Justin Tuck has comeback message

Al Lesar
Tribune Correspondent

Justin Tuck has learned to live with second-guessing his comeback from a significant injury with the Notre Dame football team.

More than 15 years later, one of the best pass rushers to play for the Irish still wonders if he gave an ACL injury, and subsequent surgery, enough time to properly heal.

As the national spokesman for the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award, the 35-year-old Tuck has the insight and the message for today’s college football players who have endured a difficult experience.

The award honors current college football players at many different levels who have come back to compete this year after an injury, illness or other situation that caused significant playing time to be missed last season.

Bad season made worse

A bad 2003 season (5-7) ended even worse when Tuck left the season finale (a 38-12 loss on Dec. 6) at Syracuse early with what appeared to be a significant knee injury.

His 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss meant little as his braced leg was stretched out over an entire row of airplane seats, hanging out into the aisle.

“It was miserable,” Tuck recalled. “We had just been beaten by a team we were better than. They had to de-ice the plane about three times before we left. And my leg hurt.”

A week after the injury, surgery was performed. From mid-December through the 2004 season-opener Sept. 4 at BYU, Tuck had just one thought in mind: Be physically ready for his senior year.

“I wanted to play as soon as possible: Which, looking back at it now, was probably a mistake,” Tuck said. “I should have taken more time and let that injury heal and give myself a better shot at coming out of that ACL injury completely healthy.

“I was coming back from an All-American season. I wanted to get out there early for my teammates and prove I was back.”

“As a coaching staff, we had questions,” said Kent Baer, Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator at the time. “The doctors felt good about the surgery, but it was up to how his rehab went.”

Numbers don’t add up

In Tuck’s mind, he was young and invincible. Conditioning and a brace would allow the knee to get stronger as the season went on. He didn’t factor in the wear and tear of the season and the punishment that made the knee weaker by the week.

Tendinitis became an issue, a devil that would vex Tuck during 2004 and the entirety of his 11-year NFL career.

“I never had a time (during the season) when I thought I made a bad decision,” Tuck said. “I kept fighting to become the player that I was. I wanted to showcase my leadership and my love for the game and my teammates would shine through.

“It was my senior year. I didn’t want to be on the sidelines.”

The numbers didn’t add up like they did the season before. Whether it was the double-teams he was getting from offensive linemen, or the direct impact of the injury, he had just six sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

“I don’t think it was that he had lost a step (because of the injury),” said Baer, now the defensive coordinator at the University of Montana. “His junior season, he really came out of nowhere. Early in his career, he was a skinny kid (he grew into 6-foot-5, 265 pounds). I’d see him on campus and say, ‘I need a defensive end, not a swimmer or a diver.

“After his junior year, teams started to game plan for him.”

Baer said, before the season, he saw the look in Tuck’s eyes that he wanted to see — a hunger to get back on the field as soon as possible.

“There was never a question in his mind that he was going to be back,” Baer said. “We didn’t worry about the mental part of (the injury) because he was so committed.”

Tuck said the tendinitis got so bad toward the end that he couldn’t play in the Bowl.

While the stats dropped, so did Tuck’s draft value. He went from a mid-first round lock before the injury to a third-rounder by the New York Giants in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Tuck said he left a year of eligibility at Notre Dame on the table because of the negative feelings he felt about Tyrone Willingham’s firing.

Advice for Crawford

After an impressive NFL career — which included two Super Bowl titles, both of which he played well enough to be considered for the MVP award, but never won — Tuck has put his Notre Dame business degree, as well as his master’s degree from the Wharton School of Business, to work.

He’s a vice president for the Goldman Sachs Investment Group.

“In layman’s terms, my job is to bring outside capital to be invested with us,” he said.

Tuck’s working with the “titans of business,” drawing from fields like healthcare, sports and finance.

He’s still a Notre Dame fan. He made the trip to Athens to see the Irish take on Georgia. He marveled at the story of ND defensive back Shaun Crawford, who had three seasons cut short by injury.

Crawford was nominated for the award by Notre Dame.

“I’d tell Shaun just to continue what he’s been doing,” Tuck said of his sage advice to Crawford. “For those who have the misfortune to be injured playing a sport, the first thing to go is the mental process.

“It’s not the body. The body might not be as 100 percent as it was before, but the body’s fine after the rehab. A lot of time, you talk yourself out of being a great player.

“The body does what the mind tells it to do. Looking at his case from afar, he’s done the right things: Prepared himself in the weight room; prepared himself in the meeting room. He can come out on Saturday and play. That’s the biggest thing.”

Former New York Giants Justin Tuck, right, greets Washington’s Donald Penn before Sunday’s game in East Rutherford, N.J.