Cigar Aficionado

New York Giant Justin Tuck punishes his opponents on the field, but off the gridiron he’s all heart

Justin Tuck has pulled off a minor miracle: Out of his maddening, big-city sports existence, he has still managed to replicate the remote, tiny-town vibe of his youth, living down a quiet side street of a quiet side street before the road abruptly hits a dead end in Fort Lee, New Jersey. “People don’t even know anything is here,” Tuck says. It’s his pocket of serenity, of much- sought-after normalcy, overlooking the Hudson River, where on a clear day from his backyard, with the leaves off the trees, he has a simply gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid March. Tuck, 28, the New York Giants’ Pro Bowl defensive end and one of the National Football League’s most dangerous pass rushers—whose takedown of pretty boy Tom Brady helped produce one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history—is nestled into his comfort zone, a decidedly ordinary moment. Dressed in jeans and a mango-colored designer T, he’s sitting at the kitchen table chomping on some Papa John’s pizza, first a slice slathered with extra mozzarella cheese, then one topped with endless slices of pepperoni. He washes it all down with a plastic bottle of purple vitamin water.

Scurrying around him the whole time is his ever-smiling 13-month-old son Jayce, playing with toys strewn on the floor everywhere, spilling over from the kitchen into the living room, including a miniature multicolored football. “Hey, Jayce,” he says, getting his son’s attention. Tuck, suddenly breaking from his usual tight lips into a smile as big as his son’s, rises from the table and gently kicks the ball away, watching Jayce, with choppy, stumbling baby steps, chase after it, followed close behind by Justin’s wife Lauran, chasing after their son.

The result is a beautiful and amazing sight: six feet, four inches of height and 274 pounds of pure macho muscle mass melting instantly into beaming fatherly mush, one of those private snapshots where the man who makes a living knocking people senseless feels safe enough to reveal his soft side. “Football is what I do, not who I am,” Tuck explains, looking warmly over at his wife and only child. “Just because I go out on the field trying to kill quarterbacks doesn’t mean I don’t want to see my wife and son run into my arms after the game. I’m a completely different person off the field than on.”

He pauses, taking a long, slow sip of his odd-colored water. “I’m a quiet, laid-back guy. I don’t like being in front of the cameras, don’t need the limelight, don’t like seeing people who’ve had a lot of success pat themselves on the back. I’m just trying to stay humble and not let the people in my life down.”

Tuck’s friend Carl Banks, a legendary Giants linebacker who has two Super Bowl rings of his own, has a unique perspective on Tuck: “Justin is one of the most genuine, unassuming guys you’ll ever meet. For a guy of his stature to be so unaffected is rare. He’s, as my mom would say, someone who knows his manners.” Banks, who terrorized quarterbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s, is also responsible for introducing Tuck to the singular bliss of pairing a fine cigar with a good Scotch some five years ago.

Tuck indeed comes across as genial and down-to-earth, but at times painfully stolid. His face—which includes seemingly unblinking eyes—can appear as if shot with Novocain; his words are spare, matter-of-fact, and clearly measured; and his voice rarely strays beyond a low, flat, unexcited monotone. When forced to speak before an audience, he’s invariably asked to move closer to the microphone. And when he lets loose something hinting of an emotion, he appears to become so self-conscious that the blurted response speedily retreats as if yanked by a fishing line.

He is such an odd fit in a city that loves its out-of-control, loud, freakishly over-the-top characters. Yet, with a degree of pride and certainty, if not defiance, he says, “I’m a chameleon. Whatever forest you want me to live in, I can live.”
Tuck was born and raised in a forest down South you never heard of, with a population so miniscule it hardly justifies a spot on the map, yet where the notion of “family togetherness” provokes an Amen! as quickly as any line in any sermon—the rolling hills of Kellyton, Alabama, in Coosa County, 65 miles southeast of Birmingham. “I’m not even sure it’s on the map,” he jokes. “There are no traffic lights. Only two caution lights. One gas station. And the nearest McDonald’s is 15 minutes away. But…it’s home.”

There are a piddling 200 or so people in Kellyton, most of them members of the Tuck clan, piled into a solid row of 11 houses. The Tucks actually outnumber the non-Tucks there. “A lot of people in the area call it ‘Tuckville,’ ” he says. “Family’s everything to me. I was around my family pretty much 24/7.” It started with his great-great granddaddy Sam, a sharecropper who got a piece of land there, built on it and never left. His cousin, Adalius Thomas, a former Patriots linebacker whom he faced in Super Bowl XLII, grew up five minutes away.

One of seven children (five girls and two boys), Tuck grew up in a three-bedroom brick house hand-built in 1973 on a scratchy lot by his dad Jimmy Lee, aided by friends and family lured by a sweet talk and free meals. Jimmy Lee spent nearly 24 years working as an engineer in the warehouse of a local homebuilder, then for the Russell Athletic Co.

Justin’s mom Elaine worked for Russell as well, for 30 years, a lot of those days spent in the clothing mill on graveyard shifts.
There wasn’t much for him to do in Kellyton besides play sports, and on some weekends and summer days Justin—a kid who made “little noise,” his Dad will tell you—would start playing ball at ten in the morning and not finish until eight at night. “A lot of people thought that’s why I had a darker complexion than my sisters,” he says, “because I was always outside getting cooked by the sun.” His favorite sport, surprisingly, was basketball, not football. It wasn’t until the ninth grade that he took up football seriously, first playing quarterback, then tight end and linebacker, then finally defensive end in his junior year of high school.

When he wasn’t on some ball field or court, he was at the Elam II Missionary Baptist Church. “It seemed like I went to church Sunday through Saturday,” he says with a chuckle. All the Tuck men were either deacons (including his father and only brother Spencer) or preachers, while his mom was the church’s secretary and his sisters either sang in the choir, played the church piano or taught Sunday school. Justin went from cutting the church’s lawn to becoming its teenage Sunday school teacher.

His parents preached the basic principles of hard work and the need for a good education, humility and generosity, love of God and family, that one’s life isn’t measured by material things but by strength of character. “But my Dad would say that it’s what you are behind closed doors that matters, not what you do and say in public. He’d say, ‘If you’re not living it when no one’s looking, then it’s not true.’ That has always stayed with me.”

When Tuck signed a five-year, $30 million dollar extension with the Giants in January 2008, he had a surprise for his Dad.

“Hey, Dad,” he said. “I’m going to buy you a new house.”

Jimmy Lee had a bigger surprise to give his son. “No, you’re not.”

“No, no, Dad, I’m going to buy it for you.”

“Well, if you buy it,” his Dad warned, “I’ll burn it down.”
His father explained that the best gift he could give him was to live his life fully, show respect for people and represent Kellyton well. That’s all.

“You hear all the stories of guys making it big, coming into money and family members hanging off them,” Tuck says. “Well, that’s not my family. They don’t want anything. ‘That’s your hard work, your success,’ they say.”

He was a relatively unknown football prospect coming out of high school, but by the time he finished his college days playing for The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame he made his bones as a premier college pass rusher. On campus, he was known as The Freak, a guy who possessed a 34.5- inch vertical leap, could run the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds, bench press 380 pounds, squat 560 and power clean 336 combined with the quickness and dazzling footwork of a point guard. It all combined to make him a uniquely lethal defensive end.

He was drafted by the Giants in 2005, but was forced to begin his NFL career backing up two Pro Bowl defensive ends, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. His debut was laughable. “First game of the regular season, we’re playing the Arizona Cardinals, and I’m up against Leonard Davis, who might be the biggest human being ever to put on pads (6-foot-6, 365 pounds),” he remembers. “It’s the end of the game and we were up by a lot. And I try to get a sack with an inside move on him, one of my best moves in college. Well, he took his big paw and slapped me across my head, and I went from the right side of the defense to left. Osi and Strahan were laughing and I think Davis was too.” But Tuck made up for it in Game 4, pitted against one of the game’s best offensive linemen ever, the 6-foot-7, 325-pound tackle Orlando Pace of the St. Louis Rams. “I knocked Orlando into the backfield and made a tackle on All-Pro running back Steven Jackson. It was a big play, a loss of, like, five yards (for the Rams), and Strahan gave me a look back in the huddle, like, ‘This kid is going to be alright.’ ”

It was just two seasons later that Tuck came up big in the biggest game of his life. In Super Bowl XLII against superstar quarterback Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots, he ended up with six tackles and a game-high two sacks, including a momentum-changing takedown in the second quarter that forced a Brady fumble as well as killed a Patriots drive. “I don’t remember much about that play,” he says. “I know I made this move on [Pats’ left guard] Logan Mankins by coming around the edge, but after that—it’s weird—everything just slowed down. I don’t even remember seeing the ball. But Brady looked huge.”

Tuck had pressured Brady all game long during that climactic Super Bowl. “At one point, he said to me, ‘You need to slow down.’ I said right back, ‘You need to hold the ball a little longer.’ ” By the time the game was over, the wild-card Giants had eked out the most unlikely Super Bowl victory in history, defeating the seemingly unbeatable Pats, 17-14. “The way we pulled together as a team from the last game of the season on—special, just special,” says Tuck.

More Super Bowl–related drama came in the middle of the following season, when he misplaced his Super Bowl ring, which he’d been wearing like a wedding band on his right hand. “I realized one morning that it was gone. I freaked out. I scoured the house and couldn’t find it anywhere. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my head in my hands playing out what I did the day before in my mind, squeezing hard for some kind of answer. I didn’t find it until late that night. It ended up being in a pair of dress pants.”

He immediately handed the ring to his wife and said, “This is your property now. I’ll ask you for it when I want to wear it.” Lauran hides it in a secret spot. “At first, I never took the ring off,” Tuck confesses. “I even slept with it on. Now I only wear it for special occasions. I mean, it took too much to win one of these to take a chance of losing it.”

But since winning the Super Bowl, Tuck says, his Giants have “had trouble finding that killer mentality.” That disturbs him a ton, so much so that last November against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with his teammates playing as if daydreaming about Caribbean vacations, he finally did something he’s never done before in professional football, swung completely against type: He snapped. It began late in the second quarter with him unstrapping his helmet and flinging it to the sidelines. It continued into the locker room with him erupting into a bellowing, spittle-flying, profanity-loaded tirade that doubled as a halftime speech.

One of his teammates would later say that Tuck went “medieval,” conjuring the image of a wild-eyed Pulp Fiction Samuel L. Jackson, angrily citing Biblical verse before spraying his victim with fatal gunshots. “It wasn’t one of my Christian moments,” he concedes with snort. “It was little bit of shock and awe.

“Just before we went back out on the field, I stopped [the whole defensive unit] cold. I felt we weren’t ready yet, had no sense of urgency. And I lit into everybody, including myself. That’s not my nature—I’m a lead-by-example type­—but I felt I had to say something.”

The sanitized version of how he remembers the tirade (“I won’t repeat the [profane] words,” he says without equivocation) went something like this: “This is our house, not theirs! How can you let them raid our house? How can you let them put their dirty feet up on our couches, wipe them on our rug. How can you let them take our remote controls away? They’ve taken over our house! You call yourself a man! You call yourself a New York Giant…!” And the rant went on and on like that.

Tuck coughs up an embarrassing chuckle reliving those words. “Yeah, I was all over the place. Lucky, it wasn’t recorded. It would’ve definitely sounded like I was crazy. But it worked.” The Giants went from being down 17-6 at halftime to winning 24-20. “And from that point on,” he says, “my teammates, I think, saw me in a different way.” It’s a coming-of-age story, as Tuck, if only for a rarer-then-rare moment of lunacy, had at last broken from his muted comfort zone to become a vocal leader, something Michael Strahan, following his retirement after the 2007 season, had repeatedly criticized him for not doing, accusing Tuck of being reluctant to “step on some toes in order to inspire and motivate guys.” Says Tuck, “(Strahan) is a smart guy and he knows how to push people’s buttons. He was trying to motivate me. We’ve talked about it since and he’s told me he feels he left the team in good hands.”

Off the field, Tuck has more hobbies than a guy in retirement. He hunts and fishes. He plays golf and pocket billiards. And he collects vintage cars, his one great indulgence. His “pride and joys” are a 1970 white Chevelle with black stripes and a restored 1970 all-black Impala convertible. “I was around cars a lot as a kid,” he says. “My Dad and brother would work on them all the time. I fell in love with the craftsmanship of great cars. And there’s something about the American engine—the sound of the muffler—that really gets to me.”

His most important outside project is R.U.S.H. for Literacy, a charity organization he and Lauran launched in 2008. The acronym, playing off his football prowess, stands for Read, Understand, Succeed, and Hope. Boosted by an annual celebrity pool event in Manhattan (General Cigar Co. has been a sponsor), it raises funds to donate books and other reading material to kids in his hometown of Kellyton and under-served areas in New York City, instilling the idea of reading at an early age.

“My wife and I are both passionate about education and kids. This combines the two,” he says. “I had a problem accessing books growing up and we didn’t have computers. Kids need those things. If you don’t have that foundation, it makes life difficult. My wife and I credit our education for helping us get where we are today.”

When he’s looking to chill, there are his cigars, of course, stashed in an upstairs humidor and a downstairs wine cellar.
He smoked his first cigar in college, a Black & Mild while heading with friends to the Indiana Black Expo. He was never remotely attracted to cigarettes, never even smoked one. But cigars appealed to him. He thought they were cool, reminded him of the old gangster movies. They became a permanent part of his life in 2007, after a celebrity golf event. He was sitting at the clubhouse bar with Carl Banks, sipping on his favorite Scotch, Johnnie Walker Blue, when Banks hit him with the irresistible line: “You know, a good Scotch deserves a good cigar.” (Banks was already a serious cigar man for years, puffing on Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series, Davidoffs and Ashton VSGs.) And just like that the two were lighting up Montecristos, the product of one of the event sponsors.

Tuck has been enjoying cigars ever since. He smokes them after big wins. And during the off-season, he’ll puff away no less than three times a week, usually on the golf course or at Manhattan’s Grand Havana Room.

He also has a special box of Macanudos waiting to be smoked, made-to-order “Triple 7s” celebrating the birth of his son Jayce, who was born on the seventh day (of February), weighing seven pounds, seven ounces.

“I’m waiting for another special day,” he says. Like what? The birth of another child? Another Super Bowl victory?What?He looks away and pauses.

“I don’t know yet,” says Tuck, a man who revels in a life away from everything, the simplicity of everyday, everyman moments. “I’ll know it when it comes.”

Michael P. Geffner is a freelance writer living in New York City. He has been acknowledged for excellence seven times by the annual anthology Best American Sports Writing.