Justin Tuck's mid-career growing pains

Justin Tuck has been a big part of the Giants' late-season resurgence despite nagging injuries. Kyle Terada/US Presswire

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- What do you do when your success comes before your adversity? You win the Super Bowl when you're 24 and you spend the ensuing years building on that, emerging as one of the dominant defensive players in the NFL, becoming a captain of your team, piling confidence on top of confidence, accolade on top of accolade. And then out of nowhere, at age 28, you're confronted with new, painful challenges that poke at your belief in yourself. What do you do?

Justin Tuck sure didn't know. The New York Giants' star defensive end has had a rough season. Groin, shoulder, neck and foot injuries kept him from being the player he's spent his whole outstanding NFL career proving he can be and the teammate his fellow Giants expect him to be.

"The way I like to lead is by example, by going out on the football field and doing it," Tuck said Wednesday. "So this year's been tough for me in that regard, as far as leadership. It's been growing pains, learning how to get your point across without doing it on the football field, which I had previously liked to do."

Fortunately for the Giants, Tuck figured this out before it was too late. Along about Week 16, when teammate Antrel Rolle started making public comments about guys who weren't practicing every day but maybe could, Tuck started changing the way he felt about his nagging injuries. That same week, Giants coach Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese spoke with Tuck about shaking off the pain -- of accepting that he wasn't going to feel his best, but playing and leading by example anyway.

The result has been brilliant for the Giants, and brilliantly timed. Tuck has played his best football of the season over the last four weeks. And as the Giants get ready for Sunday's NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, their defensive leader finds himself in that blissfully right state of mind that had eluded him all season.

"One thing I learned this year is that the guys respect what you've done," Tuck said. "A lot of times this year, I wasn't saying anything, and guys would come up to me and ask, 'Why are you so quiet? Why didn't you do this or that?' And I'd tell them why. And they came to me and were like, 'You don't have to worry about that. We know you're not 100 percent, but that doesn't stop you from being a leader.'"

Tuck is a smart and thoughtful guy. You see it instantly when you interview him. A lot of athletes go right to the easy sound bite, but Tuck engages his interviewer, thinks about his answer and offers helpful insight. He seems willing to consider outside points of view and differing perspectives. So it's not surprising to learn that when his teammates, his coach and his GM started talking to him about ways to change his mindset, he was receptive. It also helps that he's strong enough mentally to actually do it.

"I like the adjustments that he made," Coughlin said. "He just decided that he's not going to allow any more distractions from the standpoint of the hurts. He has made that decision and he has stuck with it, and I think it's a very smart move. He's been very productive since doing it."

We forget sometimes, as outside observers of these games, that these are actual people who play them, and young ones at that. We like to put these players in boxes and assume we have them figured out. Tuck won the Super Bowl when he was 24 years old and played great for the three years that followed. Why should we have thought he'd ever be anything other than what we already knew him to be?

But none of us is a finished product at 24, 25, 26 or 27 years old, and neither is our favorite star athlete. Compared to a lot of teams and a lot of people, things came easily for a lot of these Giants early in their careers. Tuck, Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Osi Umenyiora ... all of these guys were wearing Super Bowl rings in their mid-20s. But each had the bulk of his career still ahead of him, and growing to do. True greatness isn't measured by the title you win when you're a kid who got hot and didn't know any better. It's measured by the way you build on that, learn from the adversity sure to follow and find a way to be great again.

Those early career champion Giants all went through this. Manning with the interceptions. Jacobs with his demotion and weird behavior issues. Umenyiora with his contract dispute and ugly public feud with GM Jerry Reese. And Tuck, this year, with his injuries. Each of those players has emerged from his mid-career adversity better for the experience. Manning led the way, playing brilliantly from the start of this season. But the light has gone on for the others at the right time.

Jacobs is running as hard as in the old days, no matter what Jerry Rice thinks. Umenyiora has shoved the contract stuff to the back burner and is focused on knocking down quarterbacks again. And Tuck? Well, yeah, the nagging injuries are still there. He's still in more pain than he'd like to be, and it's still keeping him from doing everything he'd like to be doing on the field. But this year, at a still-young 28, Tuck has learned that that's OK.

"My teammates know where my heart is," Tuck said. "My coaches know where my heart is. And I just came to the realization that I'm not going to be healthy this year. I'm not going to put up the stats that I've put up. But that doesn't mean that I can't help this football team win games. And at the end of the day, that's the goal."