TEMPE, Ariz. -- As the NFL continues to deal with the aftermath of two of its biggest stars going public about why they walked away from the game in their prime, Arizona Cardinals left guard Justin Pugh said the league is dealing with a risk vs. reward issue among players who aren't at the caliber of Andrew Luck or Rob Gronkowski. For those players who don't have guaranteed contracts like most top draft picks receive, the need to stay on the field is crucial enough to suppress pain, both physical and mental, Pugh said Tuesday.
"If you go out there and you get hit, if you don't go back out there the next day, you're going to be replaced," Pugh said. "That's the nature of our business and that's the sad thing. I don't know if you're going to perceive it as a negative but the guy also has an opportunity to make a lot more money than he probably would otherwise and change the trajectory of his life, his kids' life, his kids' kids' lives, so I see why guys go out there and push through it.
"I mean, you have a chance to make a crazy amount of money and that's the risk-reward: How much am I willing to risk with my body, my mental health to make as much money as possible and win? And that's the NFL in a nutshell."
Pugh, who was drafted by the New York Giants in the first round in 2013, said that won't change.
"No one wants to show any weakness because weakness is just a little blind spot or a little open sore that you can go and attack and go after," he said. "So, I'm always honest, and I kind of try to show guys you can be yourself and you can say that and a lot of guys do that in this locker room, which is a good thing."
Pugh was eager to discuss the state of mental health in the NFL just three days after Luck shocked the football world by retiring at age 29, just weeks from the start of his eighth season because of the physical and mental toll that injuries over the last four years have taken on him. Earlier Tuesday, Gronkowski said he retired at 29 as well because "football was bringing me down, and I didn't like it. I was losing that joy in life."
Pugh said it was tough to watch Luck during his retirement news conference. The 29-year-old, who finished the last two seasons on injured reserve with a back and knee injury, respectively, said rehabbing and healing can be a lonely process as players try to stay out of the way while getting better.
"You don't want to be a burden on the team," Pugh said.
When he was younger, he treated injures like they happened on Madden, the NFL video game -- just like fans see them, he said. After a couple weeks, he figured he was completely healthy. His injuries may have been healed enough to play that week but they weren't completely rehabbed and something else was bound to happen because of the physical nature of the sport.
When Pugh was rehabbing his back in 2017, it wasn't getting better and he began thinking he may never live a normal life. Forget football. It was his life he was concerned about.
Pugh added that as soon as players get back from one injury, something else usually happens, keeping the constant injury cycle pushing forward. And it takes its toll. Conversations within the locker room can help younger players think more about their mental health, Pugh said.
"I think it's just letting guys know if you're hurt, you're hurt. Go get healthy," Pugh said. "Go get yourself right. It's a macho mentality in this league where you can't show pain, you can't show weakness. So, physical weakness, you can't hide. Mental weakness, guys mask that better than anything. And that's where the really negative things start to come and if you [can't] be open and honest about where your mental health is, it's going to come up and rear its ugly head at some point and that's what's happened to a lot of these guys.
"I mean, go back and just look into Andrew Luck's eyes and see the pain that guy has. That gets me upset because, like, I know there's guys in this locker room and every locker room that are going through those same things. So it's definitely tough as a teammate knowing that guys go through it."
Pugh believes those conversations need to begin when players are younger to let them know it's OK to talk about feelings. Pugh doubts many people talk about their mental health at the dinner table. But beginning to talk about it in sports could help athletes approach their health, both mental and physical, differently.
"I'd much rather be called soft than deal with depression or put a hole in my chest and say something's wrong with my brain," Pugh said. "So, that's just the bottom line." Pugh said he saw a therapist in his second season with the Giants after a 27-0 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which he said he allowed "four or five" sacks in a game televised in prime time.
"It was like the worst game of your career," he said. "I remember thinking like, 'I can't play in the NFL anymore. I don't have what it takes to play in the NFL.' This game is so mental, that if we don't start training the mental side of our brain... I end up working with a psychologist after that to work on that side of my game. If we don't work on that, so many good players are going to fall by the wayside."
"The mental side of the NFL has been ignored for so long," Pugh said. "And I bet you if you go on the Twitter world and you're going to see all these guys saying Andrew Luck's soft or Andrew Luck this and that; those same guys have their friends killing themselves right now. Like guys in the NFL instead of dealing with these issues are killing themselves, so we obviously have to have a conversation about it."