Greg Minnis was walking by the Deerfield Beach High School outdoor basketball courts five years ago when the varsity football coach stopped to watch a pick-up game.
It was a typical Florida day, sunny and warm. But Minnis' eyes were fixated on a 6-5 dunking machine named Jason Pierre-Paul, who was unleashing a full-on assault on the rim and any poor soul who dared to stand in his way.
"He was like a man against boys," Minnis recalled. "I said you need to try football, and he kind of brushed me off."
For the next month, Minnis stayed on Pierre-Paul like a pesky college recruiter. Whenever he would see Pierre-Paul in the hallways, Minnis would shout, "I want to see what you got on the football field."
After Pierre-Paul suffered a broken leg dunking while playing basketball his sophomore year, Minnis got the break he needed. Pierre-Paul decided to give up basketball. The last thing he wanted to do was put on pads and play football. Minnis, though, finally convinced Pierre-Paul to give football a chance during his junior year. The first game he played in was a playoff game for Deerfield Beach. A reluctant star was born.
"He dragged me into football," said Pierre-Paul, who has actually told a story of Minnis literally needing to drag him into the football locker room to get him to try the sport out. "At first, I didn't like it. I didn't really understand everything. When I started to understand everything, it grew on me."
Fortunately for the New York Giants, Minnis persistence paid off. Five years after being persuaded to try football, Pierre-Paul became the 15th-overall pick by the Giants and the latest stud defensive end in a stable of pass rushers. The scary thing is the 6-5, 270-pound Pierre-Paul is still learning the game. He only played one season at South Florida following two years of junior college.
"I'm just god-gifted, I have a talent," Pierre-Paul said at the scouting combine. "Even when I played basketball, no one ever taught me the game, I just played it. And with football, I just converted basketball to football and just played."
Pierre-Paul, 21, has always shown some toughness. Minnis, now coaching at Westlake High School in Atlanta, said Pierre-Paul's quick recovery from his broken leg and ability to get on the football field with no sign of the injury, still surprises him. When Pierre-Paul sustained a neck injury while playing in a game for Fort Scott Community College (Kansas), he had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Not long after going through a series of tests and an MRI, Pierre-Paul emerged from the emergency room and caught a ride back to the stadium where he pleaded with the coaches to insert him back into the game. He even had the medical paperwork as proof for his coaches that he could play again.
That toughness and determination may be traced to his childhood. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in South Florida raised by Haitian immigrants, Jean and Marie. His father, Jean, went blind when Pierre-Paul was a toddler. So his mother worked backbreaking hours as a housekeeper to make ends meet. Pierre-Paul remembers seeing her leave the house at 6 am and not return until 8 pm.
Coming out of high school, Pierre-Paul was good enough in one season at Deerfield Beach to get a scholarship offer from Central Florida. His grades forced him to take the junior college route. Despite bouncing from College of the Canyons in California to Fort Scott in Kansas, Pierre-Paul was on the national college football map after registering 24.5 sacks during his two seasons in junior college. Florida, Miami, Florida State and Nebraska were among the schools interested.
Instead, Pierre-Paul chose the Bulls, whose coaches stayed in touch with him throughout his junior college days.
It didn't take Pierre-Paul long to make an impression. Kevin Patrick, South Florida's assistant coach, was startled when he saw Pierre-Paul do a standing backflip in pads and helmet on a recruiting trip. Video of Pierre-Paul doing 13 consecutive backflips has made him a YouTube sensation, generating over 500,000 views. Pierre-Paul says his record is 23 straight. Patrick said Pierre-Paul floored him his first week of practice for the Bulls in 2009. He said Pierre-Paul tossed an offensive tackle to the turf with such ferocity that Patrick found himself watching the play over and over again on video.
"He gave him a Reggie White underneath counter move," Patrick said. "When he threw the guy, this offensive tackle's ear was on the ground but his feet were still in the air when he landed. The guy landed on his ear."
Another time, Patrick said, "We have a kid who is 6-7, 315-pounds and I've seen (Pierre-Paul) grab him by his chest with both hands and throw him down. When he figures it all out he is going to be good. Wait until he gets into an offseason workout program. When he starts putting his package together as far as his moves and techniques, he will be an All-Pro."
Similar to Patrick, Marc Ross, Giants director of college scouting, found himself pausing video of Pierre-Paul numerous times as well. One of those moments came when Pierre-Paul introduced himself to the nation with three tackles for a loss, one sack, a forced fumble and two quarterback pressures in his first start for South Florida against Florida State.
"He was a guy that during the season when I went to South Florida because I had four senior guys (to scout) you put the tape on and you say, 'Wow, who in the world is this guy?'" Ross said of the junior. "This guy is a freak of nature. He has done things that I haven't seen in scouting -- in games -- that I just haven't seen. Combination of the length and power and speed -- just running through people and rag-dolling tackles. He is just a different breed of athlete."
While he may play fast, furious and with an edge on the field, Pierre-Paul's personality is laid-back, friendly and almost shy. During his conference call with the New York media the day after he was drafted in the first round, Pierre-Paul barely gave answers longer than two sentences.
"The great thing about him is that he is not going to be shooting his mouth and running around at the club," Patrick said of Pierre-Paul, who is engaged to South Florida basketball player Melissa Dalembert, sister of Sixers center Samuel Dalembert. "Of course you never know what will happen, but that is the type of guy that he was with us. He's a big kid. He is the most lovable guy off the field. Just a teddy bear. When he gets on that field he explodes and has rage."
That's a far cry from when Minnis asked him to play football the first time.
"It was a pretty good gift," Pierre-Paul said.
Ohm Youngmisuk covers the Giants for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.