INDIANAPOLIS – Yes, Justin Tuck is aware of the stereotype. Yes, he realizes he's an anomaly.
No, he's not bashful about telling those around him he's the smartest guy in the room – especially when the room is filled with his fellow New York Giants defensive linemen.
Though Tuck plays a position known for skewing more toward brawn and less toward brain, the seventh-year veteran possesses a great deal of knowledge he doesn't mind sharing with his peers.
"If you know something, he says he knows something more than you know," Giants defensive tackle Rocky Bernard says. "We always call it 'the one-up.' He's got the one-up down cold."
As Tuck, one of the breakout stars of the Giants' Super Bowl XLII upset of the New England Patriots four years ago, prepares to play a potentially pivotal role in Sunday's rematch, similarly good-natured grief from teammates isn't hard to accumulate.
"Tuck thinks he's smarter than me and [better at] everything than me, but he's sadly mistaken, man," fellow defensive end Osi Umenyiora says. "He needs to chill out with all that."
Tuck's defense, naturally, is something akin to this: I can't help it if I'm good.
"I've heard that [stigma] a few times," he said Wednesday as he sat on a leather couch outside a meeting room at the Giants' team hotel. "I do understand the stereotype of the dumb jock coming from our end of the line of scrimmage. I like surprising people."
If Tuck terrorizes Tom Brady on Super Sunday, it won't be surprising to very many viewers, given the way he and his fellow defensive linemen dominated in that 17-14 victory in 2008. Rotating with Pro Bowl pass rusher Umenyiora and future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, Tuck had two sacks and had more constant contact with Brady than anyone not named Giselle.
Tuck remembers Mike Waufle, then the Giants' defensive line coach, "walking off the field after the last practice on Friday (four years ago) talking about defensive linemen who've been MVPs. He said, 'You're gonna have a shot at it.' But I never dreamed I could have that type of game against that type of opponent on that type of stage.' "
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Suffice it to say he's hoping for a sequel. Though this has been a frustrating season for Tuck, who has fought through neck, groin, ankle, toe and shoulder injuries, he has stepped up his play during the five-game winning streak that propelled the Giants into the playoffs and past three NFC postseason foes.
He's certainly not on Brady's list of favorite opponents. Last November, in a 24-20 victory over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, Tuck and Co. frustrated Brady again. "I saw him throw a bottle on the sidelines," Tuck says. "But really, I don't know if he's rattle-able. He's a tough cookie."
Though Strahan retired after that Super Bowl XLII victory and relocated to the Fox pregame show, Tuck believes the team's current Triad of Terror – him, Umenyiora and second-year Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul – can be similarly disruptive in this game. He has tried to mentor Pierre-Paul since the Giants took the former South Florida star in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.
"His attitude is, 'I'm just a beast,' " Tuck says. "But I tell him, 'We were all just beasts when we were young like you.' You need to supplement it with knowledge.
"That's what [Strahan] did for me. If I had a question, he wouldn't only tell me, he'd take me to the film room and show me. A lot of success I've had in this league has been predicated on the things he's shown me."
Most defensive linemen aren't prone to using words like predicated in interviews. One man whose whip-smart speaking style defies the stereotype, future Hall of Fame defensive tackle and NFL Network/Showtime analyst Warren Sapp, conceded that it comes with the territory.
"The stereotype is that we're not bright – but they've never asked us to do much thinking," Sapp says. "You're asked to go get the ball and shut up and play, and that's it. And hey, it's not like rocket scientists are coaching us.
"I was very fortunate not to be a big, dumb lineman my whole life. Before I switched I was an outside linebacker and tight end – I had to recognize formations, coverages and movement. But for the most part, defensive linemen aren't asked to."
Says former Steelers running back and current Hall of Fame finalist Jerome Bettis of defensive linemen: "They're known as slugs. Not [Tuck], though. This guy's a brilliant guy, because he can play multiple positions on the defensive line. And, of course, because he went to Notre Dame."
While Bettis' pride in his fellow Golden Domer is obvious, Tuck's decision to go to college in South Bend defied conventional wisdom. A native of tiny Kellyton, Ala. , ("Population 700, one stoplight, just two caution lights," Tuck says), the kid who grew up attending Alabama and Auburn games and bleeding Crimson approached his college selection from a mature perspective.
"It had a lot to do with how professional they were," Tuck says of Notre Dame. "The atmosphere was tremendous. I felt that if I wasn't going to Alabama, I definitely didn't want to go to an SEC school. And if football didn't work out, the opportunity for job placement was great. It wasn't just about football. It was a life decision."
It certainly was life-altering: Tuck met his future wife, Lauran, who in addition to raising the couple's almost-2-year-old son, Jayce, is working toward her master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He doesn't have much success with the one-up in his own household.
"Believe me," he says, "I don't win any arguments."
He'd gladly settle for winning a second Super Bowl. If he and the rest of the Giants' defensive linemen play the way they did four years ago, the smart money is on another frustrating night for Brady and the Pats.
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