Oct. 8, 2004
By Katie Stuhldreher
ESPN.com mentioned Irish senior defensive end Justin Tuck as a Heisman Trophy candidate after he smashed the Notre Dame single-season sacks record last season with 13.5, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Ask any Division I football coach, and he’ll tell you that this record is highly impressive. Ask Tuck, however, and he’ll tell you that he’s far from being satisfied.
Tuck learned how to be tough at a young age. He grew up in Kellyton, Ala., with his large family, including four sisters, a brother, a nephew, and seventeen cousins.
“It was a struggle. I always had to fight for the last piece of chicken. And I was one of the smallest ones. It was good, though. I never had to worry about other guys picking on me,” says Tuck.
Tuck put all those years of rough-housing to good use on the hardwood where he became an exceptional basketball player. Learning to play on his family’s backyard court when he was 5 years old, Tuck developed his talents at Central Coosa County High School where he lettered four times. The hard-charging defensive end captained the basketball team for two years and led Central Coosa to the 4A state championship in 2000.
Quick and agile, Tuck decided to give football a shot in the seventh grade because he thought it looked like fun. He had a successful high school career as a linebacker and tight end, recording 492 tackles and forcing 26 fumbles.
Although he enjoyed making hits on the football field, all of his spare time was spent shooting hoops.
“Basketball was my first love. It’s relaxing for me,” says Tuck.
He excelled in both sports in high school, averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds for the basketball team while recording a school-record of 163 tackles, nine sacks, and seven forced fumbles for the football team in his senior year.
College programs took notice. Tuck was actively recruited to play football and basketball for a variety of programs, leaving him with a difficult decision to make.
“My father and I sat down and looked at what was best for my future. I wish I could’ve played both basketball and football, but I had to choose. I prayed about it and I think I made the right choice after all the success I’ve had here,” says Tuck.
Even though Tuck decided to pursue football at the college level, he can still be spotted playing pick-up basketball games around campus with members of the Irish varsity basketball team, such as Chris Thomas.
During his freshman year, Tuck’s team, which included quarterback Carlyle Holiday and former Irish player Abram Elam, won Notre Dame’s Bookstore Basketball five-on-five tournament. As a sophomore, his team made it to the final four before they were eliminated.
“I play [basketball] mostly in the off-season. It relaxes me. Chris Thomas and some of the guys tried to get me to play for the basketball team here, but football is my primary focus,” says Tuck.
According to the 6-5, 261-pound end, several aspects of basketball, such as footwork, conditioning, and quick hands helped him on the football field. This natural athleticism attracted the attention of defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who moved Tuck from outside linebacker to defensive end in 2002.
Tuck did not see any action as a freshman, but was more than ready to step up in his sophomore year in his new position as he filled the big shoes of graduating seniors Anthony Weaver and Grant Irons.
“The biggest challenge of moving to defensive end was the weight. I had to put so much on and still be able to keep my explosiveness and speed. It was a big physical aspect, since I was going up against guys that were bigger than me on every play,” says Tuck.
Tuck had plenty of support and guidance from older teammates as he overcame the challenges of the transition to defensive end.
“Shane Walton was probably the biggest help. He didn’t play my position or anything, but he was my friend and my mentor on and off the field. He knew the whole defense. I still look to him for advice,” says Tuck.
Weaver also pushed Tuck as he developed his skills on the defensive line by giving him the nickname “little boy” to inspire him.
“It helps to have your team behind you. When people push you, you push back,” says the 21-year old Tuck.
Tuck pushed back hard against Pittsburgh in the middle of the sensational 2002 “Return to Glory” season. He sacked quarterback Rod Rutherford four times with one forcing a crucial fumble to contribute to an Irish 14-6 victory.
“With him having that surge on the outside it allows some of our guys to be more creative on the inside and do some things there,” says Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham.
Tuck made an appearance in every game that season at reserve defensive end behind Kyle Budinscak and closed out the season with 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and five sacks.
“I play the hardest I can play. My competitive spirit is my biggest contribution to the team. Hating to lose can get you a long way,” says Tuck.
He entered the 2003 season with a renewed sense of confidence and motivation. His nickname on the team changed from “little boy” to “the freak” as a result of his impressive strength and speed.
The determined defensive lineman made a personal goal to get six sacks every game. Tuck said that holding such high personal expectations helps him to stay focused on his goals.
“My dad once told me if you set your sights higher than others, you’ll end up happy with yourself. If you meet that high goal, it’s great, but if not, you still know you tried,” says the management major.
Tuck may not have gotten six sacks in every game, but he had much to be proud of in the 2003 season. Tuck recorded 73 tackles and set a new Notre Dame record for sacks in a single season with 13.5. He led the team with a career high 10 tackles against Pittsburgh.
“It was a great feeling to break the record, considering all the great football players that have come through Notre Dame. But still, I’m not satisfied. I think I should have had 20 sacks,” says Tuck.
In the final game of the season against Syracuse, Tuck suffered his first major football injury when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee. He had knee surgery in December and started rehabilitation shortly afterwards. The long and slow recovery after surgery kept Tuck out of the 2004 spring practice.
“The biggest thing was the mental aspect. Rehab was hard. There were days when I just felt like giving up. But I kept focused and used that mental part to get through it and it is still important now that I’m back on the field,” Tuck says.
While he says that he wasn’t quite back to 100 percent when fall camp started in August, he knew that there were times he would have to play in pain. That was nothing new to him as he played through all kinds of injuries in high school, including a broken arm.
The most outstanding testament to Tuck’s dedication, perseverance, and toughness came his senior year of high school when he was in a car accident on his way to school caused by a hit-and-run driver. The accident left Tuck with 22 stitches in his left thigh, 18 in his forearms, and 10 in his wrist, along with injuries from the glass particles that became lodged in his head. This did not stop Tuck from playing in the football game the following night, however.
“If I can walk, I’ll play. That was a very important game. My coach didn’t want me to play, but it was a decision I made. I taped up my wounds and went,” says Tuck.
It takes a player with this kind of determination and desire to emerge as a leader and restore hope to a frustrated team.
“I just want to get out there and set a good example for the younger guys to follow this year. That makes a team better,” says Tuck.
Sophomore defensive end Victor Abiamiri adds, “He’s a fierce competitor. I like the way he competes and I want to model my game after that. He’s always trying to get better, he’s the model I want to pursue.”
Going into this season, Tuck set the bar even higher, with aspirations to break the current NCAA record for sacks in a single season. The record was set at 24 by Arizona State defensive end Terrell Suggs in 2002.
“We’re starting out 3-1, so as a team, our goal should be not to lose another game. Personally, I want to be the best I can be without getting selfish. My first concern is helping my team,” says Tuck.
The energizing win at home over long-time rival Michigan on Sept. 11, 2004, proved Tuck’s case that talking negative about the Irish would get them nowhere. The team came together against the Wolverines and their enthusiasm and desire to win helped them to prevail.
“To keep winning, we need to never be satisfied. We need to stay focused, listen to our coaches, and take things one at a time. We can’t get a big head and start overlooking things,” says Tuck.
Tuck looks to finish this season with a winning record and then decide on his plans for next year, which could include a fifth year with the Irish or the beginning of a career in the NFL.
When he’s not making hits in Notre Dame Stadium or shooting lay-ups with Chris Thomas, Tuck likes to sing, listen to music, and spend time with friends. He is even learning to play the piano.
“I love all kinds of music,” said Tuck.
He also takes his studies very seriously. Tuck is a business major in the Mendoza College of Business and said that his favorite class is jazz history.
“Academics are very important to me, more important than football. After football is done, you have to do something with your life,” says Tuck.
Tuck finds that the biggest challenge of playing varsity sports at a school like Notre Dame is time management as he balances football, school work and other activities in his schedule.
Even though it can be challenging at times, Tuck is confident that he made the right choice in attending Notre Dame and says that he has no regrets.
“I always knew in the back of my head that Notre Dame was a good place, the kind of place you should reach for. When they started to recruit me, I greeted it with passion. No one from my little hometown had that kind of opportunity to play for a school like Notre Dame. It’s a big family here,” says Tuck.
And Tuck has never doubted this Notre Dame family. Even when some fans began to doubt the Irish after a frustrating 2003 season and an early loss to BYU this year, Tuck kept his expectations high and rose to meet them.
Tuck may not have met all of his exceedingly high goals for himself while at Notre Dame, but his tenacity, endurance, dedication, and heart have more than measured up.