When you spend three decades as a newspaper sportswriter, you tend to forget as many players as you remember – especially when covering high school athletics.
Justin Tuck, though?
Yeah, I remember him quite well from my days at The Daily Home.
As an all-star athlete at Central High School of Coosa County in Alabama, he was a dual threat for the Cougars’ football team as a defensive end and tight end.
He was named Class 4A Player of the Year in 2000 – capping off a career that ended with 492 tackles and 37 sacks as well as 2,106 receiving yards and 17 TDs.
He had his pick of colleges and he chose Notre Dame, where he set several defensive records – including tackles for loss (43) and sacks (13.5) in a single season.
The next step was an NFL career and Tuck had a great one, spent mostly with the New York Giants.
By the time he was done he had a pair of Super Bowl rings, two Pro Bowl appearances, and in 2016 was inducted into the Giants’ ring of honor.
So when I listened to him speak to members of the media last Sunday after the Alliance of American Football Game at Legion Field, it was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. I’m guessing the last time I had actually talked to him was during a phone interview while he was still playing for the Fighting Irish.
Now a member of the Alliance’s Player Engagement Board of Advisors, he seems genuinely excited about his role in the new venture.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the product on the field last weekend,” said Tuck, who was in his home state to watch the Birmingham Iron blank the Memphis Express, 26-0. “We’re really excited about bringing the Alliance to all these players who need a second chance. In my time in the NFL, we were always around guys who were just on the cusp, who just needed a little more experience to go to the next level. So I’m very excited and proud to be part of the AAF.”
First impressions are important, and the Alliance made a good one.
OK, maybe fans of the losing teams weren’t overly thrilled, but the presentation of the product – and the product itself – was ahead of the curve.
“The feedback we’re getting is great,” Tuck said. “Obviously we still have some things to work on, we still have some bumps we need to clear out, but hopefully I think we’re built for success. We’ll continue to walk this thing forward. We’re not trying to hit a home run overnight, but we know there are a lot of steps to get where we want to be.”
One of Tuck’s duties is to help shape policy in the league, ensuring that the needs of the players are met first and foremost, and that the Alliance is a fan-friendly experience.
But with his All-Pro credentials he also knows how to spot skill, and he saw plenty of it during the league’s opening weekend.
“I think one of the most pleasant surprises was the talent level,” he said. “I was very impressed with the quality of football and the response I’ve gotten, from social media to fans, has been the same. Look – this is a new league – there are a lot of logistical things we need to shore up, but that’s to be expected. At the end of the day, we can only go so far as the product takes us, and that’s the players in this game.
“There are some talented people out here.”
Certainly Tuck has nothing to prove by hitching his wagon to a spring football league.
His “life after football” is already a success; he has an MBA from The Wharton School, works as a Goldman Sachs vice president and – along with his wife, Lauran – has created the Tuck’s R.U.S.H for Literacy program. Its aim is to bring the same opportunities that made them successful to low-income kids in New York, New Jersey and Alabama.
Still, he relishes helping build something new and different in the world of professional football.
“A lot of people watched the games on TV and we were in the top 20 trending topics on social media, and that’s a good first weekend,” Tuck said. “We understand this was one week, and if we go where we want to go, we have to put our hardhats back on and our work boots back on.”
Hard work has never been a problem for Tuck – one of the true class acts in professional sports.
I’m proud to say I “knew him when.”
It’s kinda cool to know him now, too.