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Buccaneers' Jason Pierre-Paul overcame the odds again but future is uncertain

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Just moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 27-23 loss at the Tennessee Titans in Week 8, a fuming Jason Pierre-Paul entered the locker room and stormed over to a group of young players: “We just lost a f---ing game!" he shouted, irate they were showing little contrition after falling to 2-5.

The linebacker didn’t sit on the couch for months in a neck brace just to watch the Bucs’ defense fold week after week. He didn't will his body back from a fractured neck to be part of this.

“Nobody likes to lose. Who likes to lose? Nobody. I like to win. So anytime we ain’t, I’m pissed,” said Pierre-Paul, who suffered two fractured vertebrae in a South Florida car accident on May 2.

“If I see guys laughing -- I’m an old-school guy, I came in with the old game. When you’d lose, man, you’d take that to heart. You’d see players punching lockers, getting into it with other players. That’s the era I came in. But at the end of the day, I’m still going. I’m 30 years old. I’m gonna keep on going until I’m ready to hang 'em up.”

Pierre-Paul’s contract is up at the end of the season. Even as the Bucs’ record has crept up to 6-7 with a three-game win streak, a postseason berth is no longer possible. Yet he’s not only playing at a high level, but has become one of their most vocal -- and in many ways, one of their most emotionally invested -- leaders.

“That’s what he does. That’s what we need. We’ve got a few guys like that, but we need more of it,” said Bucs outside linebackers coach Larry Foote, who won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pierre-Paul corrals guys on the sideline for pep talks and throws his arms in the air, walking toward the end zone during timeouts to ignite sluggish crowds.

“A lot of guys in my position would have been checked out,” Pierre-Paul said. “My passion just comes within me. Hopefully if guys can see it, they’ll pick up the same way. … You get passion out of me.”

A second comeback

Pierre-Paul can vividly remember the accident, when his Ferrari spun out of control at 2:53 a.m. on Interstate 95 in Fort Lauderdale. The road was slippery and his car hydroplaned into a concrete barrier.

“I replay it 24-7 in my brain,” said Pierre-Paul, who was not cited in the crash.

He immediately knew something was wrong with his neck when he tried to help his best friend, James Harold Thompson, out of the car. He didn’t experience any tingling sensations in his arms but his hand locked up. He had to force it open with his other hand.

Mike Alessi, Pierre-Paul's personal trainer, couldn’t believe the text message.

“I’m like, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” said Alessi, who remembers how hard it was watching Pierre-Paul recover from a serious fireworks accident that mangled his right hand in 2015.

The initial thought after his latest accident was he’d likely need surgery. There was fear within the organization that he’d not only miss the season, but possibly never play again. Fractured necks had claimed plenty of other NFL careers -- from Chris Spielman to David Pollack to Mike Utley.

Pierre-Paul wore a neck brace, morning and night, for nearly four months.

On Aug. 27, Pierre-Paul got clearance to begin more intensive rehabilitation. Then on Oct. 15, while teammates were away for the bye week, he practiced for the first time at the team facility in full pads with Foote and a couple of practice-squad offensive linemen.

“I was just anxious. And he was, too. I was worried. Hopefully his neck would hold up. A lot of times doctors can clear, but you never know until you feel that impact,” said Foote.

“At first we started off slow and then it was bang, bang! Taking on those double-teams. He wanted that double-team part. He wanted that security. He wanted to be confident that, ‘I go can go out there and play full-speed and nothing’s gonna be wrong with my neck.’”

Pierre-Paul was activated from the non-football injury list Oct. 26. The next day, on his first snap against the Titans, he sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

In seven games, he’s recorded 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.

“It took a lot just to get where I’m at. Especially confidence," Pierre-Paul said. "You have to have confidence to even try to start. It took a lot.”

Nothing for granted

When he returned to Tampa, Pierre-Paul didn’t even pack extra clothes because he was unsure if he’d make it back to the field. He now spends what little free time he has shopping at Tampa International Mall so he has something to wear.

“I can’t even imagine what he’s been through,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “Just seeing him out there and him rounding into form right now and playing harder, and grasping the scheme in the short time he’s grasped it. And playing the way he’s playing, I’m happy to be around him.”

He’s helped open things up for fellow pass-rushers Carl Nassib and Shaq Barrett, who now has an NFL-leading 15 sacks -- one away from Warren Sapp’s single-season franchise record. Pierre-Paul has also created opportunities on the back end for players such as rookie inside linebacker Devin White, who’s generated a sack or takeaway in each of the last three games.

“He makes my blood rise. Because he’s so crazy. He’s in a world of his own. But he’s a great guy, a great player,” White said. “... He’s doing certain stuff to help other people. I mean, that’s respectful. He’s a team player. He don’t care who makes the play.”

Rookie outside linebacker Kahzin Daniels is from New Jersey and grew up watching Pierre-Paul when he was a big part of the Giants' pass rush from 2010 to 2017.

“JPP -- he brings a lot of heart,” Daniels said. “... I’ve always seen the heart and the passion, but what he brings to our room and our team and our group as a whole is that fire, that passion.”

Foote said Pierre-Paul backs it up with his production.

“You can’t rah-rah and scream and yell at people if you ain’t out here busting your butt. It’s gotta go hand in hand. He does that. As long as he keeps bringing that energy and juice, guys are gonna listen to him and respect him,” Foote said.

In his 13 years in the NFL as a player and now as a coach, Foote said he’s never seen someone come back from the injury Pierre-Paul suffered.

“But I understand now. He’s strong mentally,” Foote said. “He’s a Gumby -- I call him Gumby, the way he moves, the way he rushes -- as long as he keeps that up, he can play as long as he wants.”

'A lot to think about'

How long will he want to keep playing? The Bucs restructured his contract by eliminating the final year of his deal, and chopping his salary from $13.65 million to $10.5 million, making him an unrestricted free agent in 2020. He likes what the Bucs are building under Bruce Arians and Bowles and wants to be part of that. Both Barrett and Nassib are free agents, as is defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

“I’ve got a lot to think about after this season,” Pierre-Paul said. “It’s been a hard 10 years, man. … I would love to be here next year. We’ll see.”

How much would it take to re-sign him? Would he take something comparable to his current deal, perhaps with more incentives? It’s difficult to gauge his market because other teams may still have concerns over his injury, despite being just one year removed from 12.5 sacks.

“My neck is just like everyone else’s,” Pierre-Paul said.

One league executive told ESPN, “If the physical is clear, then there’s no concern.”

Age could also be a consideration. Pierre-Paul will be 31 on Jan. 1. He’s been surprisingly durable this year considering he didn't go through the offseason, training camp or preseason. In seven games, he’s played 390 total snaps -- fifth-most on the team and more than any of their pass-rushers. Of Barrett’s 6.5 sacks that have come after Week 8, 5.5 of them were with Pierre-Paul on the field with him.

“I love the way he rushes,” Barrett said. “The way he rushes, the way I rush -- it works perfectly together in a lot of situations. … It’s no surprise that I got sacks with him on the other side because he does require attention as well….We’re making [teams] pick their poison.”

The desire to remain in Florida is appealing for Pierre-Paul. He has a chauffeured van bring a large group of relatives and close friends up from South Florida for every home game.

“At this point in my career, I have done it all. My family -- it’s an opportunity for them [to see it up close]. It’s all a big circle. I’m embracing it,” Pierre-Paul said.

His son Josiah is getting older, and he enjoys taking him on the field before games. He’s been married for two years to his wife Louise and they have an infant daughter, Jollien.

Alessi sees a father who wants to show his children what it means to never give up.

“There’s no reason that can’t carry over to his children,” Alessi said. “He’s always gonna be able to reference back to this time when he persevered through this stuff.”

Pierre-Paul doesn't sound like a player thinking about retirement.

“There’s a reason I bet on myself this year. It all came down to the business-side of football. I will always bet on myself. Because I know God is amazing. Just to put me here with a broken neck, fireworks with the hand -- like I keep on asking myself every day, ‘What’s next?’ Because you don’t know. … But my faith is so heavy that nothing can break me. Nothing can break me. That’s why football is so easy. It’s easy for me.”