Quietly climbing the charts

It really didn't matter if you knew Jason Pierre-Paul or not when he showed up at the NFL scouting combine in February.

Either way, the response -- "where the heck did that come from?'' -- was going to be the same.

Scouts and coaches were wondering that as they watched the workouts of a player with only one season of Division I experience. Some will tell you Pierre-Paul was the best natural athlete to stroll through Lucas Oil Field during the annual showcase for draft prospects. He took his workout and a little bit of film and turned himself into a probable first-round pick with a chance to be the highest-drafted player in the University of South Florida's brief history.

Then, he stepped in front of a group of reporters and declared himself the best pass-rusher in this year's draft. That's when those who know Pierre-Paul were truly stunned.

"He's right about being the best pass-rusher in the draft,'' said South Florida safety Nate Allen, who also is expected to be drafted somewhere in the first three rounds. "But I couldn't believe he actually said that.''

Reporters and sports information officials who dealt with Pierre-Paul on a daily basis last season were shocked that he said something that actually was worthy of a quote. Pierre-Paul created plenty of memories in his one season in Tampa, but none of them had anything to do with words.

Pierre-Paul can rush a quarterback and he probably can do more backflips than any human you've ever seen (more on that later), but he's not known as a talker.

"You interviewed him already?'' Pierre-Paul's sister, Nadie, asked a reporter last week. "Did he say anything you can use? I'm sorry, Jason just gets like that around other people.''

Nadie doesn't need to apologize for her brother. When he wants to talk, he does, and he speaks with a quiet confidence that may be a sign he's starting to realize the position he has put himself in. And perhaps more than any other player in this draft, he's got a story to tell.

"I guess you could say I took the hard route,'' Pierre-Paul said. "That doesn't work for everybody, but it's worked out all right for me.''

In just about every mock draft, he's a first-round pick, and many have him going in the top 20, which would put him ahead of cornerback Mike Jenkins, who set the USF bar when he went to Dallas with the 25th overall pick in 2008. But to truly appreciate Pierre-Paul's story, you have to hear where he's been.

Start in South Florida 25 years ago when Jean and Marie Pierre-Paul were starting a family. Jason is the third of five children (Nadie is the second). Jean Pierre-Paul was born in Haiti and spent time in Canada and New York before settling on South Florida as the place to raise his family. He went to work every day and Marie stayed home to care for the children.

But that all started to change when Jason was 3 or 4. Jean suddenly started having trouble seeing. He went to a doctor and it was discovered that a virus had caused nerve damage to his eyes. The doctor said there was nothing he could do. Within a very short time, Jean was blind. Soon, he was staying home with the kids and Marie was working long hours as a hotel housekeeper.

"A lot of nights, I didn't see her until 8 or 9 and then I had to go to bed,'' Pierre-Paul said. "It wasn't easy for her or my dad, but they always did what they had to do to take care of us.''

The family moved to Deerfield Beach as Jason approached high school, but aside from some games in the neighborhood, he really wasn't into sports.

"My mom didn't want him playing any sports,'' Nadie said. "She was afraid of him getting hurt. He finally talked her into it. People always say he's shy and quiet, but you should have seen him back then. He had to work really hard to talk her into it.''

Pierre-Paul started off as a promising basketball player, but he broke his leg as a high school sophomore and gave up the sport. Later, the football coaches at his high school couldn't resist trying to talk the big, athletic kid into giving their sport a try.

Pierre-Paul joined the team as a junior and had a pretty productive high school career. He had a scholarship offer from Central Florida, but "once they found out I didn't have very good scores [on standardized tests given to all Florida high school students], the scholarship offer disappeared,'' Pierre-Paul said.

That's how Pierre-Paul wound up at College of the Canyons, a junior college in California, as a freshman. He transferred to Fort Scott Community College in Kansas for his second year and drew a lot of attention from major colleges, as he had 10.5 sacks and was named a first-team junior college All-American. But even then, nothing was certain. Pierre-Paul needed to take a few online courses last summer to get enough credits to be accepted into South Florida.

His parents and Nadie chipped in to pay for the courses, and Pierre-Paul joined his new teammates after missing most of summer practice.

"As soon as he walked on the field, you could tell he was a freak,'' Allen said. "He started doing things none of us had ever seen before.''

That's where the backflips come in. In a video that's making the rounds on the Internet -- filmed at the end of a practice session for the International Bowl in Toronto -- Pierre-Paul and teammate Kion Wilson staged a backflip competition. Pierre-Paul did 13 back flips with ease. Wilson struggled from the beginning and stopped after eight, seven if you don't count the first one, which looks more like a cartwheel.

"I could have kept going,'' Pierre-Paul said. "I just knew that I'd done enough that Kion wasn't even going to come close.''

So what's Pierre-Paul's personal record for consecutive backflips?

"I did 23 one time, just around the neighborhood,'' Pierre-Paul said.

That athleticism is what started to get Pierre-Paul noticed quickly last season. His breakout game (three tackles for losses, a sack and a forced fumble) came early against Florida State. Pierre-Paul finished the season with 6.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for a losses. He has a year of eligibility remaining, but the coaching change from Jim Leavitt to Skip Holtz at South Florida and a desire to start repaying his parents convinced Pierre-Paul it was time to go to the NFL.

Amid all the excitement about his athleticism, the one knock against Pierre-Paul is that he might be nothing more than a great athlete with little experience against top competition.

If you really want to get Pierre-Paul talking, ask him about being described as a one-hit wonder.

"Anybody that says that, I just tell them to go back and look,'' Pierre-Paul said. "Yes, I went the junior-college route, but I was playing at some very good junior colleges. The bottom line is I'm a football player and I played three years of college football and I produced all three years. I also got better every year and I just felt like it was time to move on. We'll see if I was a one-hit wonder.''

The inflection in Pierre-Paul's voice in that last sentence sounded as if it came from a man who is determined to make it in the NFL. In his quiet way, Pierre-Paul already is making plans for that.

"He's already told my mother that once everything comes down with his contract, she's not going to be working anymore,'' said Nadie, a 22-year-old nursing student.

Nadie is much more talkative than her little brother, and she still has to push and prod him a bit.

"Sometimes, he doesn't like attention or pressure,'' Nadie said. "I've got to yell at him and motivate him a little bit, but he is getting better at it.''

Maybe Pierre-Paul already has the inner motivation he needs. Maybe it's the woman who once tried to talk him out of playing football. Maybe now he can talk her out of putting in those 12- and 14-hour days at work.

"Coming from a home like I did, I learned a lot about work ethic and determination,'' Pierre-Paul said. "People say it's easy for me because of my athletic ability. But there's a lot of work that went into that, and I'll continue to work like that in the NFL. My mom worked like crazy for us. Now, it's my turn to reward her and my dad for all they went through.''

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.