The two-time Super Bowl winner on the losing culture in Oakland, mentoring rookie Khalil Mack and trying to find the time to go bow hunting with Bo Jackson
Last week, Justin Tuck spent his off day with Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of California, at Google’s headquarters in San Francisco. Not bad for a Tuesday. Together, they were helping to raise money for the 1:1 Fund, a college savings program for kids that Tuck and his wife, Lauran, have partnered with through their R.U.S.H. for Literacy campaign. After playing for nine seasons in New York, the veteran defensive end was able to quickly bring his charitable efforts to his new community. But so far, the winning tradition has been hard to replicate for the two-time Super Bowl champ. Tuck, who signed a two-year deal with the Raiders in March, talked to The MMQB about trying to forge a new path in Oakland, for himself and for the team.
VRENTAS: You built deep roots in the New York/New Jersey area during your nearly decade-long run with the Giants. What was it like to start over in a new city?
TUCK: Being in New York for nine-plus years, being very ingrained in that community, I knew I wanted to do that when I came out here. We’ve had similar success with meeting great people, great sponsorships, great partnerships. People have really stepped forward to help us make the transition to having an impact in these communities out west very easy for us. When we came out to Oakland, we talked to the superintendent of schools, the mayor and some of her officials to get a take on where our R.U.S.H. for Literacy program would be most helpful. They gave us a list of schools and backgrounds and other criteria, and that’s how we came up with Oakland’s Alliance Academy. It seems like every year we’re going to try to add a new school to [our literacy campaign], so they’re the first of hopefully many schools we’ll partner with out here. We still do our work in New York, too.
VRENTAS: You just spent time with the Lieutenant Governor of California, and while you played for the Giants, you got to know U.S. Senator Cory Booker when he was the mayor of Newark. Any interest in going into politics after football?
TUCK: No. No. Believe me, I get asked that question a lot. And I say no with all due respect for Gavin and Cory and all their comrades and what they do for the world, but that’s just something that never tickled my fancy.
VRENTAS: Your team’s first two wins of the season came within the last month. It’s too late for this year, but do wins late in the season serve a purpose?
TUCK: The biggest thing for us now is just learning how to win together. There are a lot of different pieces of this team, in an organization that has been down for 10 years or so now. So it’s learning how to win again, and getting that mentality out of a lot of the younger guys’ heads that ‘Oh, something went wrong in the game; here we go again.’ That’s what I’ve seen a lot of here, ‘Here we go again.’ I don’t know if that’s something that gets stuck in you over the years, or if it’s something we can hopefully get rid of. I have seen a lot of growth out of this team from start to finish, especially within this last month. We are starting to figure it out. We’ve been in a lot of close games this year, where you just need to get one play. I don’t think a lot of guys understand how small the difference is between wins and losses. As the year is winding down, we’re just trying to hopefully get some good feelings behind us heading into next year, knowing that this team can win games and have the talent and the necessary pieces of the puzzle to pull some of these games out.
VRENTAS: Oakland hasn’t had a winning season since 2002. Do you see that a losing mentality has been ingrained into the franchise?
TUCK: I don’t know if that’s the case, but it seems like it is, because when you have lost for so many years, it can get stuck in you. Kind of like winning. I know for a fact, being in New York, we used to go into the fourth quarter down by 10 points and be like, ‘Well, we’ll find a way to pull this out.’ And I figure that losing can be the same way. Hopefully these wins are teaching us how to win together, and teaching us to have the mentality to finish some of these games we hadn’t finished earlier in the season.
VRENTAS: How have you coped with the losing and the turbulence this year? Your first win came in Week 12, and the head coach was fired midstream. This is a different kind of season than you have ever had as an NFL player.
TUCK: I think you try to stick to your guns. For me personally, I know what got me here, I know what success looks like, and I just continue to do the things that have been tested, tried and proven for me. And that’s just coming to work every day and doing your job and trying to be a good example to the younger guys. I think a lot of times in situations like this—even though I haven’t been in a situation like this—you tend to be more vocal. But I didn’t do that, and a lot of the older guys didn’t do that, either. We just continued to come in and show the team a good example of how to work. I think it worked as well as it could have for us. Obviously we would like to have more wins, but I feel as though we are building something here that is going to get us back on the map as far as being one of those teams that is going for the playoffs every year.
VRENTAS: One of the reasons they brought you in was to pass on that winning mentality you experienced in New York. How have you tried to do that?
TUCK: Young guys watch you more than they listen to you. It’s important to show what would make a good player or a good teammate or a good team. Bring your lunch pail to work every day and work. Whether it be in the weight room, whether it be staying after watching film, whatever it is. Teaching younger guys what foods to eat, what not to eat; the importance of how you treat your body; or the importance of watching film and what to watch on film, how to pick out these little things, tips and pointers, that can help you be successful on the football field. Those are things I learned from [Michael] Strahan and [Antonio] Pierce and Osi [Umenyiora], so I am taking a page out of their book and doing the same for our younger players.
VRENTAS: One of the young guys you’ve worked with closely is Khalil Mack, the No. 5 pick. There was always a tradition with the Giants of passing knowledge down from pass rusher to pass rusher, so what have you passed down to him?
TUCK: Nothing with his skills, because he has all the skills in the world. The thing I tell Khalil is just to be patient. Some days, it’s going to feel like it’s very easy, and other days you feel like you’ve never played the game before. He is a very humble young guy who knows he doesn’t know everything, so he asks a lot of questions. It was never really me seeking him out and trying to teach him things. He sought me out. He asked for the locker next to mine; he asked questions during training camp. We talk constantly during the week and during games. He’s made it easy for me, because all I have to do is answer his questions.
VRENTAS: What’s one thing you can teach him that he can’t get from anyone else?
TUCK: One thing we worked on with him is he can be very sporadic in a lot of his pass rushing. He does like double moves [faking outside before rushing inside] and that’s a testament to how athletic he is. But I always tell him, when I go into a game, I am concentrating on a few different moves that are going to be successful against the type of guy you are going against. I told him one thing Michael [Strahan] taught me was how to watch film, and watch your guy, and know which moves he’s susceptible to. And then you go into a game with a plan, not just relying on your athletic ability, or relying on your speed, or relying on your power, but knowing that I am going to do this until he stops it, and when he does stop it, I got this counter off of it that he doesn’t do a good job of picking up. That slows the game down for Khalil. I remember as a rookie, the games were just so fast, because I was just out there all over the place. If you go into pass rush and you don’t have a plan, you try and utilize your speed or your power. You can be the best speed rusher in the world, but some guys you go against, they don’t give up speed rushes. They’re very good against the speed rush. So that’s the week you might want to go to a power rush, or something else. So I just told him, have a plan.
VRENTAS: Your quarterback, Derek Carr, is still a work in progress like many rookies. But at times this season, he’s seemed like he really could be a good quarterback in this league. What do you think his future is?
TUCK: Bright. The biggest compliment I think I can say for Derek is just how he doesn’t allow any situation to affect him. He’s one of the more even-keeled people I’ve been around, and that’s similar to his brother [David Carr, a former backup with the Giants when Tuck was there]. I don’t know if that’s the whole California thing or not, but he doesn’t get too hyped or too … anything, whether he throws an interception or whatever may happen. He’s about just becoming the best quarterback, best leader, best teammate he can become. And I think that bodes well because of the situation he’s in—a rookie quarterback for the Oakland Raiders trying to lead this team back to the promised land. He’s the type of guy who I think is going to have a very bright future. And I’m not even talking about how much talent he has. Obviously he has a lot of talent, but the intangibles, I think he has a lot of those.
VRENTAS: When the Raiders were sitting at 0-10, did you second-guess your decision to go to Oakland?
TUCK: [Chuckles]. Not second guess it. I’m a true believer that God has a purpose for all of our lives and sometimes we have no clue what they are. But I went into the free-agent process with an open mind, and I think a lot of people understand that, personally, I probably wanted to go back to the Giants, but the situation wasn’t right. I prayed about it, and this is where God led me. So I’m happy where I am. I am. I really am. I know we haven’t had the season all of us expected to have, but the opportunities I’ve had out here, whether it be on the field or off, have been tremendous. My family loves it out here. The people out here are great. And I’m really enjoying it. I would be enjoying it more, obviously, if we were getting ready to prepare for the playoffs, but it wasn’t in the cards for us this year. That doesn’t mean next year won’t be a different story. I don’t second-guess my decision at all.
VRENTAS: Back in the spring, you were frustrated by the way things ended with the Giants, a team you figured you’d play your whole career with. Several months later, have your feelings changed at all?
TUCK: I’ve had a lot of time for it to sink in. It is what it is. I understood going into it that it is a business, and I expected the New York Giants to handle it as a business, and I’m sure they expected me to do the same thing. It’s frustrating, because I think everybody wants to play a long career and end up with the team that drafted them. But it happened, so I don’t have any hard feelings. You move on, and that’s what I’ve done, and that’s what they’ve done. I obviously still wish those guys a ton of success. I stay in contact with a lot of the guys, players and a few staff members as well. That will always be home. But I’m trying to figure out a way to have the same success out here in Oakland.
VRENTAS: What pressure does it put on you as players when your head coach is fired midseason?
TUCK: It definitely puts a lot of pressure on older guys that might be trying to stick around and do well with the Oakland Raiders. Because you don’t know what things are going to change here in the next couple months. The guy who is named the interim coach, you don’t know if he is going to be there come the next season, and you don’t know who they are going to bring in and how that guy is going to feel about you. But you have to control what you can control, and that’s going out and playing the game the best way you can play it, and everything else will kind of fall into place.
VRENTAS: There’s been a lot of speculation that Jim Harbaugh could be the next Raiders coach. When the Raiders played the 49ers in Week 14, was that awkward at all seeing him on the other sideline amid the speculation?
TUCK: I didn’t think about it during the game or even before the game, to be honest with you. During the week, because we were getting asked questions about it, we thought about it, but I didn’t think about it at all during the game. So it wasn’t awkward at all. That could be completely false, or that could be completely true. I don’t know. I don’t have any say in it, so I choose not to even worry about it. All I know is I’m trying to win games for our head coach right now, and until that changes, that will be my focus.
VRENTAS: Your former team is also going to face some tough questions this offseason. One of them is Tom Coughlin’s future. You played most of your career under Coughlin. Do you think the team should keep him?
TUCK: Having played for him for nine years, I don’t see who they’re gonna get that can do a better job than that guy. I know how hard he works; I know how diligent he is in preparing a football team to win. I get that sometimes you just feel like you need to make a change, and again that’s completely up to the Mara and Tisch families, and I’m sure they’ll make a decision that’s best for their organization. But Coach Coughlin is definitely one of the better coaches in this league, and he’s proven that time and time again. He’s in a tough situation right now, because he’s got a lot of injuries, a new coordinator, a lot of different things that could go the wrong way—and have—for him this year. But look at the past few games. That team is not going to quit on him, and that team is going to continue to fight. And you never know how things would have turned out, if they could have stayed healthy this year. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact they don’t have a lot of the pieces they thought they were going to have coming into the season.
VRENTAS: Are you at the point in your career when you are considering how many years you have left?
TUCK: Yeah. I’ve thought about that for years now. That’s something I’ll think about every year, just because you never know. You get into the offseason, and for me personally, you get so used to playing with your kids and your body feels great and you can do certain things you won’t be able to do during the season. You never know what’s going to happen. I kind of take it one season at a time. I get into the offseason, see how I feel, sit down and talk to my wife about things and you go from there. Yeah, I mean, who knows?
VRENTAS: So you’ll do the same thing this offseason: See how you feel, talk to your wife and make a decision on your future from there?
TUCK: I will.
VRENTAS: You tweeted that Bo Jackson came up to you at a game and said, “We have to go bow hunting.” What was that conversation like?
TUCK: I guess he heard I was a big bow hunter. And we’re both from Alabama. So he just wanted to see if we can put a date on the calendar when we can get out there and go hunting. He’s a busy guy, so hopefully our schedules will line up. Obviously, Bo is one of the best. I’m biased; he is probably my favorite athlete of all time. I think he is one of the best athletes to ever play any sport, for that matter. So I was kind of like a kid in a candy store when I saw him and had the opportunity to talk to him. He wished me continued good luck and to stay healthy, but we talked more about hunting than we did about anything else. I’ve bow hunted all over the world, so I don’t know where we’ll go.
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