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Each year, Justin Pugh says, the strong emotions fade just a bit, but they are not extinguished and probably never will be. So, as he lines up in empty MetLife Stadium, the familiar will hit him, and with it, the pang of being told he was no longer wanted by the Giants.
As the starting left guard for the Cardinals, living out in the desert, Pugh knows the business side of things now. He did not know it then, not when he was the Giants’ 2013 first-round draft pick — a kid from Bucks County, Pa., who grew up an Eagles fan and was absolutely thrilled to be playing in the NFL so close to home.
Pugh did not know it in 2018, when he became a free agent and learned the Giants, with first-year general manager Dave Gettleman, were ready to move on from him, even though he was not ready to move on from them.
“I didn’t want to leave New York and how I left, the ‘Once a Giant, always a Giant,’ I really bought into that,’’ Pugh told The Post. “Gettleman opened my eyes to the business of football, and I couldn’t be happier. I probably owe him a ‘thank you’ because coming out to Arizona has changed the trajectory of my career, and I love it out here. But New York will always have a special place.’’
It turned out just fine for Pugh. He signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Cardinals. Initially, he did not shake the injury bug that hit him with the Giants. He played in just seven games in 2018 before a knee issue landed him on injured reserve. He has come back strong, though, starting all 16 games (and not missing a snap) in 2019 and all 12 this season, and he will try to help the Cardinals end a three-game losing streak when they face the surging Giants.
He is a great fit in Arizona. He was deemed not a great fit when Gettleman arrived and made it his goal to rebuild the Giants’ offensive line. He drafted Pugh’s replacement, Will Hernandez, in the second round in 2018.
“I wasn’t really the type of, the style of offensive lineman he wanted,’’ Pugh said, before adding, with sarcasm, “I guess he didn’t want left guards that play 16 games a year, whatever.
“I think he wants bigger-bodied guys, is really what his whole, the 330-pound mauling, and that’s just not exactly my style. Your ego gets hurt, you think you’re gonna be somewhere forever.’’
Pugh, 30, has more pressing concerns than delving too deeply into nostalgia. He came to MetLife Stadium last season with the Cardinals, who jumped out to a 17-0 lead and beat the Giants 27-21. Reviewing that game, Pugh sees a different Giants defense this time around.
“The way they hustle to the ball, the way they’re disciplined in their gaps, the way everyone’s doing their job,’’ Pugh said. “Their defense is one of the best in the league. They’ve proven it.’’
In the days before making the trip across the country, Cardinals players approached Pugh and asked, “What are we eating?’’ He started a tradition with last season’s game in New Jersey, continued it for the Cardinals’ 30-10 victory at the Jets in Week 5 and will bring it back on Sunday. Pugh owns a part of Tony Boloney’s in Jersey City, and will foot the bill for pizza and subs for about 100 Cardinals players, coaches and support staff. The food will be delivered to the stadium for consumption after the game.
“It’s like hyenas pouncing on a fresh kill,’’ Pugh said.
First things first. Pugh knows he must push his personal feelings aside as he tries to get the Cardinals back into the playoff discussion.
“When I first left [the Giants], I was probably cheering against them. I didn’t want Gettleman to have success,’’ Pugh said. “Like anybody, you’re gonna have a little bit of negativity towards the team that said, ‘We don’t want you anymore.’ I want them to be successful, because I still have great relationships, and I cheer for the people in that building that I have great relationships with. But do I want to go out there and beat ’em on Sunday? You bet your ass I do.’’