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NY Post
New York Post
21 Oct 2023

NextImg:Justin Pugh talks ‘absolute whirlwind’ return to NY, Giants roots he thought would last forever

Giants offensive lineman Justin Pugh, a former first-round pick back with the franchise for a second stint, joins Post columnist Steve Serby for some Q&A:

Q: Why is Eli Manning a Hall of Famer?

A: It baffles me that that’s even an argument. Two Super Bowls, he played the biggest games in the biggest times. He led from the front, he was always the first one in, last one out. Obviously he has the lineage as well, being from NFL royalty is one thing, and he went out there with all that pressure in the biggest city in the world and won two Super Bowls. He is the face of the New York Giants. When you think about the New York Giants you think about Eli Manning. And if all that doesn’t get you into the Hall of Fame, then I don’t know what does.

Q: Why do you think it’s a debate?

A: ’Cause it’s fun to debate it. Every New England Patriots fan’s gonna say, “No, he shouldn’t get in.” Which is a huge group of people. Every Eagles fan, every [Commanders] fan, every Cowboys fan, that’s like the bulk of the NFL is those fan bases. So if you have the bulk of the NFL fighting against you, there’s gonna be some loud voices.

Justin Pugh pictured next to Eli Manning in 2017, called his former teammate the “face of the New York Giants.”
Getty Images

Q: What do you recall about the day that Eli’s 210 consecutive-game starting streak ended and Geno Smith replaced him?

A: We were in Oakland, and I just remember the Giants fan base that was just cheering him on. I found out about it obviously earlier in the week when we made the switch, and he walked by my locker and just said something as he was walking out — he just said he wouldn’t be taking the “one” reps today. That’s when the shock and awe kinda set in amongst the team that Eli wouldn’t be starting. But after being in the business for 10 years, I realize there were a few things you don’t do — you don’t mess with the Mannings, you don’t mess with Larry Fitzgerald, you don’t mess with NFL royalty. That was a crazy situation.

Q: Give me a practical joke that Eli played.

A: He brought out a fake check at the rookie dinner, and it was a lot more than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t have my contract signed at the time, it was August of my rookie year. It was a fake check that I was very nervous about and eventually they brought the real check out, so I was safe.

Q: How much was the fake check?

A: I think it was for like $10,000 or $12,000 and I thought it was gonna be like a $1,000 dinner.

Justin Pugh blocked for quarterback Eli Manning to start his Giants career.
Getty Images

Q: Why is Tom Coughlin a Hall of Famer?

A: The wins go without saying, but the character of what he instilled in his men makes him a Hall of Famer. The style in which he coached and how he lifted everybody up, he taught us life lessons. He set the best example on how to be a man, how to be a father, how to do things right off the field and he instilled that in all of his players.

Q: The day he stepped away?

A: It was emotional. Obviously I didn’t have the interactions with Coach for many years. But when you see a guy of that stature not be with the organization anymore, it was definitely tough to see. But you have to remember we’re in a business and we’re in the winning football games business and that’s something that I didn’t know at the time. And it’s one of those defining moments, same with Eli’s moment, but this is a business. And if you’re not winning games, anything could happen. No one could outwork Coach Coughlin, he was the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen. No one could outwork Eli Manning, it’s why they were so successful. To see it come to an end, I mean, all good things must come to an end. My career will come to an end one day. But yeah, seeing it with those guys, it’s a different feeling.

Q: Why didn’t Ben McAdoo make it as Giants head coach?

A: I want to say I love Ben McAdoo. I think he’s a very, very good football coach. He made one critical mistake, and that was the Eli matter. And as you can see, Geno Smith also is a very good quarterback. How big of a contract [three years, $105 million] did he just sign? I have nothing but respect for Coach McAdoo.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because he’s a straight shooter. I loved the offense that he ran, me and him had a great relationship when he was the offensive coordinator, then he became the head coach. I know the New York fan base gives him a lot of slack. He messed with NFL royalty and he paid that consequence. But I just wish there was a way for him to clear his name because he’s a damn good football coach. I’ll tell you this, six years ago, he asked me to go out to right tackle and play against the Denver Broncos and I did it without batting an eye because I would do anything for Coach McAdoo. He texted me after this game on Sunday, just a supportive text message. The fan base had something to be mad about, but it wasn’t like he was a bad coach. He made a mistake, and I just wish that everyone would forgive him and we can all move on together. I wish he could come back and coach one day again here.

Justin Pugh, pictured in 2016, played under Tom Coughlin and Ben McAdoo in the early years of his Giants career.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Q: The 2016 playoff loss in Green Bay?

A: We had a lot of opportunities in that first half and we let ’em get away and we gave Aaron Rodgers a second chance, and third chance. They hit that Hail Mary at halftime and I just remember the locker room being deflated at that point.

Q: What do you recall about the Boat Trip?

A: I knew that was the next question. With Odell [Beckham Jr.] being the biggest star in the NFL at the time, it got blown out of proportion and then you add in all the eyeballs that are already on the New York Giants plus Odell, it became such a big story and the story took on a life of its own and it became the center of that week. It’s become infamous I guess is what we would say. At the end of the day we had to go out there and play a game and we got beat. It’s not like guys don’t go out after games. We had a job to do and we didn’t do it as a team. It didn’t affect the way I was playing that week.

Q: A lot of Giants fans believe that was a factor in the loss.

A: I wouldn’t blame any Giants fan for saying that. As a player that was on that team, I still had a job to do, and I didn’t do a good enough job to help us win that game obviously. If we win that game, no one talks about the boat trip as a negative. They’ll be like, “Go do another boat trip again if that’s what it takes for you to win football games.” The Giants have historically had players that have had a good time off the field, and still have won football games. NFL players like to have a good time, and they also like to play football. And most coaches and fan bases say, “Let those players go do whatever they need to do to win games on Sunday.” I’ve seen more egregious offenses than a road trip.

Q: What were your emotions when you learned the Giants were not going to bring you back?

A: There was the writing on the wall so it wasn’t like it was a catastrophic event that one day. I walked into [former GM] Dave Gettleman’s office and he said, “Hey, you’re not coming back.” The writing was on the wall where Gettleman started coming out and saying, “I want these massive Hog Mollies” is what he would call it. Me coming off injury, I knew the contract talks we had had to that point with Jerry Reese was like, “Hey, we’re gonna get a deal done,” so I was very confident that I would be a Giant for life. Then, when Gettleman came in, we really didn’t have a conversation. I think they would have brought me back for the right price, the Cardinals obviously paid market rate. It was definitely a tough pill to swallow. I wasn’t the biggest fan of him ’cause he let me walk. But if I was the general manager and I had a plan for a team, I would do the exact same thing Dave Gettleman did. His whole goal was to create a monster offensive line, bring in Saquon Barkley, run the ball, play great defense. He really had a great strategy, it’s just that he ran into some pitfalls of his own.

Justin Pugh spent five seasons with the Cardinals after spending his first five years with the Giants.
Getty Images

Q: What were those days and weeks for you like when you realized you were no longer a New York Giant?

A: It was just anger, because when you get drafted to a team, you think it’s gonna last forever, and I always use analogies, like you’re dating your high school girlfriend, you think you’re gonna marry her, and then you go off to college and you end up finding somebody else. Typically people don’t marry their high school sweetheart. I thought I was gonna be with the Giants forever and they wanted to move in a different direction, and I moved on. Going to Arizona was the best thing that could have happened to me. It changed my perspective, I moved out there with my now wife, we’re having a child. If it wasn’t for Arizona, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Q: What was the low point after you tore the ACL last season?

A: Thinking my career was over.

Justin Pugh thought his NFL could be over after tearing his ACL last season.
Getty Images

Q: Thoughts on Tyrod Taylor?

A: Calm, cool, collected, great leader in the huddle. We were in the [Buffalo] game, and I’m chirping at the refs and the defender did something, and Tyrod’s like, “Pugh, focus, get into the game.” Like he got me back onto the line of scrimmage. So he’s just a leader of men, he’s been doing it for 13 years, he’s a pro’s pro.

Q: Saquon Barkley?

A: He’s just one of those generational talents.

Q: Brian Daboll?

A: Coach is hilarious. The first time I met him he told me I can’t call him Coach, I gotta call him Dabs. So I’m just trying to work on that ’cause Tom Coughlin would kill me if I ever called him Tom, or Cough.

Justin Pugh (67), pictured during practice, was told by head coach Brian Daboll to call him “Dabs.”
Charles Wenzelberg

Q: J.J. Watt?

A: Football J.J.’s different from off-the-field J.J. Awesome teammate and he gives the best pregame speeches of all time.

Q: What is your definition of toughness?

A: A guy that gets knocked down and keeps getting back up.

Q: Describe what this week has been like for you.

A: It’s been an absolute whirlwind … the basic things of like the shoes you wear, the clothes you wear, and the game-day outfits you wear. I don’t have anything besides a suitcase from Arizona, so I don’t have much to wear. I’m in a one-bedroom apartment that smells funky and the AC doesn’t work. I have a rental car that’s way too big to be in New York City. I have nothing (chuckle), I have none of the comforts of home. My wife is still in Arizona, I don’t have my dog, I don’t have my own bed. I have a certain way I like to do things. My whole routine has gotten thrown off, and that’s been a challenge, but it’s been a fun challenge.

Justin Pugh (67), pictured during Giants practice, ended up starting a game during his first week back with the organization.
Charles Wenzelberg

Q: Your daughter is due in January. Why are you looking forward to fatherhood?

A: I love camaraderie, I love being with the guys, I love being around people. And at 33 years old, there’s nothing more that I want to do than to bring a daughter into this world or a child into this world and be able to raise them and teach them and be a part of their life. I’m very stay-at-home now, I want to be a family man. I’m not nervous, I’m not scared, like I’m just ready for the challenge. I’ve heard after the first 10 or 12 years it starts to get a little tougher (chuckle), but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Q: Recollections of your first Jets-Giants game?

A: I don’t see it as much of a rivalry. New York’s so massive that it’s just kinda like a funny back-and-forth. There’s more of a rivalry with your NFC opponents. I get we split the city, and the Subway Series, but it’s not like it’s much animosity. I would get more mad if someone said they were an NFC East rival fan than a Jets fan.

Q: What are you most proud of about what you’ve accomplished?

A: I’m proud of what I did this last game. I got texts from teammates, coaches, former players, guys that are in the Hall of Fame, and they were like, “You have no idea what you just did.” Opposing coaches stopped me on the field … but the thing I’m most proud of off the field is the impact I’ve had on teammates, and the impact they’ve had on me. That’s the one thing that keeps me coming back. They’ve called me like the glue guy before, I’m like Mr. Morale, the Minister of Morale. I love to get the guys together, I love to be a part of that room, I love to uplift younger players, and that’s my whole goal now is to get every one of these young guys hopefully a new contract, and get them paid, and get them flourishing in New York City because they can do it.

Justin Pugh, pictured during last Sunday’s game against the Bills, called this week an “absolute whirlwind.”
Getty Images

Q: How did you get involved in real estate?

A: When the Cardinals came to me during COVID and said, “We’re gonna cut you unless you take a pay cut.” And I said, “Screw you guys, I’m just gonna retire,” and then I said, “What am I gonna do?” And then I realized I didn’t know what I was gonna do. And I started to soul search and in the offseasons I would train in the mornings and I would go and do an internship in the afternoon. The company I interned for is called IDM — Invest Develop Manage Companies. The owner of the company, his name is Jeff Gordon, and he took me under his wing. And his COO, Jason Larson, both of these guys took me under their wing and they’ve taught me everything there is to know about ground up development commercial real estate. They’ve offered me a job for when I’m done playing and it’s become a passion of mine. Being a developer of commercial real estate is the exact same as being an offensive lineman. You gotta get a bunch of different people, from a bunch of different walks of life, and get ’em all going in the same direction, and that’s why I think I’m gonna be successful in that is because I love to work with people and I love to work with people from all walks of life and get us all going forward for the same common goal.

Q: Why is player safety an important cause for you?

A: Look, we trade our health for wealth, and it’s the basic equation of football, and the fans pay for that, the fans want to see carnage. Go back to the Colosseum, fans want to see carnage. My whole goal is to keep us out there as long as possible to make as much money as possible to change our lives, but at the same time not sacrifice what the fans are paying to see. So there’s this ecosystem, and I started a podcast called “NetWorth with Justin Pugh” … a lot of times the players get mad at the fans, the fans get mad at the players, but at the end of the day we all need each other, because without it, this ecosystem doesn’t thrive and the game isn’t the No. 1 sport in our country.

    Q: What are your thoughts on grass versus turf?

    A: I haven’t done any research on it, so I don’t know.

    Q: Any thoughts on Aaron Rodgers?

    A: I’ve only heard great things about Aaron. I would have loved to have played with him somehow in my career, and I just wish him well because obviously what he’s going through with that injury [Achilles tear] is catastrophic and I don’t wish that kinda injury on anybody.

    Q: He’s talking about coming back for the playoffs. Is that possible?

    A: Not human. I hope he can make that happen. I cheer for all guys coming back from injury.

    Q: Three dinner guests?

    A: My father passed away, never got to see me play football; Joe Rogan, ’cause he’s seen some s–t; Dave Chappelle because Dave Chappelle has a way to take what’s going on in our world and boil it down to its most simple points and make it crystal clear for everybody.

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    Q: Favorite movie?

    A: You can put in any of those Adam Sandler movies … I’ll go “Billy Madison” as one of ‘em, I’ll go “Tommy Boy,” “Old School,” that’s my genre.

    Q: Favorite actor?

    A: Vince Vaughn would play me if I ever did a movie about myself.

    Q: What would the title of your movie be?

    A: “Straight Off The Couch.”

    Q: Any endorsements yet from any couch companies?

    A: There may be something in the works.

    Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?

    A: Billy Joel.

    Q: Favorite meal?

    A: A good steak.

    Q: Favorite Italian restaurant?

    A: Augustino’s in Hoboken.

    New York Giants guard Justin Pugh speaks to the media after practice on Oct. 18, 2023.
    Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

    Q: The first time you ran through the tunnel as a New York Giant.

    A: Yeah, that was a surreal moment. Just donning the New York Giants uniform is a surreal moment. I’m grateful that I get to do it one more time. That first time I think I was in shock and awe. You think it’s gonna last forever — why would I never be able to run out of the tunnel again? — and then all of a sudden you leave in free agency or you have a catastrophic injury like I did with the ACL last year and you don’t know if football’s gonna be taken away from you … so, I’m gonna cherish this moment on Sunday.

    Q: Put into words what it means to you now, and then, to be a New York Giant.

    A: Everything. That’s it, it’s one word. Everything. There’s no place like New York City, it’s the greatest city in the world, the greatest fans in the world. It will forever be in my heart, and that’s the reason I came back. It’s everything.