There isn’t one moment that stands out for Justin Tuck, not in a career that lasted so long, that produced so many highlights, that included so many heartbreaks. When you wear the Giants’ uniform for nine years, you win two of the most unlikely Super Bowl championships in NFL history, you grieve over the loss of loved ones who passed away during that time and you experience the disappointment of lost opportunity, one moment cannot possibly capture what your career is all about.
But there is one season that the retiring defensive end can point to, a months-long series of events that best defines who he was as a player. And as a man.
“The year we won Super Bowl XLVI will be extra memorable just because of the personal ups and downs, the team ups and downs,” Tuck said Friday during a retirement ceremony at the Giants’ training facility. “I lost a grandfather and three uncles that season and was dealing with injuries throughout the year. Somehow, God smiled on us, then we all righted the ship at the right time and went on to win another improbable Super Bowl.”
It was not quite as remarkable as Tuck’s first championship, when the Giants defeated the previously unbeaten Patriots four years earlier in Phoenix for their first Super Bowl victory since the Bill Parcells era. But it was close, because the Giants snuck into the 2011 tournament with a 9-7 record as NFC East champs, then somehow got in position to face the Patriots again, this time in Indianapolis. And they again conquered Tom Brady’s Patriots, with Tuck supplying a relentless pass rush that foiled Brady — just like the last one.
“I sit awake at night a lot thinking about that season, remembering small pockets or moments that other people might not remember but that impacted us,” he said.
Tuck’s personal anguish, coupled with neck and groin injuries that sidelined him for a quarter of the season, made his situation all the more difficult. He grew so frustrated at one point late in the season that he admitted publicly: “I’m not me. I’m not. I’m not a very good player right now . . . I’m not enjoying this season.”
It was around that time that Tom Coughlin invited Tuck, one of the Giants’ captains that season, into his office for a heart-to-heart conversation. Coughlin understood Tuck’s physical limitations and acknowledged the difficulty of the loss of four relatives in such a short period of time. But the coach’s message resonated when he told Tuck to stop sulking.
“He told me to stop feeling sorry for myself,” said Tuck, who had only five sacks, less than half his previous year’s total of 11 1⁄2. “I needed that talk. I think that helped me with my play. That’s what the team needed. It needed me to elevate my play, not the other way around.”
Tuck was like a different player when the Giants needed him most in the postseason. He had 1½ sacks in the Giants’ 20-17 overtime victory over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. He followed that up with two sacks of Brady in their 21-17 win in the Super Bowl. Tuck also had two sacks in the Giants’ previous Super Bowl, making the case that he was the team’s most indispensable player on defense in both title games.
“The first thing that comes to mind is his versatility and then the great character and heart he has as a football player,” said Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who held the same position on the team’s 2007 championship team. “The thing I liked about Justin was that he never got frazzled. All he wanted to do was win.”
Tuck is everything you could ever want in a football player and everything you could ever ask for in a man. A devoted husband with two sons, Tuck founded the RUSH for Literacy campaign to promote reading for children and has been involved with a host of charitable organizations. Now that his playing career is over, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at the renowned Wharton School of Business.