The chicken, brat and weather reporter: Why Cardinals' Justin Pugh turned to a life coach

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Justin Pugh sat in his Range Rover in the garage of his Jersey City apartment building on Oct. 13, 2014 and cried.

The night before, as a second-year right tackle for the New York Giants, Pugh had perhaps the worst game of his career. He gave up six sacks -- four by the first play of the second quarter -- and the Giants were blown out in Philadelphia 27-0 on Sunday Night Football. It happened in front of family and friends who had made the 30-mile drive from Pugh's hometown of Holland, Pennsylvania.

"That was devastating, I know, to us," said Pugh's mother, Carolyn Gavaghan. "I could cry now."

Afterward, Pugh was embarrassed -- that he played poorly, that the Giants lost, that he had that kind of game in his hometown. It was a feeling that lasted through the 2015 season.

When roommate Jake Lerner saw Pugh at the elevator the next day, he could see that Pugh's eyes were puffy. Pugh had come home from the Giants facility after watching the film on Monday and couldn't hold it in anymore.

"I never will forget that game," said Pugh of that night vs. the Eagles, who he and the Arizona Cardinals play Sunday (4:05 p.m., Fox). "That game is the low of my New York Giants' career.

"I was devastated. I was like, 'This is the beginning of the end.' And we fought back. We fought back. We overcame. And I couldn't be prouder of how I handled it and where I'm at now in my career. It's something that made me who I am so I'm thankful for it."

Pugh turned to a life coach, Beth Weissenberger of the Handel Group in New York, to help get through it. It's not something that is commonly talked about in the NFL and Pugh expects a reaction to opening up about seeing Weissenberger. Players like Seattle's Russell Wilson and Minnesota's Adam Thielen have mental conditioning coaches, and the NFLPA offers mental health clinicians through teams. But a life coach is something different.

Weissenberger and Pugh talked about everything. Weissenberger's goal with Pugh was to get him to clear the clutter of his life. To find his personal "cavities" and fix them. And to address his three inner voices: the chicken, the brat and the weather reporter.

Out of control

Pugh, a former first-round pick who was six games into his second NFL season, thought he couldn't play anymore, that the Eagles game could lead to him getting benched and later cut. And if that happened, it would eventually lead to him getting replaced.

Although Pugh was never at risk of getting cut or benched, said Pat Flaherty, his offensive line coach his first three seasons with the Giants, the thought of it took Pugh to places no athlete wants to go. One word started to swirl around his head, picking up speed and momentum like a tornado in the open plains: Bust.

"You hear about guys getting the yips in baseball or in golf," Pugh said. "I was like, 'Oh, here I am. I'm going to be one of those first-round busts.'

"I didn't want to be considered a bust, especially I didn't want to be considered a bust in New York and always have that follow me around. So, that was probably more the fear."

Getting drafted by the Giants was, Pugh says, the best and worst thing to happen to him. He was young, rich and famous in the New York City. He had the perks of being in the city that never sleeps and the pressure of playing in the biggest media market in the world.

He went out -- as 20-year olds do -- and took his friends along for the ride. Pugh earned $784,000 in 2014, while his friends earned money more typical of someone right out of college. Still, Pugh wanted them with him wherever he went. So, like Vinny Chase in "Entourage," he paid for them.

Pugh estimated he spent about $100,000 that first year, year and a half.

"It's bottle service where you have to put a credit card down if you want to go to the bougie clubs and I didn't want to be told, 'No,' and I had six of my best friends with me and you got to pay to go out, so I was like, 'Hey, drop the AmEx. Let's go. We're going wherever we want, whenever we want, no one's telling us we can't,'" Pugh said.

Pugh also had a deep-rooted desire to be liked, going back to childhood. That was amplified in New York, starting his rookie season, when he admittedly fed into the praise heaped on him on social media. At the time of that Eagles game, he was a 24-year-old "hell bent" on what people thought about him, a feeling that became stronger with the money and fame.

It was, Pugh said, addictive. Throughout the years he's deleted his social media accounts, only to bring them back. It was particularly bad after that Eagles game when people from high school attacked him on social media, telling him that's what he gets for playing against his hometown Eagles.

"I loved being a New York Giant," said Pugh, who says he wanted to be a lifelong Giant akin to how Larry Fitzgerald has been a lifelong Cardinal. "I loved everything that came with being a New York Giant. I got to go and do all the fun things. I got to walk into Madison Square Garden and go to whatever concert or whoever was there, whatever was going on. I was recognized in the city.

"I thought all those things, it was part of the draw of playing there and I so badly want to be successful to have the city love me that it probably put so much pressure on me, that I started to crumble from within."

He was prickly for about a month after the Eagles game, especially at home. He became defensive about anything and everything, especially unrelated to sports, Lerner said.

"It was visible that he was hurting inside and taking it out on whatever the situation was," Lerner said.

Pugh's agent, Andy Ross, noticed something was off and offered Pugh two free sessions with Weissenberger, who Ross had recruited to work with former players who struggled with their post-NFL lives. At first, Pugh was against the idea. He wanted to fix himself, exuding toughness while hiding his weaknesses. But Pugh has been open to trying new techniques and approaches his whole life, so he eventually accepted Ross' offer.

He was embarrassed to tell his parents, even though he's a self-proclaimed "mama's boy," close with both his mother, and step-dad Frank Gavaghan.

"I wish I would have picked up on that earlier, especially like when he's playing someone like the Eagles," his mom said. "What goes through their minds? It's a game to us and a competition to a lot of people, but it's so much more to the families and the guys involved. It's just on such a different level."

Fighting back from that low, dark place wasn't easy and didn't happen quickly. And Pugh wasn't going to do it alone.

The doctor

Weissenberger is brash, harsh, honest and loves a good f-bomb. Oh, and she doesn't like football. Actually she hates football. She wasn't going to be in awe of Pugh. She was, in Ross' eyes, the perfect person to work with a football player.

After talking to him, Weissenberger was able to assess Pugh: "He was a mess."

The two started working together for about 16 sessions, an hour at a time, starting in November 2015 through June 2017.

It took her one session to get to the core of Pugh's issues, which she named the chicken, the brat and the weather reporter. The chicken is Weissenberger's way of describing the inner voice that tells people to avoid doing something, the brat is the inner defiant voice and the weather reporter is the inner voice that makes things facts when they're, in reality, not.

All three were wreaking havoc on Pugh.

Weissenberger saw Pugh as an emergency case because of the idea that he could get cut. That, she deemed, was "horrific" for a player so she had to move quickly.

Pugh had to commit to being accountable. Weissenberger required a set of promises and consequences if those promises were broken. His promises ranged from not spending beyond his budget to missing something football related. Every time he broke a promise, he threw $500 in cash out the window. Literally. Pugh estimates four or five times he tossed $500 out of his window. And that was motivation enough.

"I've always been a money guy, money speaks to me," Pugh said. "I'm like, 'I'm not doing this.' And then I got to the point where I was trying to so hard to save that I wouldn't go out at all. I'd only want to go to places that were going to give me free stuff. I became the opposite of what I was at first."

One of the big breakthroughs was when Pugh told Weissenberger he had started to conquer his inner chicken -- telling it to shut up -- in the huddle, though he still gets anxiety before every game knowing his job is to ensure the health of another person. Pugh says he still thinks about Weissenberger before every third down.

Life changed

The change in Pugh was gradual. He reevaluated almost everything in his life. He realized he was spending too much money, so he told his friends he wouldn't be treating every time they went out. He established roles and expectations for everyone in his life. That type of communication has been a foundation for his relationship with his girlfriend, Angela.

"There's nothing that I don't know about him because he's constantly putting it all out on the table," she said, "and it helps us grow as a couple."

Pugh made football the centerpiece of his life and built outward. He slept through a Saturday walk-through late in his rookie season, and vowed to never let it happen again. After seeing Weissenberger, he doubled down on his commitment to his job.

"So, each time I would speak to him, he kept getting happier stronger, and then we would deal with each thing," Weissenberger said.

Now, he's "like a totally different human, someone who really believed in himself, someone who was proud of himself, someone who's damn happy," she said.

Gone are the days of bottle service and $4,000 tabs. Pugh can't remember the last time he had a drink. He'd rather go out for a nice dinner with Angela. Golf has become a passionate hobby. He's found an interest in real estate. He likes taking care of their dog, Benny, a red golden retriever. And he looks forward to their next trip to see family or their friends instead of the next adventure with his boys.

"I feel like he's grown up so much," Angela said.

Without seeing Weissenberger, those closest to Pugh aren't sure he'd have the type of relationship he does with Angela or would have gotten the five-year, $44.8 million contract with the Cardinals.

His friends and family can see the difference in Pugh thanks to his life coach.

He's calmer, his step dad said.

He's more confident, his mom said.

He has his life prioritized and has been able to harness his competitiveness, said Corey Radel, one Pugh's friends since elementary school.

He's learned to deal with failure, Lerner said.

"I can say now that it works," Pugh said. "I can look back and say now I feel, where I'm at now I know it worked. I think there was a sense of relief that I was heading in the right direction and that gave me a sense of, 'OK, we're going to get this figured out this is going to be OK.'"