Justin Pugh: Football and Family

Posted Jan 11, 2018

When the Giants hosted the Los Angeles Chargers this past season, a bus filled with 60 members of Justin Pugh’s family made the journey from his boyhood home outside Philadelphia to MetLife Stadium. Pugh bought tickets for everyone, and following the game, he enjoyed the catered food while visiting with the large group.

“The whole side of my mom’s family and my stepdad’s side of the family came up,” said Pugh, the Giants’ fifth-year offensive lineman. “We catered it, and I asked (John) Gorman (the Giants’ longtime director of ticketing) what was the most you have ever had (in one group), and he said that was it.

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I try to do as much as I can to bring the family together. Football is the type of event, even if you don’t like football, just coming up, being around the family is something that is real special to me. You can’t put a price tag on having your family as one. - Justin Pugh

Pugh is “super close” with his sister, Jenna, and stepbrothers Shaun and Michael, who are eight and 11 years older than he is. He speaks frequently to his mother and stepfather, Carolyn and Frank Gavaghan.

“My sister works for a children’s hospital in Philadelphia, so a lot of the events she does I try to get involved in some way,” Pugh said. “My sister is awesome. She puts everything together. Any plans that we have, she gets it set up. She is the organizer of my life. She’ll text me and remind me, ‘Hey, text aunt so and so or uncle so and so, it’s their birthday.’ My sister keeps me in check. My brother Michael was in the military for a while. He left when he was 18, and then he finally came back. The first game he ever came to was my last college football game. From that point forward, he’s been my biggest fan. Everywhere I go, he goes. Anywhere he goes, I go. We’re making up for lost time, which is something that I am pretty happy about.”

As the close bond with his family indicates, Pugh has always been about being part of a group. He and his seven closest friends – “The Crew” - have six members who have been together since first grade. Each of them has matching “8” tattoos to symbolize their bond. At some point, all but two of them have lived with Pugh in this area. And they don’t just occasionally keep in touch. “We have a group chat every day,” Pugh said.

He remains close with his friends and teammates from his collegiate career at Syracuse, four of whom came in for the Chargers game and joined the postgame gathering in the parking lot. “Once I have trust in somebody, it’s a lifelong thing,” Pugh said.

Pugh’s desire to be part of an assemblage extends to his work life. Just finishing up his fifth season, he is the senior member of the Giants’ offensive line, which is often the closest-knit group on any football team.

“Football has always been separate from my best friends,” Pugh said. “I have always had football and my best friends, and what I’ve realized is what makes the best O-line is to have that closeness. So I try as much as possible to hang out with the guys and go out and do things together, because I feel like that’s what makes the best offensive line. I take that same mentality I have with my friends to the O-line room, because the closer you are off the field, the better you’re going to play on the field.”

Why does Pugh spend as much time as possible in an entourage?

Justin Pugh celebrates after the Giants Week 6 victory over the Denver Broncos during the 2017 season.

“I hate being alone,” he said. “I’ve always had my best friends, now I have the O-line guys. My roommate in college was my left guard (Zack Chibane) and we spent every single day together. Then I got drafted and my friend moved up with me here. And then I started dating somebody, and now I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend. So I don’t like being solo.”

Pugh’s longing for attachment began when he was young, and has never subsided. His parents, Carolyn and David, divorced when Justin was only six years old. “My dad just wasn’t around,” he said. “That was the thing that was tough for a little boy to grasp.”

In 2000, when he was 10, his mother married Gavaghan, and suddenly Pugh had two much older brothers. A good student and an active child, he spent much of his youth next door with the Emilius family, which had four boys.

“We were always running around doing something,” Pugh said. “Playing hockey, playing football, manhunt, something outside. That helped me grow up and get tougher because it was me, my mom and my sister. I was the baby, I could do no wrong. Once I got into a situation where I was the youngest of two older brothers and four boys next door, then I had to play catch up, I had to toughen up. I definitely think it helped me out, it made me much tougher, it made me have thicker skin. Your older brothers tease you, and it definitely helped mold me into the man I am today.”

Pugh hits a Giants Pride sign in the locker room before taking the field for a 2017 road game.

In addition to playing games, Pugh and his wide circle of friends were fans of the local pro sports teams.

“Philly everything,” he said. “I went to as many games as I could get to. My one best friend has Eagles season tickets, so whenever I could go, I went.”

When he was young, Pugh’s sport of choice to play was … hockey.

“My oldest brother played ice hockey,” he said. “My stepdad coached ice hockey, so it was hockey for me growing up. I thought I was going to be the next Wayne Gretzky, I guess."

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I was a forward, but I got too big. I grew out of my older brother’s equipment and eventually it was, ‘Do you want to try football for a year?’ I was in the seventh or eighth grade, middle school football. I had always been big, I had always done well in most sports, so I said, ‘I’ll try this for a year and put hockey on hold.’ I never looked back from that point. It ended up being a good decision for me. - Justin Pugh

By then, he was far and away the best athlete in his close-knit group of friends. The other members of The Crew are Corey Rackel, Jason Laderman, Mike Perkiss, Jake Lerner, Andrew Leace, Jarred Dorfman and Harrison Green. In grade school, middle school and high school, the eight boys spent as much time as possible together. They still do.

“They’re all Jewish guys besides me,” Pugh said. “I don’t know how that worked out. I guess they were smart and they recruited me as their bodyguard without me knowing it. Two of them were fairly athletic. One played basketball at Drexel and the other one played soccer in college. So they kind of have a little bit of an athletic background. The other four were like J.V. sports guys. My one friend tried football, broke his pinky, and it was a career-ending injury.”

Having the group remain so close, Pugh said, “Is awesome. Not a lot of people get to say that they’re still best friends with the same kids since first grade. And then, obviously, I have my brothers, who I’m super close with, and my sister. And my college teammates.”

Plus his current teammates. Pugh shouldn’t have to worry about being alone. He has several groups of family and friends who can provide constant company.

But that’s not to say he’s not missing something. After his parents divorced, David Pugh relocated to Texas and then North Carolina. Justin saw him sporadically until the summer between seventh and eighth grade, when he spent six weeks with his father.

“I would always spend the summers with him for a few weeks,” Pugh said. “He first worked in NASCAR, and I would travel with him to the races and sell souvenirs. Then he started laying cable in the ground, which is the worst job ever. That’s kind of when I realized I better make sure I get a college education. I saw what my dad went through, laying cable from the cable box all the way to the house and whatever was in between. You had to go under or over and figure it out. So I spent a month with him and I think he made $1000. As a 13-year-old kid, I thought that was crazy. But I got to really spend that time with him, bond with him. I was the only one down there; my sister wasn’t down there with him. We always asked my dad, why doesn’t he move back to be closer with his family, his kids are here, what’s the point in being in North Carolina if you can be closer with us? That was always the fight my sister and I would have with him.”

Three months after that visit, David Pugh was dead.

“He was kind of thinking about moving back up into this area and then at 46 he had a massive heart attack, died on the scene,” Pugh said. “That was a shock to me. You’re not expecting that. At that age, you’re thinking everyone lives forever. You don’t really experience death, let alone to a parent. Maybe a grandparent or something. So it was tough for me. My stepdad helped me out tremendously through that time. He lost his father at a young age. Having everyone in my family as a huge support system was great for that.”

The Crew made its way to Council Rock South High School, where Pugh played right guard on the football team. Oh, he also lined up at defensive end. “I had a pick-six,” he said. “You can find that on YouTube. It’s the only touchdown I ever scored.”

In his junior season, colleges began to show interest. The first school to offer him a scholarship was Syracuse. Pugh was less than thrilled.

“I wanted another offer, because Syracuse was terrible at the time,” he said. “They had a two-win season with Greg Robinson. I thought, ‘Everyone is going to come offer me scholarships, Syracuse is already in. I’ll see how the summer goes and see what happens.’ No other school came in and talked to me. I mean, Penn State came in. All of the schools around the area came to talk to me, but no one offered. So going into my senior year, I said, ‘Let’s just knot this up now. I don’t want to go anywhere else.’”

After that 2008 season, Robinson was fired and replaced by Doug Marrone. Only three, including Pugh, of Robinson’s 12 commits stayed with the Orange.

He redshirted as a freshman, but made an impression as the scout team left tackle. When spring practice began, the coaches put him there on the first team. Pugh started all 34 games in which he played at the position.

Pugh celebrates with Syracuse teammates after winning the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

“I loved my time at Syracuse,” Pugh said. “School-wise, it was good. Getting my degree in finance and getting that exposure. Socially, it wasn’t my favorite place to be. I wasn’t like a five-star recruit and had all of the options in the world. I didn’t love the weather, but it turned out to be the best thing for me. Going in there with coach Marrone and his whole staff and learning from a pro-style coach and a pro offensive line coach, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Getting to play left tackle, getting to go against Chandler Jones every day made me the player I am today, and I am definitely very thankful. I still maintain a lot of those relationships with those guys up there. It’s sad to see everyone that I knew then is no longer there, the staff all the way down. So it is tougher to get back.”

Pugh knew he wanted to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season, but he faced one major hurdle – his mom. A now-retired sixth-grade teacher, she insisted her son get his degree before leaving Syracuse.

“My mom made sure I finished school,” Pugh said. “I had to take a whole semester’s worth of classes in that one summer, but there was nothing left for me to accomplish at Syracuse. Everyone was leaving. All of my guys were leaving. None of my roommates redshirted like I did. Maybe if some of them stuck around, I would have stuck around.”

In other words, he didn’t want to be alone. The Giants selected him 19th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, and general manager Jerry Reese called him “our kind of player.”

Pugh has been a durable and versatile lineman for five seasons, starting all 63 games in which he has played, including one in the postseason. As a rookie, he started every game at right tackle to become just the fourth Giants first-round draft choice to start every game in their rookie season since the 1970 merger. The others were linebacker Jim Files (1970), guard John Hicks (1974) and linebacker Lawrence Taylor (1981).

In 2014, Pugh started 14 games. The next year, he moved to left guard, where he started 12 games, plus one at each tackle spot. In 2016, he missed five games with a knee injury. This past season has been one of movement for Pugh. He started the first two games at left guard, and the next two at right tackle. Then it was back to guard for a game before returning to tackle in Denver. Pugh was shut down for most of the second half of the 2017 season with a back injury.

Although he just completed his fifth season, Pugh is the fourth longest-tenured player on the Giants’ active roster, after Manning, Zak DeOssie and Jason Pierre-Paul.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s the NFL. Before I got to the NFL, everyone told me it stood for Not For Long. I’ve seen my best friends get cut, I’ve seen some of the best players on the team not be a part of the team anymore, I’ve seen Hall of Fame coaches step down, I’ve seen a lot. It’s definitely helped me mature, it’s helped me grow, it’s helped me see this game in different perspectives, and it’s good. It’s something that I can help give some others advice. We got some vet guys that we have brought in from other teams that have been in the league longer than I have, but it’s crazy to say I’ve been here the fourth-longest.

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The more time that you spend playing in the NFL, the more you realize how much of a business it is. It’s a good and a bad. You’re not playing backyard football with your friends for fun anymore. It’s something totally different. What comes with being a professional athlete is everything besides football. It’s outside of here, it’s how you carry yourself in the public, it’s how you talk to the media, it’s how you interact with fans, it’s how you represent yourself, your brand. A whole lot more goes into it than the X’s and O’s on the field. - Justin Pugh

Pugh is one of the most media-friendly Giants players. Rare is the day that he is not surrounded at his locker by reporters seeking his opinion on the play of the line, the state of the team, or the issue of the day. He has become the offensive line’s unofficial spokesman, a role in which he is perfectly comfortable.

“I like to talk,” Pugh said. “I like to have my opinions heard, so I guess that plays into it. A lot of the other guys don’t like to talk as much. So I’ll go to bat for our guys and I enjoy doing it.

“I kind of want to get my message out to the fans and let them know how I’m feeling. I’m hurting worse than they are (he said after the Giants fell to 0-5). I obviously want to win a game. My job is on the line. It’s part of the game. I enjoy the media aspect of it. It allows us to get our message out there to the fans to convey how we feel.”

And yes, this lifelong Philly fan, who grew up cheering for the Eagles, sees the irony that the fans he now hopes to connect with wear Giants blue. Pugh found the transition challenging, even with a four-year detour to Syracuse in-between. And it was made more difficult when the Eagles won five of the first six games between the teams after Pugh’s arrival.

“It was tough at first,” he said. “It beat me up a lot, because I wanted to beat them so bad and I had some bad games. I would try too hard against them. Now I have gotten to the point in my career where it doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I am not so worked up about it. I realize that I approach every game with the same mentality, go out and do it. Obviously, I want to beat them a little bit more, but you can’t ever press in this game. I think I tried to press so much, because I wanted to embarrass all of my friends and I wanted to beat up on their team, and it ended up backfiring on me. So I try to not let it affect me as much.

“Obviously, I am so far removed from being a Philadelphia fan and even living in that city. I haven’t lived in that city in 10 years. So it’s definitely changed. I’ve learned a lot from being around all those fans when I go home and in my hometown. It’s definitely made me a lot less confrontational, because everyone wants to get at you, everyone wants to get a rise out of you.”

As close as they are, Pugh hasn’t been able to convince his friends to root for the Giants. Apparently, an NFL allegiance is stronger than one you would validate with a tattoo.

“They’re all still Eagles fans,” Pugh said. “They’ll cheer for me, but now that I make them start paying for bills and stuff, maybe they’ll start cheering a little bit more.”

Even if they don’t, Pugh is happy, because of his network of relationships – his large family, The Crew, college buddies, current teammates and his girlfriend ensure that Pugh is seldom alone.

But even with all the large groups that create a comfortable cocoon for Pugh seemingly anywhere he goes, a void remains in his life.

“My dad never saw me play football, so I always think, ‘What if?’” Pugh said. “It’s always tough. What would he think now? It’s fun to imagine what he would think or how he would act, but I’ll never know.

“My family is just a loving family. We’re always together, and I always have my friends around. That’s probably the reason I loathe it (solitude). Obviously, I wish my dad could be a part of that right now, because I feel like he would be another one of my guys. My dad was such a greaser, country boy. It was so opposite of how I am. I wasn’t into NASCAR. He had a farm and animals and stuff, and I’m like a city boy. I like to go into the city. So I would love to see how he would act, because he would be up here staying with me sometimes, and we would go into the city and just see how our worlds would collide right now. It’s something that I always think about.”

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