Justin Tuck refocuses after tough personal year

New York Giants Justin Tuck addresses the media New York Giants Justin Tuck addresses the media after arriving at his hotel in Indianapolis IN. with his team for Super Bowl XLVI. (Jan. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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ALBANY -- Justin Tuck has had just one thing on his mind this summer: football.

It's a refreshing change for the defensive captain, whose struggles on the field in 2011 were mostly linked to difficulties off it. He trained hard and came into that season healthy, but there were personal issues nagging at him. His sister had survived the rash of tornadoes that ravaged Alabama that spring and he made several visits there to help the community. Then some close relatives passed away, including his grandfather, and he was back and forth between New Jersey and Alabama for those funerals, feeling the pull of family conflicting with the responsibilities of a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

"I had some unfortunate things come about," Tuck said Saturday, reflecting on the issues he juggled. "A lot of things in my life were pointing me completely away from football."

At one point this spring, he even used the term "lackadaisical" to describe his approach to 2011, an offseason spent on his own, away from the structure of the team because of the lockout.

"Some of the statements I said about my training last offseason got misconstrued," Tuck said of that phrasing. "It wasn't like I didn't train. I just feel like I didn't have the purpose I had coming into this offseason and like normal. I trained last year. But I trained harder this year."

And this year, the focus is clear. The Giants hope to return to the Super Bowl and Tuck hopes to return to form.

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Besides the emotional strains, Tuck tried to play through injuries to his neck, shoulder and ankle during the season. He had five sacks, his fewest since 2006. There were games in which he was a non-factor, finishing without a single tackle.

Tuck's season followed the same trajectory as the Giants'. Lots of rough spots, on the verge of being knocked out several times, only to come back as a champion.

A late-season heart-to-heart with coach Tom Coughlin helped straighten Tuck out. Two of his five sacks came in the final two must-win games for the Giants. He had 31/2 sacks in the postseason. By the time the Giants reached the Super Bowl, Tuck appeared to be back.

"He applied himself and played with his problems and played through them and played well," Coughlin said.

This summer, as he has in recent years, Tuck traveled to San Diego to train for the upcoming season. There, he and others ran what is known as "Puke Hill," a treacherous uphill climb.

"It's called that for a reason," Tuck said, proudly noting that he didn't add to the naming of the hill. "That's an accomplishment. But I have gotten carried off it. It's no joke."

Tuck went up and over those hills for six weeks, two weeks longer than he usually does. In years past, he would take a couple of weeks for a vacation, but this offseason, his thoughts were only about football. And that carried over into the first week of training camp.

"He's healthy and he's playing and practicing and really focusing on his game," Coughlin said. "There were those kind of injuries and distractions last year for him, unfortunately. This year, I think he's more focused."

Will it pay off with a better season?

"I hope so," Tuck said. "I feel great. I feel good. More than physically, I feel good mentally."

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Tuck will turn 30 shortly after this season. He's expressed a desire to remain a Giant for life, but his contract expires after 2013.

He should be a guy concerned about his future, a player looking to prove that last year was just a bad convergence of circumstances and that he still can be a dominant player.

But he isn't concerned with that. Those thoughts would clog his head too much. He's already tried to play with mental weights while balancing responsibilities.

"Me at my old age, I'm less concerned about what I do on the field personally as far as stats than I am about what we do as a team," Tuck said. "It's important for me to win football games. That's what's important. And yes, I would love to be a Pro Bowler, I'd love to be All-Pro and all of those things and that's the icing on the cake. But I'll take last year's stats with a Super Bowl any year."

It was, in many ways, the most difficult and frustrating year of Tuck's life. All he wants to do is repeat how it ended.

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