With life-changing reality surrounding him as he prepares for his first season as an NFL head coach, Joe Judge remains unflinching at the daunting challenge ahead.
The first pandemic in a century has meant an entire offseason of virtual coaching of his players, many of whom he has never been with in person. A social upheaval in which protests over racial injustice have led to difficult conversations that he couldn’t have imagined having but are now as integral as discussing X’s and O’s.
There is simply no way to underestimate the magnitude of the Giants coach’s task. Put simply, no first-year, first-time NFL coach has ever been through anything like it.
But Judge accepts the harsh reality he and his team confront; how he deals with it is somewhat akin to football itself.
“You go in with one plan and all of a sudden, 10 different things happen,” Judge told Newsday. “You have to adjust, and that’s going to be like it is in the game. You go in with a game plan, things are going to come up, we’re going to have to adjust. We’re going to have to keep moving.”
But he knows that the trauma of life as we now know it will forever change us, perhaps in ways we simply don’t — and can’t — know yet. Only after the passage of time can we fully grasp how this has impacted the world. But Judge knows this much: We will never be quite the same.
“I doubt there’s going to be any time that we’re all going to look at this period of time and realize how much it’s changed us in a lot of ways,” Judge said. “I’m hoping for everyone, it’s completely in a positive direction. We’re working hard to make sure that in this time, that we can be a positive example. We can work together.”
Work together as a football team. And as contributors to the greater good in society.
“We can do something productive and make a sustained difference,” he said. “I think when this time is done, the measure you’re going to have is what you did to impact, one way or another, and you want to be positive with that.”
It is that relentlessly positive attitude that will drive Judge to overcome the myriad impediments now in his way. With uncertainty still gripping the world, and with the opening of next month’s training camp still not a sure thing, Judge will rely on his tough-minded upbringing as a player and coach to carry his team through. And he’ll lean on his sense of team, the feeling he got while playing at Lansdale Catholic High School in Pennsylvania and then at Mississippi State before embarking on his coaching career.
“My favorite thing about being a part of a team was just that, it was being part of a team, being with the guys, having a common goal to work for,” he said. “It was very special. I’m from Pennsylvania, and I was playing in Mississippi, where kids were from all over, mostly from the South. We all had different backgrounds growing up, but we were all able to, every day, when we were exhausted after practice, we enjoyed each other so much that we could just spend time with each other. I think that’s the thing that’s special, being part of a team. It’s working together and working toward a common goal. It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your individual story is. All that matters collectively is you come together as a team and support each other.”
He hopes to instill that sense of belonging to the players he inherits with the Giants. A disciple of Bill Belichick, for whom he worked the past eight years and helped win three Super Bowl championships, and before that Alabama legend Nick Saban, Judge is single-minded in his focus on the here-and-now. And he won’t be anyone but himself, not a cheap imitation of either of his mentors.
“The only team we’re concerned with is the New York Giants,” he said. “That’s all we want to be, and I want to be the head coach of the New York Giants. That’s it. I don’t want to try and be anybody else, anywhere else, any other time period. Our players, coaches, we’re all on the same page and that’s the only team we’re concerned with. Where we’ve been before is in the past and we’re focused on the present right now here in New York.”
It is a daunting task ahead, but one he yearns to succeed at. But Judge also hopes there is a day in the not-too-distant future when he can enjoy a sense of normalcy, something none of us truly have right now.
“First thing after the pandemic, to be honest with you, I’d like to just go out to eat,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of great takeout, and that’s great, but it’s not like just going out to eat. And movies. I’m a big movies guy. The thought of movie theaters, is that going to be something that dies off? I hope not.”
And something else.
“I just miss everyday life, and not being afraid to shake hands with people,” he said. “Just do normal things.”
He doesn’t know when that day might come, only that he will deal with whatever reality he faces.
And try to make the best of it.