TAMPA, Fla. -- Almost apologetically, they note that Steve Spagnuolo, their beloved former defensive coordinator, will be on the other sideline Sunday. In nearly any other circumstance, against any other opponent, that would mean these former players would be unabashed and unconflicted fans of the Kansas City Chiefs for Super Bowl LV. They had, after all, won a Super Bowl with Spagnuolo and his "NASCAR" defense in the 2007 season and then the New York Giants used the NASCAR to batter Tom Brady again to win a second Super Bowl in 2011. Spags versus Brady again with another Lombardi Trophy on the line? That's an easy choice for a bunch of former Giants.
Except that one of the engines of the NASCAR, one of the primary tormenters of Brady in Super Bowl XLVI, has done the football equivalent of sleeping with the enemy.
Jason Pierre-Paul beat him. And now, he has joined him.
"I'm sure Tom Brady is happy about it," said Osi Umenyiora, the former Giants defensive end who lined up beside Pierre-Paul -- the NASCAR nickname came about because of all the speed Spagnuolo put on the field by using at least three defensive ends at a time. "Happy to not be facing that guy."
The truth is that the former Giants are happy, too, or at least happier than outsiders might expect about a former colleague teaming up with a fierce rival. Aside from his prodigious talent -- remember the video of him doing more than a dozen consecutive backflips? -- Pierre-Paul was a funny and extremely popular teammate, whose locker room rap battles, complete with microphone and speakers, raised the energy during the groundhog days of the season.
"This is beyond bizarre for us." Former Giants OL David Diehl on rooting for Tom Brady's Bucs
To understand the bond that still exists between Pierre-Paul and his old teammates, it would have helped to be on Pierre-Paul's Super Bowl Zoom with the media on Monday afternoon. Pierre-Paul was his goofy self while technology issues were worked through, chatting about the battery life on his iPhone, wondering aloud why he wasn't getting any questions yet and cursing prodigiously. Then a familiar face popped in for a question: Umenyiora, who is now a media member in London.
Singing and cackling ensued. "You got to lead from the front! You cannot lead from the back!" Pierre-Paul shouted to Umenyiora.
Umenyiora: "I don't even have a question, I just wanted to say, 'What's up?' You know what to do. Go get 'em, man."
Pierre-Paul: "I miss you, bro. Love, bro, love. My dog, man."
Even as most of his former teammates have retired, and even after the Giants traded Pierre-Paul to the Bucs before the 2018 season, he has remained close to many of the Giants players with whom he shared that Super Bowl run. That, Umenyiora noted, is not always the norm and it is why there is more unbridled delight than mixed emotion for Pierre-Paul teaming with Brady now. Umenyiora says the two FaceTime almost every week, and before the season, Pierre-Paul vowed, "I'm going to go get it."
He did, with a 9.5-sack season and two sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. That helped put Brady into his 10th Super Bowl and that, of course, is the dominant storyline in two weeks of build up to the game. But there is Pierre-Paul, too, forcing the former Giants into what might be a strange position, given their shared history. They're going to have to root for Tom Brady?
"This is beyond bizarre for us," said former offensive lineman David Diehl, another member of the 2011 Giants.
It is also a bit of a relief, though. Pierre-Paul is only 32, but his life has contained multitudes. He was a raw talent when the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2010 and was so inexperienced he had to be taught how to properly lift weights. He made a very fast first impression even when he was on the scout team -- opposing linemen immediately noticed his very long arms.
"He was a handful," said NFL Network's Shaun O'Hara, who was Pierre-Paul's teammate in 2010.
Kevin Boothe, an offensive lineman on those Giants teams, said the offensive linemen tutored Pierre-Paul not to line up too close to them because it was too easy for them to grab him. They were, Boothe said, teaching Pierre-Paul to be a great player so he could embarrass them in practice. And they still sound annoyed that Pierre-Paul's special teams excellence was not recognized with postseason awards in his rookie season. Now, the former teammates talk admiringly about the resilience and love of football that drove Pierre-Paul to overcome situations that would have surely ended most careers.
In the giddy moments after the NFC Championship Game victory over the Green Bay Packers, Pierre-Paul joked that if he had to talk about the journey he has been on, it could take forever. He summed it up nicely, though, on Monday.
"Resiliency means no matter how hard it seems, just don't quit," Pierre-Paul said. "It's easier said than done. I never quit at anything in life I did. I'm going to give it everything I got, until I can't."
The fireworks accident on the Fourth of July in 2015 cost him the index finger on his right hand, parts of two other fingers and a shot at a blockbuster contract following a 12.5 sack season. He somehow returned to play the final eight games of 2015. Playing on a one-year contract in 2016, he had seven sacks. Finally, he got a long-term deal in 2017 and after an 8.5-sack season, he was traded to the Bucs. In 2019, Pierre-Paul fractured a vertebra in his neck in a frightening single car accident when his Ferrari slid on a wet road and crashed into a highway concrete barrier. Again, he returned to play 10 games that season.
"Ninety-nine out of 100 would be finished," Umenyiora said. "He's just a special athlete. He was definitely going to be able to come through."
Said Chris Canty, another former Giants defensive end from that group: "It's a hell of a second act."
And now it has come full circle. While Brady has been to four Super Bowls -- and won three of them -- since that last loss to the Giants, this is Pierre-Paul's first return appearance since that game. He was the junior member of that NASCAR scheme then -- the other stars were Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka -- and was just 22 years old when, in his second season in the NFL, he had 16.5 sacks. Pierre-Paul took over late in the season when, with the Giants scrambling for a wild-card spot, he had six sacks in the final four games, three of which the Giants won. In the Divisional Round that year, the Giants had to travel to Lambeau Field to play the 15-1 Packers, the NFC's top seed.
"You know how somebody just doesn't know any better?" Umenyiora said. "He's just gifted. We're going to play Green Bay and somebody went to interview him and Jason said, 'We're going to come back with a win.' He said it matter of factly. Like we were going to go chew gum, like it was that easy. That was the way his mind works."
In the Super Bowl, Pierre-Paul chased Brady and got a hand on him as Brady launched a deep pass in the fourth quarter that was intercepted by Chase Blackburn. It was the only turnover of the game.
"We were supremely confident," Canty said. "We knew what the formula was because some of those guys did it four years earlier. Osi was the closer, Justin was the leader, but JPP was the freak show. We knew we could pressure and affect the game."
Pierre-Paul has memories of that game, too.
"I remember about that Super Bowl me trying to get to Brady at the last throw, trying to knock the ball out of his hands before he got it off in the air," he said. "What I remember about that front seven -- we was relentless. No guy cared about the other team. We wanted to just play some great football."
The Bucs will need that kind of performance against a quarterback who is as daunting an opponent now as Brady was for the Giants then.
O'Hara likes Pierre-Paul's chances, considering that, as in the NFC Championship Game, Pierre-Paul will be facing a backup left tackle with the Chiefs' Eric Fisher out, to be replaced by Mike Remmers, a guard and right tackle who will be playing left tackle.
"He's licking his chops," O'Hara said.
Not exactly. The player who his old teammates fondly say didn't know any better during his earlier Super Bowl run hasn't changed all that much.
"I didn't even know who that was," Pierre-Paul said, when asked about Remmers. "Man, I'm not going to lie to you. Is this a tackle that you're talking about?"
His old teammates are rooting for him to find out.