The doubts about continuing to play football never really went away, even if Justin Tuck thought he'd sorted through his grief.
This was the spring and early summer of 2012, when the Giants defensive end still was coming to grips with the intense high of winning the Super Bowl after a dramatic playoff run and the emotional scars of losing three close relatives in a two-year period.
Tuck returned frequently to Kellyton, Ala., a town of fewer than 3,000 located about 60 miles southeast of Birmingham -- an incongruous mix of conquering hero with a second Super Bowl ring and a man grieving the loss of his grandfather and two uncles.
"Ending that season on a high note winning the Super Bowl, I'm like, 'This is the greatest season ever.' It was very dramatic," Tuck said in an expansive interview after practice this past week. "But then when I went home, you lose two uncles and a grandfather, it just doesn't have the same feel at home."
Thoughts of packing it in
Tuck experienced fleeting thoughts of retirement during that 2011 season but figured they'd go away once he went home in the offseason. But there were nagging doubts about playing a game that had seemed to lose its meaning in the larger context of life and loss.
"I'm from a very tight-knit family, and I felt obligated to be home more," he said. "That's when I thought about retirement. It was an emotional and family-oriented feeling.''
But as the weeks passed, the intense grieving process was replaced with a greater sense of normalcy, and the mixed emotions began to wane for Tuck. Then something his father told him convinced him that continuing his career was the better choice for everyone.
"He said, 'There's something about you playing on Sundays that gives us an opportunity to have a family reunion in front of the TV when you play,' " Tuck said. "So that told me I can do more good going out and playing well than being home."
Yet there was an unintended consequence from Tuck's decision to spend more time with his family last year, something that ultimately affected him on the field and contributed to what probably was his worst season since 2007. Tending to family matters caused him to slack off on the intense training regimen he'd used to become a fixture on the Giants' defensive line. And it showed on the field. Tuck finished with only four sacks, his lowest total as a starter. The previous year, he had only five, although his overall performance improved during the Super Bowl run.
The paltry numbers from last year were symptomatic of a defense that badly underachieved and ultimately was at fault for the Giants' failure to make the playoffs the year after winning the Super Bowl.
"I've had two years that were not up to my caliber of play, two years that I'm nowhere pleased with," Tuck said. "One of them we won a Super Bowl, but last year was a bad year. No one gives a damn what you did three, four, five years ago. I understand that.
"I'll be the first one to tell you I have to play better than last year," he said. "I understand what I mean to this team and what me playing well can do."
Writing off a critic
Tuck's reputation took a big hit off last year's performance. Veteran NFL writer Pete Prisco of CBS Sports called Tuck the most overrated player in the NFL.
"[Tuck] spent more time doing Subway commercials than playing good football in 2012," Prisco wrote in a column last month. "He was a definite name-over-game player with just four sacks. There were times on tape where you wondered how he was ever a dominant pass rusher."
Tuck said he doesn't take the remarks seriously.
"It would sting if I believed it, or if I cared about what [Prisco] thought of me," Tuck said. "I don't get caught up in people judging what I do when they can't do it. If I said, 'Bob, you're a [lousy] writer,' you shouldn't give a damn because if you put my writing against your writing, that wouldn't even be a contest. Same with that Prisco guy, or whoever else. You come out here and play defensive end.
"Now if Julius Peppers or DeMarcus Ware said Tuck's overrated, then it would sting because those are the people that do what I do and do it very well. Prisco? I'm not mad. I'm just like, who cares? I'm like, 'OK, that'll be another person I'll make eat his words this year.' ''
And the way he feels now, Tuck believes he'll have the kind of season that will silence his critics. With a clear focus and a renewed emphasis on training -- he didn't take a vacation this year, spending the entire offseason working out at the Giants' practice facility -- Tuck believes he's ready to return to the level that made him a foundation player on a two-time Super Bowl championship defense. The birth of his second son last month has only reinforced his dedication.
He described his regimen this way: "Diapers, training, sleep."
Those around Tuck have noticed a difference.
"Justin has probably had his best offseason since I've been with him," defensive line coach Robert Nunn said. "In the fourth year I've been with him, he's probably in the best physical shape, seems to be in a great frame of mind. The injuries were a factor last year. I think if he can keep himself clean with injuries, I am totally confident that Justin will be a big contributor for us and will be a very effective defensive lineman. I think he's got to prove it when the pads come on, but I think he's prepared to have an outstanding season.''
Looking at the bright side
Can this be another championship season, with the Super Bowl being played in full view of the Giants' practice fields?
"Sure we can get there," Tuck said. "We've been there before and we know what it takes. But we have to play better than we've played lately. The NFC is a stronger conference now, and I think we have more elite teams. It's going to be tough, it's a long road ahead, but we have the schedule that says if we do make it to the playoffs, we'll be tested. That has worked well in the past, because if we're able to make it through the gauntlet, we're battle-tested. I'm confident in this team. We're a team that plays better when our backs are against the wall, and there's some pretty strong doubt right now about this team. I'm looking forward to seeing how we respond, but I'm also aware of how we've responded in the past, and that leads me to be optimistic about our chances.''
He doesn't want to see anyone else using the Giants' locker room in the Super Bowl.
"Somebody told me the other day that whoever represents the NFC, the defensive end is going to be sitting in my locker," Tuck said. "Just imagine Aldon Smith from San Francisco, B.J. Raji from Green Bay. It's something in the offseason they can rub in my face. I don't like that."
Would he walk away if the Giants win a championship, similar to the way Michael Strahan left after the 2007 Super Bowl season?
"I plan on doing a Strahan and walking away to millions of dollars, but I don't think it will be this year,'' Tuck said.
In fact, Tuck hopes to play several more years with the Giants. He's in the final year of his contract, and although he's open to extending the deal during the season, he said he doesn't want to hear about the contract, concentrating instead on what happens on the field.
And when the time does come to consider retirement, Tuck said he'll do it for all the right reasons. And yes, he has thought about what he might do after he's done playing, although he's not sure what path he'll take. He might even be a stay-at-home dad for a while so his wife can pursue her business interests. But he will be aiming high.
"I've always been the type of person to shoot for the stars," he said. "If you come up short, you're still on the moon. I think young people nowadays are just shooting for the top floor of a building. Why not be great? Kids I talk to say to me, 'I want to be like you.' I say, 'Don't be like me. Be better than me.' "
Would Tuck follow in Strahan's footsteps and work in television?
"If I'm going to work in TV, I want to own the TV station," Tuck said. "So my goal isn't to be like Strahan, but one day be his boss."