Buccaneers' Jason Pierre-Paul has embraced his amputations and grown; now he's helping me

ByRyan Hockensmith ESPN logo
Thursday, February 4, 2021

Toward the end of the 2015 season, Jason Pierre-Paul walked into a room for an interview with Fox. Before he sat down in his chair, the reporter, Laura Okmin, stood, smiled ... and gave him the finger.

Pierre-Paul smiled back -- and threw a bird her way, too.

The New York Giants' PR people and Fox camera crew all stopped what they were doing and just stared at one another. Okmin let it hang in the air for a second, and then she explained what was happening as Pierre-Paul laughed along with the quick backstory:

She had spoken with Pierre-Paul earlier in the season, right before his first game back after a horrible fireworks accident that July. He had blown off his index finger and the top half of his middle finger. When he sat down, she noticed he hid his hand a bit, just out of view of the camera and the people in the room. She noticed this because she had hidden her hand, too. She had been hiding her hand for decades.

After the interview, Okmin approached Pierre-Paul with a confession. When she had been 9 months old, her middle finger had gotten chopped off in the spokes of an exercise bike. Doctors had reattached it, but it wasn't quite the same. They shared a moment in the hallway, holding up their middle fingers together, two puffy reminders of painful moments. From that day forward, every time Okmin and JPP encounter each other, they begin with a one-finger salute that unites them -- and confuses everybody else in the room.

Okmin recently tweeted a selfie of the two of them holding up their middle fingers, with a caption about how much it has helped her to see Pierre-Paul showing the world his hurts in such an unflinching, unashamed way. She jokingly calls her middle finger her "fat finger" because the top half, where doctors had fused the tip back on, is thick and puffy. It can't grow a normal nail, so (during non-pandemic times) Okmin has always gotten manicures with one special request: Can you please apply a special fake nail to my middle finger?

The tweet was striking because, in the hellscape of Twitter, it felt deeply of healing. Of two different people with body traumas who combined forces years ago to get over the hurdle of shame. Of two people who will not hide their hands anymore, damn it.

I couldn't help but wonder, How do I get there, too?

Fifteen years ago, I made a great -- but terrible -- decision to have the ends of my feet amputated. It was great because it turned out to be the right thing to do for my body. It was terrible because I made the decision mostly to get painkillers. If the whole thing were a math problem, I got the answer right despite showing the wrong work.

I'd had several small amputations after contracting bacterial meningitis to get me to six toes, but my surgeon eventually said I might be better off sparing myself a steady stream of small surgeries over the next few years and having all my toes removed at once. So I had the surgery. I went from a size 12 foot to a size 4 foot in one afternoon. I woke up in a haze and stayed in an opioid-induced living coma for about the next three years until I realized I could either die or go to rehab. I picked rehab, and the past 12 years have been my best 12 years on Earth.

I never healed, though. Sure, the actual hurt wore off. My body got better. They took the bandages off and removed the staples, and I did physical therapy and pain management and all the other stuff to make my body physically functional again.

But looking back, I think I should have held a funeral for my feet. Maybe invite loved ones, prop up the toes in a small casket, say a eulogy and celebrate the many good years my little buddies had given me. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but funerals are life's clearest sign that you're wrapping up a chapter and must find a way to start the next one. You can laugh and cry and work through it all.

I never really did that with my feet. Losing a part of yourself is a trauma way deeper than the actual wounds. You understand the fragility of life in a way that can be wonderful if you process it the way Jason Pierre-Paul has, as a gift disguised as awfulness. Deep in your soul, you realize that the only moment guaranteed to you is this one you're in right now, that your body might not be a temple, but it is definitely your hotel room for the night. Lean -- hard -- into your defects.

That's where Pierre-Paul got to, mentally. His dad lost his eyesight as an adult, and Pierre-Paul said he never heard him complain once about what must have been an incredible loss as an adult. "With my hand," he says now, "I was looking at my hand every day and wondering, 'How?' Not why. Don't ask why. Ask how. And you know how it happened -- because I chose to play with those fireworks. I was the one who chose that. ... I didn't think I was never going to play football again. I just thought about how much of my hand that was still there and figured out how to work hard to get back."

I wish I'd had Pierre-Paul's philosophy: the idea that amputation isn't a sad end, but an adventure to find a new beginning, that new chapter. Instead, I stuffed my face with Vicodin and Percocet and Oxycontin, sometimes all together in one big overdose party in my stomach, and tried to just bury everything.

Since I got sober, I've done a lot better with accepting my feet. It's a long, complicated process that many amputees go through -- by the way, there are an estimated 2 million Americans with amputations, including 185,000 new cases every year, so next time you go to Target, chances are you'll cruise past somebody like me. I'm not weird. My feet aren't horrific deformities. I'm different. That's it: different.

One huge thing that's helped me is learning to laugh about my feet. Back at Christmastime, I came down the steps while my wife and three daughters were in the dining room. When I come down steps, I land hard, like my tiny feet are fists balled up, punching the floor. I heard someone in the dining room say, "Geez, it sounds like a reindeer is running loose through the house."

Everybody laughed, and I heard my kindergartner's voice quietly say, "Here comes Rudolph," and they all laughed ever louder. And I laughed, too. It was genuinely funny, and I'd rather be laughing than crying.

Okmin is big on humor, too. We had a good giggle when we were on the phone and she called her finger her nub.

"That's what we call my feet, too!" I yelled.

"We're in the nub club," she joked back.

She credits her conversations with Pierre-Paul over the years as key to finding the funny when it comes to her finger. Pierre-Paul thinks it's crucial to laugh about your loss -- this summer, he posted on Instagram about old memes where people goofed on him for having a "Ninja Turtle hand," holding up his hand for a closeup and saying "I'm still counting dem racks with it lol." His 6-year-old son recently asked him for the first time what happened to his hand. Pierre-Paul explained it to him, and his son got a determined look on his face. "OK, I need to protect you," the boy said. "No more fireworks, Dad."

"I can laugh about that now," Pierre-Paul says. "It was a beautiful moment because he asked me. I didn't tell him. It was something he was wondering on his own. And then I could talk to him, and it's now up to him to not blow off his fingers."

The fireworks incident was ugly. He was entertaining his neighborhood, setting stuff off with friends, and accidentally set off the last one of the night in his hand. The New York tabloids and talk radio-industrial complexes had a field day with him, and things got worse when reports leaked that Giants reps couldn't find Pierre-Paul. He said it was just a misunderstanding, that he'd been transferred to another hospital, that he wasn't hiding from the team.

Either way, the injury was terrible. His entire hand was black and burned, and nothing could be done to salvage parts of it. What remains is a puffy, scarred right hand that he now puts out there now with no shame. I find that inspiring.

I'm also struck by the sheer magnitude of that moment. Remember, I struggled with the shocking mortality I felt when my body was forever altered, and I'm just a dad-bodded sports editor. Think back to how the world saw Jason Pierre-Paul before that day in 2015. He had gone viral at South Florida after video surfaced of him, at 6-foot-5, 278 pounds, ripping off 13 straight backflips (he says he used to be able to do 23 without stopping, so that was actually a slow day at the office). When he got to the NFL, he was a breathtaking talent. You know the way NFL fans drool over Tyreek Hill for having moves? Well, we did that early on in Pierre-Paul's career.

And then July 4, 2015, happened. He has since done PSAs for fireworks safety and acknowledges that fireworks should be handled only by professionals. And he has moved on. He began to see his hand not as ruined, just new and different. That's so much easier said than done. It's so easy to see yourself as less than, to look at the wound and see only a billboard for your less-than-edness. You don't want the world to see you the way you're already seeing yourself. That's why I wear socks at the pool and at the beach. It's hard to square that circle.

I still remember taking one of my daughters to a kid's birthday party at an indoor rock-climbing gym. Everybody had to take their shoes off to be on the mats, so I took mine off. Within two minutes, I saw a little girl ignoring instructions because she couldn't stop looking at my tiny feet. And they are jarring, even in socks -- for perspective, I have a smaller foot than my daughter in kindergarten, and it's not really close.

So, this girl was just gawking. She leaned toward her mom's ear and whispered something, and then I watched them both start staring at my tiny feet. I eventually tried to distract them with a joke: "Hey, my eyes are up here, you two." The mom nervously chuckled, but I caught them both looking at me the rest of the day. It's really hard to not feel like a weirdo in those moments.

Know what Pierre-Paul does when somebody at the grocery store is staring at his hand? "I ask them if they want to see him, and then I walk up and show them," he says. "My hand is not a big problem. I'm OK with what I got."

Okmin is closer to that point than ever, too. She has had some profound exchanges -- granted, via dueling middle fingers -- with Pierre-Paul. But her thinking dramatically shifted when she started dating her future husband, Michael, a few years ago. On one of their early outings, she left behind her fake nail for the first time. During the date, he reached to hold her left hand, and she instinctively tried to pull back and sub in her right. But he wouldn't let go. "Hold on," he said, and he leaned down and kissed her middle finger.

"That was the first time I ever felt good about it," she says now. "He was telling me that finger was beautiful. If somebody had done that for me when I was a little girl, I would have felt so different going forward."

Her comfort has grown to the point of that aforementioned selfie tweet. "I would have never tweeted that until a year or two ago," she says. "I love that picture so much because I felt like it was a huge step for me. I'm proud of it."

I applauded her for putting it out there for the world to see, and she had some kind words for me about how I should love myself the way that I am, not the way that I was. And so we decided to take a small step together. We exchanged pictures of our wounds -- her finger, my feet -- and decided to take the leap of showing the world, too. So here they are. Our nubs are your nubs now.

When Pierre-Paul talks, he is a commanding presence. This guy has seen some s---, you end up thinking. And he has: He's been dealing with a knee injury all season that he says has him playing at 65-70% ("I can't wait to have surgery to fix my knee.") Before that, he suffered a broken neck in a 2019 car accident that could have been career-ending.

Now, he's back in the Super Bowl and a Pro Bowler for the first time since 2012, and he's a beacon of hope for us amputees. In this humble writer's opinion, he's already the Super Bowl MVP.

Before I let him go, I tell him I still feel a little sheepish -- embarrassed, even -- about my feet. Enter my new life coach, Jason Pierre-Paul:

"There's nothing to be embarrassed about," he says. "Think about it. You can change peoples' lives -- youuuu! You can change a little boy's life who might be hiding his body right now, who might not want to get in the pool because of his feet. A person like you can say, 'It's OK, look at me.' Do you have kids?"

Me: "Yes, three girls."

Him: "Three girls! Do they know about what happened to your feet?"

Me: "Yes."

Him: "And what do they say?"

Me (long pause after an audible gulp): "They're proud of me."

Him: "There you go. And they still love you, right?"

Me: "Yes, very much."

Him: "It just goes to show you, you can touch so many people. It ain't your fault. Thank god you're alive. For your daughters. For your wife. For yourself. You gotta enjoy yourself and work hard to be happy. I'm proud of you, man."

Me: "Can I be in the club with you and Laura?"

Him: "Forrrrrrrrrr sure. You're in the club."

We made some loose plans to someday get together, the three of us. Pierre-Paul will be there with his Ninja Turtle Hand. Okmin can come with her Fat Finger. And I will bring my Rudolphs.

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