NEWTOWN, Penn. -- One look around the Pugh Crew Summer Kickoff and you could tell things have changed for Justin Pugh. The T-shirts worn by the close to 300 campers were Arizona Cardinals colors. Some family members and friends were wearing actual Cardinals gear.
Pugh is no longer with the team that drafted him, after signing a five-year, $45 million deal with the Cardinals this offseason. The New York Giants decided to look elsewhere to rebuild their offensive line, signing left tackle Nate Solder and guard Patrick Omameh and drafting guard Will Hernandez in the second round. They had their eyes on a bigger, more physical unit constructed by new general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur.
Pugh wasn’t part of that plan. He had to wait patiently before finding the right fit in a new home. He was offered several one-year deals by playoff contenders, but the prospect of securing his long-term future and building something in Arizona proved more enticing.
“It was a crazy process,” Pugh said this past weekend during a break from playing 7-on-7 with youngsters from his hometown and the surrounding area in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “I thought I would get all these calls. Saw [Andrew] Norwell get signed [to a 5-year, $66.5 million deal with Jacksonville] and thinking I’m breaking the bank. And, you know, coming off an injury, coming off the season that we had, you get humbled a little bit. That is kind of what happened. You win three games in a season, not many things are going to go well for you.”
Pugh, 27, also missed eight games last season with a back injury. That was an impediment. Durability played a part in the Giants not bringing Pugh back. He missed at least two games in each of the past four seasons.
The back in particular complicated his free-agent process. Pugh wasn’t going to be signed on the first day of free agency before teams had the opportunity to check out his back issue. He eventually had to visit and get checked out by Arizona before a deal could be consummated.
It took three days into free agency.
“It started to worry me when it was going on because I was like, ‘Norwell signed. I think I’m as good if not better than him. He’s a run blocker.’ So once I knew New York was out of the question -- I didn’t even talk to New York -- once I knew it wasn’t going to happen I was like, 'Norwell, go to New York so every other guard team is out there.'"
Pugh was a first-round pick out of Syracuse in the 2013 NFL draft. He did everything the team asked, switching back and forth from tackle to guard and guard to tackle even when it wasn’t in his best long-term interest.
Not hearing from the Giants was a tough pill to swallow. It was disappointing.
“Of course. It was the team I started with,” Pugh said. “I always use the analogy it’s like your high school girlfriend. You think it’s going to last forever and then reality kicks in and it’s a business.
“I don’t blame the Giants at all. Everyone got fired. There was nobody there who had any allegiance to me whatsoever. I don’t even know those guys. If I was in New York it would be a new team anyways. Then I got to Arizona and it felt like the right place.”
Every year at the Pugh Crew Summer Kickoff -- now in its fifth year -- he encourages the campers to write down their goals. It’s a staple of his core beliefs. He still does it to this day.
This year it’s simple. Start every game for the Cardinals. All 16.
“That is my No. 1 goal,” Pugh said.
Off the field he wants to better himself by getting involved in a one-week internship program with a real estate company in New York. He also wants to start another camp in Arizona.
For Pugh, it’s important to give back. He realizes that he was once just like one of the kids at his camp. He wants to be driving around 10 years from now and see one of the campers holding their own camp.
And not just in suburban Pennsylvania, but also in Arizona. That’s one benefit of Pugh’s change of address.