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Pugh Working Way Back to Playing Weight After Near Retirement

Justin Pugh nearly retired after taking a pay cut from the Arizona Cardinals last season.
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Justin Pugh never thought of walking away from football before.

He called playing under scholarship in college a no-brainer, was a first-round pick by the New York Giants in 2013 and signed a five-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals when he became a free agent in 2018. 

But Pugh faced an unknown reality after the 2021 campaign. 

The now 31-year-old took a pay cut to help the Cardinals fit a slew of offseason acquisitions under the cap before last season. He agreed to cut his base salary from $7.75 million to $5 million.

This led to frustration. 

Pugh was prepared to negotiate in 2022 with the idea that he would retire a Cardinal if his needs were not met. 

"I thought we were going to go through that battle again, me and (general manager Steve) Keim," Pugh said Tuesday. "We were able to figure it out. I said, 'Hey, this is what it is gonna take to get me back.' And he was like, 'Hey, done deal.' So I came in and signed it. I wasn't sure if that was going to happen."

Pugh kept working out with other offensive linemen during the grey period when his future was in doubt, but he was not eating as much as he usually does. 

As a result, his weight dropped to 265 pounds, 20 pounds lighter than he said a playable weight is. He also slimmed down in time for his wedding earlier this offseason,. 

The Cardinals' website lists him at 311 pounds from last season even though he said he played at 280 to 285. 

The lightest offensive lineman listed on the roster is guard/center Sean Harlow at 284 pounds. 

Pugh said he's back up to 275 and continues to work his way up. 

"I thought my career, I was happy with it, kind of went out on my terms," Pugh said. "Someone's got a block Aaron Donald, so they needed to bring me back. Now I've been putting the weight back on. That's why I've been at 5,000 calories a day, (gaining) a pound a week. And I'm kind of right where I need to be to get ready to play."

One pound a week will get him near 285 by the start of the season. 

Pugh has 115 NFL games under his belt in the trenches and a multitude of injuries. He said he's been beat up over his career. 

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At this stage of his career, Pugh is more cognizant of how to take care of his body. He said he does not want to have weight issues after he plays and is more calculated with his nutrition and maintenance habits. 

"The maintenance required even in the offseason, getting stretched twice a week, massage, acupuncture. I have a chef at the house during the season now to make sure I'm getting the amount of calories I need," he said. 

"It's learning how your body responds to certain things. I've kind of gotten into the biohacking world and just like everything you put into your body. It's been exciting. It's gonna be great for me even post-career to stay kind of, right."

Pugh is taking his career year-to-year, but with the end getting closer, he is thinking about what comes next. 

After practices in the morning, Pugh goes to his internship with commercial developer IDM, which he got involved with after partnering with the company on a 1031 exchange. 

Pugh called it part of growing up, preparing for what life will be like when his time on the line of scrimmage concludes. But, he acknowledged that football remains his priority now and he is not ready to move on. 

His love for the locker room is too strong, plus, he's still searching for his first Super Bowl ring. 

"Football is always going to be my No. 1 love, my No. 1 one passion and it takes precedent right now," Pugh said. "But to find what I like to do off the field is also important."

Pugh said he will have a role until the Cardinals can replace him, which they cannot yet. 

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury stated that he thought Pugh played some of his best ball last season. 

Kingsbury feels he can count on Pugh, as he did in 2019 when the veteran moved over to tackle because of injuries. 

"He didn't blink and that's not exactly what you want to be doing if you're him," Kingsbury said Tuesday. "But ever since then, I've had such a great respect for him."

Pugh has been working on playing center this offseason to be an option there for the Cardinals. 

He does not see the work as something for only emergencies, though. If he's maxed out his value at guard, a new position could bring a worthwhile challenge. 

"Why not go out there, trying to play center in this offense with Kyler (Murray)?" Pugh asked. "We've prioritized that position. And there's a lot of centers that played older in their years because physically it's not as demanding. Mentally it's much more intense, and that's why I think I can still succeed at that position."