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Justin Pugh Worried About NFL Players' Mental Health

Cardinals guard affected by Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski post-retirement emotions

G Justin Pugh watches the Cardinals' third preseason game on Saturday in Minnesota.
G Justin Pugh watches the Cardinals' third preseason game on Saturday in Minnesota.

For a few minutes on Tuesday afternoon, Justin Pugh was asked a handful of routine questions about the daily machinations of the NFL.

As the queries from reporters tapered off, the Cardinals' veteran left guard made it clear he had much more to say.

"You guys don't want to talk about what's next for NFL players," Pugh said. "You just want to talk about what's coming up with the opponent. No one's worried about the mental health of our guys. We've got Rob Gronkowski crying on ESPN. You guys don't want to talk about that."

Pugh was visibly affected by the shocking retirement of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the admission by the recently-retired Gronkowski, the former All-Pro Patriots tight end, that he was "not in a good place" mentally because “football was bringing me down.”

Both players prioritized their well-being over the glamour associated with the NFL, and Pugh is frustrated they faced derision for those choices. He believes the "macho mentality" of the NFL keeps players from talking about their emotions, which exacerbates serious issues like depression.

"The mental side of the NFL has been ignored for so long," Pugh said. "I bet you if you go on to the Twitter world, you're going to see all these guys saying, 'Andrew Luck is soft, or Andrew Luck is this and that.' Those same guys have their friends killing themselves right now. Guys in the NFL, instead of dealing with these issues, are killing themselves. So we obviously have to have a conversation about it, because if we can't be forward, then those things are going to continue to happen."

Luck and Gronkowski faced a litany of physical issues in their careers, but in Luck's retirement press conference, he made clear the mental toll was the true burden.

Gronkowski was known for his happy-go-lucky nature as a player, which is why it was so startling to see him on the verge of tears while talking about how football sapped joy from his life.

"Obviously that must have been a mask," Pugh said. "Obviously the partying and the outward trying to be happy and find some happiness was a cover for deep down he probably was really, really sad at times. And he had a lot of injuries. It was major things that were happening to him. So you could definitely tell. Just seeing him reflect on it, that's tough as a player to watch that. I don't know Gronk from a hole in the wall – I've met him a couple times – but I feel for that guy because he's 'X,' whoever you want him to be in this locker room right now."

Pugh's goal is to get a constructive dialogue going with his teammates, and he said the Cardinals players are doing a nice job of opening up to each other. He wants everyone to be well-rounded so when football ends, they won't be wandering souls.

"That's the thing a lot of guys struggle with when they get done," Pugh said. "They lose their identity as a player. They've always been told where to be, when to be there, what to do. I think it's huge for guys to go out and explore what else is out there, and what else you have a passion for, because at the end of the day, football ends for all of us."

Pugh knows there are great benefits to playing in a league that has made him a multi-millionaire. Beyond the money, he loves the camaraderie in the locker room and the competition on the field.

However, the words of Luck and Gronkowski took a major toll on him this week, and Pugh hopes it can kickstart progress to abate toxic masculinity.

"It's us as athletes breaking that stigma, that we can talk about mental health," Pugh said. "It's across all aspects of life, though. I don't want to say regular civilian life, but like, my family, we don't talk about how you're feeling and things like that. A lot of families don't. Like when you sit down at the kitchen table, how often do you guys (ask), 'How are you feeling today? What are your emotions like today?' It's not something (common). I think it's more of an American problem, and it gets magnified because we play such a macho game. No one wants to show any weakness."

"Just go back and look into Andrew Luck's eyes and see the pain that guy has," Pugh added. "That gets me upset, because I know there are guys in this locker room and every locker room that are going through the same thing."

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