Following an injury that jeopardized his future in football, Justin Pugh got the itch to return to the field.
Pugh, an NFL veteran who has played for the New York Giants (2013-2017) and the Arizona Cardinals (2018-2022) – and is a Council Rock South graduate and Holland native – tore his ACL in Week 6 of the 2022 season in the Cardinals’ 19-9 loss versus the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field in Seattle, Wash.
Pugh, 32 years old at the time of injury, had not sustained one of that magnitude before, putting his career into question.
“I thought my career was over,” Pugh said about his initial thoughts after tearing his ACL.
Pugh, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., with his wife, Angela, spent time afterwards rehabilitating his knee, eventually regaining full strength. After becoming fully healthy, he longed to lace up his cleats again.
Pugh and his agent began reaching out to teams, informing them that his knee was healthy and expressing that he was ready to play again. Many unnamed contending teams sent offers to Pugh, wanting him to come and prove himself on the practice squad. The more offers he received, the more apparent his itch became.
Though the practice squad offers Pugh kept receiving weren’t enough. He didn’t see a clear path to becoming a starter on those teams.
Pugh had been a starter his entire career, and he wanted to continue that trend. He didn’t want to settle down on a team’s practice squad or become a “cheerleader.”
The Giants, who were plagued with injuries across the offensive line to begin the 2023 season, traveled to Arizona for their Week 2 matchup with the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. Ahead of their contest, the Giants reached out to a familiar face in Pugh, hoping he could resolve some injury issues of their own.
“It was a little serendipitous that they were out in Arizona,” Pugh said. “They were going through some injuries at the time. ... They were staying at Arizona State’s campus so I was able to drive out 10 minutes, show them my knee was healthy and then signed a team-friendly deal.”
With the Giants, Pugh saw a path to returning to the starting lineup, which is why he felt comfortable signing a practice contract that offered no guarantees on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
On Sunday night, Oct. 15, he was thrust into a position that players, fans and even the opposing team’s personnel showed admiration for – Pugh was in the starting lineup with limited practice beforehand, facing a tough opponent in the Buffalo Bills. His situation was made aware on NBC’s broadcast of Sunday Night Football during the team’s introductions, which reached a viewing total of 14.1 million people.
“Justin Pugh, straight off the couch.”
That was Pugh’s Sunday Night Football introduction that quickly became a trending topic across social media; Pugh and his team even took advantage of the buzz it garnered, making shirts with the slogan on it. But for Pugh, it couldn’t have been more true.
“That week in practice leading up to the Buffalo Bills, I was running scout team reps for our defense on Wednesday,” Pugh said. “Found out I was starting on Thursday, which, Wednesday is the full-padded practice. So I didn’t even get full-padded practice reps at left tackle – I didn’t get any rep at practice at left tackle, I’ve just played it previously.”
“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my career, football period. I had guys texting me after the game – former coaches, former teammates. I had random coaches from the Bills stopping me and telling me how unbelievable what I just did was. To play 77 – plus special teams snaps – 80 total in my first game back, with really only getting three real practices.”
Pugh had played most of his career at guard, but the Giants actually had Pugh practicing at right tackle. For those who don’t quite understand the difficulties of playing different positions along the offensive line, Pugh’s analogies may better that.
“It’s like writing with your non-dominant hand,” Pugh said. “You’ll get the job done but you’ll be a little more anxious and it’s not as comfortable.”
“Going from left guard or guard in general to tackle, it’s like you’re in a fight in a phone booth and all of a sudden you’re in a fight in a wide-open field and the guy has a lot more space, better athletes.”
Following the Giants’ contest against the Bills, Pugh was signed to the active 53-man roster.
While his desire to play football once more came to fruition, Pugh’s career goals outside of football remain a priority in his life.
In Pugh’s final year in New York, he attended a professional athlete business combine that taught the business side of life after football, something that has been important to him.
“That’s the issue with a lot of NFL players, the cash flow becomes the reason guys go broke. When you make more money, you spend more,” Pugh said. “All of a sudden, you’re not making any money when your career is over but you still have a crazy amount of expenses.”
The rate of players becoming broke after football has been steadily increasing. Pugh referenced ESPN’s 30-for-30 “Broke,” a 2012 documentary, but Sports Illustrated tackled the topic three years earlier when its reporting found that, “By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.”
Pugh’s determination to figure out that equation, prevent that scenario from transpiring and lowering that percentage once his playing days are over led him down the path of real estate, working for a commercial developer called IDM Companies in Phoenix. The CEO, Jeff Gordon, took Pugh under his wing and showed him the ropes.
For the company, Pugh works on projects and helps raise money. He currently has a job offer from the company for when he officially retires, which is something that he’s pondered for quite some time.
“The past two years I’ve been thinking about retiring,” Pugh said. “I kind of know what that next chapter will look like.”
Right now, there is no timeline for Pugh’s eventual retirement. He’s enjoying playing football again, with the team that he began his career with. However, he does know that he wants to end his career with the Giants.
“If I don’t come back to New York, I don’t think I’ll play again,” Pugh said.