By Ernie Palladino
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On its face, there was nothing unique about Justin Tuck’s retirement announcement Monday.
Age, injury, and the slide down the production hill led many before him, and will lead many after him, into life’s next chapter. If anything, nature and the physics of big men hitting each other repeatedly simply took its course, and the former Giants’ defensive end determined that enough was enough.
But Tuck’s retirement is singular in that it leaves the NFL with one less player who understood the importance of class. In a league where a Super Bowl quarterback taunts opponents unrestrained, where criminal behavior off the field gets excused for on-field ability, where crass too often plays better than comportment, Tuck was the symbol that all was not lost.
Perhaps it was the breeding his folks drummed into him during an upbringing in rural Alabama, where God, school, and the moral compass came before any goals of multi-million dollar careers. Or perhaps it came from his time at Notre Dame, where “Touchdown Jesus” holds far deeper meaning than football legend to those the mural looks over.
Certainly, some of it came from the Giants and Tom Coughlin, who coached Tuck all nine years he played in the Meadowlands.
Whatever the reason, Tuck handled himself with exceptional grace — most of the time. Flozell Adams, the Cowboys’ cheap-shot left tackle, could get him going, especially after Adams’ trip in 2011 caused a serious shoulder injury that lingered the rest of his career. His on-field encounter with Adams in that season’s second meeting produced a small melee, and Tuck called him a “dirt bag” and “coward” afterward, but that was about as raunchy as the pass-rusher would ever get.
Usually, it was a sunny, happy fellow who sat at his locker, right in front of the old alma mater’s motivational placard that read, “Play Like A Champion Today.”
Tuck lived by those words. He recorded 60 1/2 of his 66 career sacks with the Giants. He played both end spots, and went inside to defensive tackle, too. He could drop into coverage, stop the run, and occupied enough blockers to allow Osi Umenyiora to do his thing on the other side while notching four double-digit sack seasons himself.
He answered all the questions from the media. He led his teammates and made them better.
Best of all, he gave back. His foundation, R.U.S.H. for Literacy, has given away more than 65,000 books to 11,000 students of low-income families.
The gap Tuck leaves is large, especially in this Super Bowl week where Cam Newton and his showboating will take center stage Sunday. His departure leaves those who value class a little emptier, especially as speculation grows as to whether Jerry Jones will helicopter alleged girlfriend abuser Johnny Manziel into his own Island of Misfit Toys, ala Greg Hardy, to back up Tony Romo after the Browns cut the out-of-control party boy this offseason.
Tuck knew it was time to go. Once he made his decision, he bowed out in typical fashion.
He thanked the owners of the Giants and Raiders “for giving me a place I could call home all of these years.” He thanked Coughlin and Raiders coach Jack Del Rio “for having me ready at every stage — the Super Bowls, Pro Bowls, you name it, (and) for teaching me about professionalism, preparation, and the pursuit of perfection.”
Finally, he thanked the fans, saying, “What an incredible environment you’ve created for me over the years to call a workplace.”
He should retire as a Giant. Expect that at some point in training camp, he’ll sign one of those one-day contracts in a small, tasteful ceremony.
That would only be proper for a player who did it the right way every day.
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