<
>

In one 'fun' fourth quarter, things finally felt normal for Jason Pierre-Paul

TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't coming easy for Jason Pierre-Paul, but he was plodding along patiently.

In the moments that followed his first game in 10 months, the New York Giants defensive end stood in front of his locker, trying to work a belt through the loops on his purple suit pants with only his left hand. He asked teammate Markus Kuhn, lockered next to him, to help him button the sleeves on his snazzy purple shirt. Pierre-Paul went in the back for help with his tie, so when he came out for his postgame news conference, he looked just right: shades in place, sharp trim purple suit neatly pressed, diamond earring glittering.

The new reality for Pierre-Paul is cluttered with small, everyday things he has to relearn how to do. The damage those fireworks did to his right hand on July 4 is obvious and startling, and it will accompany him for the rest of his life.

But on Sunday, on the field where he played his college football games for the University of South Florida, there was a time when everything felt normal again -- like nothing had ever happened.

"The fourth quarter," Pierre-Paul said without hesitating. "Just knew it was time to close the game. Had to get a stop."

Pierre-Paul's first game of the season was a 32-18 Giants victory, and he played in 73 percent of the team's defensive snaps -- a whopper of a number, compared to pregame expectations. Even coach Tom Coughlin said that was more than expected, though teammates said they weren't surprised.

"Not surprised," Odell Beckham Jr. said. "He's a beast."

Even Pierre-Paul wouldn't claim he is the beast he used to be. He laughed and offered a flat "no" when asked if he thought he could have played more. He said playing with his left hand on the ground at the right defensive end spot was going to take some getting used to. He admitted to having to shake off a good amount of rust.

"This is my first game back," Pierre-Paul said. "I'm a little rusty in some areas. Need to go back and watch the film and see where I can get better and get ready for New England."

There were times when he couldn't fight his way through the line, times when the Bucs had success running in his direction and times when he wasn't even on the field. But in that fourth quarter, he was routinely beating rookie left tackle Donovan Smith and letting Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston know he was there. He didn't get any sacks, but he proudly said, "We did make him uncomfortable." A Giants pass rush badly in need of help was grateful for that, and Pierre-Paul's teammates were moved simply by the sight of him.

"Huge boost," defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins said. "His physical presence, being out there the player he is, knowing he can make big plays. But just knowing what he's been through and what he's done to get back, it puts everything in perspective."

Jenkins said Pierre-Paul spoke with some of the offensive and defensive linemen on the field in warmups and talked about treating every game and play as if it's your last. Pierre-Paul told them he wondered in the summer if he'd played his final play and exhorted them to be appreciative of the day and the opportunity in front of them. It wasn't a fiery speech -- just a mature, matter-of-fact one befitting the grown-up persona Pierre-Paul has brought with him since his return.

"I was just very quiet," Pierre-Paul said of his pregame prep. "Normally, I would be listening to music or whatever, but I was just really quiet. Just focused."

Pierre-Paul's new normal isn't all deformed fingers and button-fumbling. It has football now, which is huge, but it also has a happy, little smile waiting for him at the end of the day. After he finished discussing his postgame performance, all Pierre-Paul wanted to know was where the family area was, so he could see his 10-month-old son, Josiah, who'd made the trip to see his dad play for the first time. Pierre-Paul is a father now, which any father knows is what really changes you. That was as big a part of this big, big Sunday as anything.

"He's just going to get better and better," Coughlin said.

From a football standpoint, that might very well be. But for a lot of other reasons, Sunday was the kind of day that's going to be pretty hard to top.