Joe Judge was just a kid answering the phones. He was a graduate assistant at Mississippi State working in the office of special teams coordinator Amos Jones, and on occasion he would spend a few minutes chatting with the various people who would call in throughout the week.
One of those people was a young defensive coordinator for the Vikings named Mike Tomlin.
"Amos would say: ‘Grab that phone and talk to Mike for a minute,’ " Judge recalled.
Those conversations led to invitations. Pretty soon Tomlin was head coach of the Steelers and Judge, a low-ranking college assistant, was trailing him at Combine meetings and for deep-dive football discussions over dinners . . . with Tomlin picking up the tab, of course. It was Judge’s introduction to the highest rungs in the world of NFL coaching.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a coach for what he’s done for me personally in my career, giving me the opportunity as a young coach to tag along at times and impart to me some of his experiences that have helped me develop my own career," Judge said.
Tomlin, of course, does not volunteer his mentorship to every middling wannabe who winds up on the other end of the line with him. But there was something that radiated from this one that made him take immediate notice and made the young man stand out.
Judge, it seems, always has been able to make a strong first impression.
On Monday night, he’ll have the opportunity to make the grandest one of his life.
That’s when he will debut as head coach of the Giants in a prime-time game against none other than Tomlin and the Steelers. It will be his first game as a head coach at any level, and because of a lack of preseason games and the absence of spectators at training camp, it will be the first chance Giants fans — any fans, really — will get to see him in action.
There seems to be something about Judge that makes people remember their first encounters with him.
Giants co-owner John Mara had heard of Judge but had never met him before he interviewed the Patriots’ special teams coordinator for the vacancy at head coach in January. Judge began talking about why some teams in the NFL are perennially successful and others aren’t. He started to explain his vision for the way he could make the Giants a long-term contender. He outlined the types of players he would bring in if he were hired.
"I could not believe he was only 38 years old," Mara told Newsday of that initial meeting. "I remember thinking about 30 minutes in that we might have our guy. That became a conviction the further we went in the interview."
On his new staff with the Giants, assistants can quickly recall their earliest Judge memories. For tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, it was of Judge as a player at Mississippi State.
"Ask him about the Alabama game his senior year," Kitchens said with a mischievous grin. He refused to expand, but he clearly was referencing the game in which Judge was ejected for shoving Alabama’s Jeremy Clark over the Mississippi State bench after Clark and teammate David Stewart got involved in a brief dust-up on the sideline.
"He was a hard-nosed, physical kind of player that had everybody’s respect on the football field," Kitchens said.
Outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema remembered first meeting Judge at the Combine when he joined the staff in New England.
"We ended up sitting right by each other at a Patriots function and I began to see and understand what everybody talked about," Bielema said. "But then when I got into the building and I saw him get in front of the team, the presence he had, the awareness, the overall football IQ was pretty unique and easy to see."
One of the newest Giants, safety Logan Ryan, who was signed last week, remembered his first encounters with Judge when he was drafted by the Patriots.
"His language hasn’t cleaned up," Ryan said, laughing. "He definitely spoke the same, he definitely used a couple of profanities every other sentence . . . Day one, he was definitely like that."
Monday will be "day one" for the rest of the world when it comes to learning about Judge. What they’ll remember about it will play out on national television. There won’t be a second chance.
But if it is anything like the other first impressions Judge has made throughout his life, Giants fans will be thrilled with the result.