2:04 pm Nov. 7, 2011
Each time the Giants or Jets play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about Justin Tuck, who played defensive end in the Giants’ 24-20 win on Nov. 6 over the New England Patriots.
The uniforms on the field were exactly the same. And because it was a 4:15 start, daylight saving time, the lighting was similar.
Justin Tuck has been a great player for the Giants for several years. He might be the best all-around defensive end in the league, although his injury-marred 2011 season hurts his status with short-memoried NFL pundits. One day, he’ll join the pantheon of great Giants defensive players in the “Ring of Honor” at MetLife Stadium, or whatever corporate name it has at that point. If he can stay healthy and maintain his level of play for four more years—a big “if,” given his propensity for semi-debilitating bumps and bruises—he has a shot at the Hall of Fame.
But he’ll never top his crowning moment, in Super Bowl XLII, against these same Patriots, wearing the same blue uniforms while the Giants wore the same whites.
Yes, Eli Manning won the game M.V.P. award; nobody quibbled with the obligatory selection of the quarterback who led the miraculous winning drive. But the game’s true star was the Giants’ pass rush. And no pass rusher was more disruptive to the Patriots’ record-setting offense than Tuck, who had two sacks, one of which forced a critical fumble that thwarted a scoring chance. The Patriots offense had set the league ablaze with machine-like precision. But Tuck, and his game-long domination of Patriots Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, threw a wrench into that machine.
The questions about that game came fast and furious this week. On Monday, on his weekly spot on Mike Francesa’s WFAN show, Tuck told the weekday sports-talk king, “Honestly, I’ve gotten that question about five times already. I try not to...” He paused.
“You don’t wanna live in the past."
Every Giant and every Patriot basically said the same thing when asked about it. They pointed out that only 10 current Giants starters and six current Patriots starters were even on those respective teams in 2007. The game was four years ago, longer than the average length of an NFL player’s career. It’s a new season with new challenges.
But all that insistence was undermined in the second quarter, when Matt Light and Osi Umenyiora touched off a mini-melee after a play. Four years ago, Umenyiora had accused Light of taking cheap shots after the whistle was blown. On Sunday, there was Light again, hitting Umenyiora after the whistle. 2007 was in the past, sure, but it was still in the air.
If the fight itself wasn’t convincing enough evidence of this, then the nature of the game itself certainly was. It was a taut defensive struggle early which gave way to dramatic lead changes, heroic late plays by a Giant wearing number 85, and a game-winning drive piloted by Eli Manning.
IT'S NOT TRUE THAT JUSTIN TUCK "ARRIVED" as a star player in that 2007 Super Bowl. He had ten sacks during the regular season that year despite playing only part-time. Two weeks before the Super Bowl, the Giants, knowing how good Tuck was, and knowing that longtime superstar defensive end Michael Strahan might finally act on his longtime flirtation with retirement, gave Tuck a five-year, $30 million contract, which at the time seemed like a lot for a non-starter but now seems like a pittance for a star of his magnitude.
What is true is that that the game ushered in for Tuck a role he has had for a few years now: the team’s unofficial spokesman. Fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora is a star, but his mercurial personality, history with injuries, and endless contract battles with the Giants lend him a different persona than the stolid Tuck. Quarterback Eli Manning, elite or not, unquestioned on-field leader or not, nonetheless exercises his right to let the media know as little about his actual personality as possible. He has mastered the art of coming off like a nice guy while rattling off platitude after platitude. Tuck, by contrast, is more colorful with reporters. His demeanor is easy and sure-footed. He has a confident swagger and a sense of humor, but it rarely crosses over into off-putting cockiness or attention-grabbing goofiness.
And with his booming voice, He-Man build and lunch-pail persona, he fits the blue-collar prototype that all fan bases want to indentify with. Tuck is the perfect front-man for the old-school, manly Giants brand, the one ESPN’s Chris Berman implicitly recognizes when he refers to them, in comically exaggerated baritone, as the “GEEEE-MEN!” There’s a reason it was Tuck who, when the Giants were introduced for last year’s opening game nearly nine years to the day after 9/11, emerged from the locker room in a Giants-themed firefighter’s helmet. (He now proudly displays the helmet in his locker, along with a picture of himself in hunter’s camouflage, holding a rifle with a felled buck in front of him.)
He is the latest standard-bearer of the tradition of Giants defense, a brand infused with overtones of a substance-over-style moral philosophy. No, he’s not as talented as Lawrence Taylor, or as durable as Michael Strahan. But he’s not as self-destructive and generally troubled as the former, and he’s not a goofy and self- promoting as the latter. So in his way, he’s more classically Giant-like.
Tuck grew up in Alabama, but he was so taken with the idea of buttoned-up, doing-the-right-thing excellence that he became a Yankee fan at age 10. (Note: An organization’s brand doesn’t always match its reality.)
“Just the way they played the game,” Tuck explained to the New York Times two years ago. “Everything about the Yankees was professional. Their guys never got into trouble, it just seemed that everything about that organization was always tip-top and in a class of its own.”
When it came time for him to go to college, he chose Notre Dame, college football’s bastion of traditionalism. Since the Jets’ rebirth as a relevant crosstown rival, Tuck has taken an active role in castigating them for talking so much for accomplishing so little.
Tuck embraces his role as the go-to guy for a quote, but it wears on him. He has been shorter with reporters this year, while battling a lingering neck injury that has kept him out of games and has proven more serious than anyone imagined when he sustained it during preseason. Then there were instances like last Thursday, in the Giants locker room, when he emerged from the shower to find reporters from all corners of the room gravitate toward his locker.
The pack moved into position as he dressed, forming a semi-circle around him, although it kept a semblance of a respectful distance until Tuck had gotten at least semi-clothed. By the time he had pulled his shirt over his head, the pack was inches away from him. Tuck is 6-foot-5, at least a half-foot taller than most of the people shoving recorders up at him. He faced the pack with a weary expression, then snapped his head down affirmatively and pursed his lips in a quasi-smile, as if to say, “Alright, let’s get this over with.”
Three minutes of questioning followed. Tuck got through it politely enough, but with a minimum of color. He wasn’t at his most effervescent. When I solicited more of his time after the group interview, he copped a playfully grumpy demeanor.
I told him I had heard him on Francesa talking about how he didn’t like to talk about the Super Bowl.
“Don’t listen to anything I say on Francesa,” he shot back, pronouncing it "Fran-chesa."
I told him that he seemed tired of answering questions about the Super Bowl.
“I am," he said. "And you’re gonna ask me about it, aren’t you?”
No, I told him. I wanted to ask him why he was tired of talking about it.
“Because it’s in the past," he said. "It’s four years ago. What does that make a difference? I only got one Super Bowl ring. I got some catching up to do.”
I attempted to ask him another question, but he cut me off.
“I thought you said one question. So you lied to me,” he said.
I told him I hadn't, and that I had asked him for a few minutes. At that point, Tuck turned to ESPN.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk, rolled his eyes, and said, “New guy.”
Finally, after a couple more volleys, he said, “Aright, I’m’a be serious now.”
I asked him about the idea that his image is such a good fit for that of the Giants.
“I just feel as though the New York Giants have always been regarded as the blue-collar organization,” he said. “Even though we’re in New York City, one of the most famous cities in the world, I mean it’s still, with our ownership and the people they bring in, it’s been always about that blue-collar work ethic. And me coming from rural Alabama, I can embrace that and understand what it’s about, and go out and, I guess fill that role, I guess.”
I asked him how a kid from rural Alabama became so comfortable with the New York media.
He responded, “I don’t know, I guess with the experiences I’ve had in my life. I had the opportunity to go to Notre Dame, which I think is the media capital of college football. And then to come to New York, which is the media capital of the world.”
He added, “I’ve had a few experiences with you guys, and understand, you know, that the media, regardless what other people might say, I look at the media as a helpful entity. And I understand how it can be helpful, and I try to use it to my advantage, just how the media tries to use my personality in answering questions to their advantage.”
SUNDAY WAS A PRETTY UNEVENTFUL DAY FOR TUCK. HE WAS PART of a Giants pass rush that was excellent at times, but I only counted one time that he got near the quarterback (on a sack by Jason Pierre-Paul, who seems to be at the same point in his career that Tuck was at in 2007).
But he had one crucial, overlooked play in this operatic game of powerful momentum shifts: Late in the second quarter, with the Patriots having driven 80 yards to the Giants nine-yard-line, Tuck tipped a pass on first down, resulting in an incompletion and slowing a Patriots offense that had gained 14 and 15 yards on the previous two plays. The Giants defense kept the Patriots out of the endzone over the next two plays, and then Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal to send the teams to the locker room in a 0-0 stalemate. For the Patriots, it was a frustrating half. For the Giants, it was their kind of game.
When it was over, Tuck stood before reporters. One asked about the Giants raucous locker-room celebration, which was played on Fox after the game and is now making the rounds among Giants fans on Twitter.
“I think we got a little carried away,” Tuck said with a smile, as if apologizing for his team’s deviation from its stolid Giant-ness. “But I mean it’s a big win. Obviously coming in this place and getting a win, considering how good that team is and what they’ve done here in the last twenty games, it was a big win.”
Then, after refusing to do so all week, he allowed himself a moment of nostalgia. “And to win it in the fashion that we won it.” He sighed. “It brings back memories.”
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley