By Ernie Palladino
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Jason Pierre-Paul's life changed for the better exactly one year ago on this day.
That statement comes with a bucket of irony considering this is the anniversary of the day -- July 4, 2015 -- that the Giants' star defensive end blew off a good part of his right hand when his little neighborhood fireworks festival in Florida went horribly awry.
There was blood, and plenty of it. At first, he thought he'd die. Then, he wondered if he would ever play football again. And then came the determination that not only would he return to the gridiron, but he would make a comeback that very year.
But that is not the important part of this story. The real headline underscores Pierre-Paul's personal growth through his whole ordeal. He has become the latest of many embodiments of the concept that a person matures when he walks through the fire.
JPP always had strength and incredible speed, which he used in his early career to bring down quarterbacks with alarming regularity. But there was always an immaturity to him, a part of him that just didn't think about consequences.
He ticked off coach Tom Coughlin mightily in 2012 when he dumped Prince Amukamara into a cold tub as part of a preseason locker room prank. Not a smart thing to do, considering the organization had such high expectations for their 2011 first-round pick after an injury-wrecked rookie year.
His overall personality in his media appearances hinted at a boyish invincibility. Like many players, he considered himself almost bulletproof, even as back problems and double teams wore at his performance the three years after his 16½-sack coming out party in 2011.
That changed immediately when that M-80 exploded in his hand.
Fear of amputation, a descent into semiconsciousness, the shock of seeing the hand pinned together, now without its index finger and part of his thumb all brought Pierre-Paul to a new state of reality.
He was not the 6-foot-5, 278-pound freak whose video of him doing one backflip after another once wowed the draft scouts. He was just a guy, broken and slapped together again with metal.
But as such, he became ever more determined to get back on the field. Even more important, he became more socially aware. He realized he could use his story to help save others from his painful, destructive fate. It's why you may see him today in his public service announcement warning kids and adults of the dangers of DIY pyrotechnics.
"I'm just truly, truly blessed to be alive," JPP says in the PSA while displaying a mangled hand which underwent additional surgery this offseason to improve his grip. It remains a grisly, jarring image for the first-time viewer.
It ends with his pronouncement that adults should "keep fireworks away from kids," and to leave professional fireworks "to the fireworks professionals."
All good advice coming from one who experienced first-hand how quickly Independence Day can turn tragic.
JPP indeed made it back for the final eight games of 2015, recording one sack, two fumble recoveries and a number of pressures. He has worked hard in the offseason program with new linemates Olivier Vernon and Damon "Snacks" Harrison, along with comebacking defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins. The additional surgery should increase flexibility in his damaged thumb and middle finger.
Whether that results in a return to his 2011 form, or even of his 12½-sack level of 2014 is immaterial in the context of his overall life story.
The headline here is that JPP walked through the fire, survived and grew up.
For all the money he stands to make, for all the glory that is there to be had on the football field, personal growth trumps it all.
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