safety that put New York ahead 2--0. In the waning minutes of the first half Pierre-Paul stripped the ball from Dallas running back Felix Jones to set up a go-ahead field goal. In the third quarter Pierre-Paul again sacked Romo, and in the fourth quarter he delivered the coup de grâce. With New York leading 37--34 and six seconds remaining, the Cowboys attempted a game-tying field goal. Pierre-Paul cut into the right A-gap, leaped and got his fingers on Dan Bailey's 47-yard attempt, knocking it astray. One kneel-down later the Giants were in first place.
"Jason Pierre-Paul," said color commentator Cris Collinsworth, "if you're not in the Pro Bowl this year, there should be an investigation."
After the game safety Antrel Rolle called Pierre-Paul the defense's MVP. Fellow end Dave Tollefson proclaimed him Superman. "As long as he keeps coming to save the day," Tollefson told reporters, "we'll be all right."
In the following weeks Pierre-Paul, considered by some a rookie bust a year before, was not only a Pro Bowler but also an All-Pro. Such were the spoils of a breakout 2011 season that included 86 tackles—most of any defensive end in the NFL—and 16½ sacks, most ever in a season by a Giant not named Michael Strahan or Lawrence Taylor.
This was the havoc-wreaking impact the Giants envisioned when they selected Pierre-Paul 15th out of South Florida in the 2010 draft. He was a tantalizing yet unformed prospect, a 6' 5" 270-pounder with an 81-inch wingspan and a 4.67 40-yard dash time but only one season of Division I football experience. His most-cited highlight was a YouTube clip of him nailing 13 consecutive back handsprings after practice. He had physical potential that was impossible to ignore. After the draft a New York Post headline declared, FREAK'S UPSIDE JUST TOO HARD TO PASS UP. Still, much was unknown about the newest New York pass rusher. Said a bewildered Steve Young on ESPN's draft telecast—in a phrase so many NFL quarterbacks would later use in another context—"He came from nowhere."
IN THE MID-1980S, MARIE PIERRE-PAUL FOLLOWED her husband, Jean, to the U.S. from Haiti to raise a family in Deerfield Beach, a small city on Florida's southeast coast. Jean went blind in '89, when Jason, the third of the couple's five children, was not yet a year old, and Marie worked 12-plus-hour days as a hotel maid to make ends meet. She was protective of the children, as any mother would be in a neighborhood rife with violence, and also upset when Jason broke his leg playing basketball. So when he started playing football at Deerfield Beach High, he didn't tell her, saying instead that he was staying after school to do homework.
Jason took up the game as a junior, coaxed by a geometry teacher who doubled as the team's defensive coordinator. "If he wanted to pass the class," says Manny Martin, who first noticed Jason when he was overwhelming classmates in a pickup basketball game, "I strongly encouraged him to play."
Pierre-Paul spent most of his junior season on the sideline, using practice to learn a game he'd never even watched, but his athletic gifts and unrelenting motor became so desired that before his senior year assistants competed for him to learn their positions. By the following fall Marie's son—who eventually dropped the homework charade so his mom could attend games—had caught the eye of several major college recruiters as Martin's most destructive defensive end.