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Cardinals OG Pugh feels for joy-stricken Luck, Gronkowski

Justin Pugh (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images), Rob Gronkowski (AP Photo/Steven Senne), Andrew Luck (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals are packing it in for the long-haul.

They don’t want to overlook or downplay the second-, third- and fourth-team players fighting for roster spots Thursday in the preseason finale. In a way, those backend, borderline and fringe NFL players have livelihoods to fight for.

Left guard Justin Pugh and the rest of Arizona’s starters won’t play against the Denver Broncos. As it is, Week 4 preseason football doesn’t draw much interest from casual fans.

But after two potential NFL Hall of Fame talents — former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski — both admitted in the past week that the game wore them down, first physically and then emotionally, Pugh wanted to talk about mental health from his perspective.

“I didn’t have much struggle,” said the 2013 first-round draft pick of the New York Giants. “I knew I was making the team … half the locker room doesn’t have that same luxury. So if you go out there and you get hit, if you don’t go out there that next day, you’re going to be replaced.

“You’re going to perceive it as a negative, but that guy also has an opportunity to make a lot more money than he would otherwise and change the trajectory of his life, his kids’ life, his kids’ kids’ lives. So I see why guys go out there and push through it,” Pugh added. “That’s the risk-reward. How much am I willing to risk with my body and my mental health to make as much money as possible and win? That’s just the NFL in a nutshell.”

It’s a scary reality.

Luck is one of the NFL’s most productive quarterbacks ever through his first six seasons played. Just short of 30, he shocked Indianapolis fans when word leaked of his decision to call it quits on Saturday.

“I’ve been stuck in this process,” Luck said, per ESPN. “I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live. It’s taken the joy out of this game … the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football.”

Gronkowski, the Arizona Wildcat product who had already announced his retirement at 30 years old, revealed Tuesday that his joy of football was also lost.

“I got done with the game and I could barely walk,” he said of the Patriots’ Super Bowl LIII championship victory, according to ESPN. “I slept five minutes that night. I couldn’t even think. I was in tears in my bed after a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t make that much sense to me. And then, for four weeks, I couldn’t even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night. I was like, ‘Damn, this sucks.’ It didn’t feel good.”

Both Luck and Gronkowski fought back from serious injuries in front of the public eye.

Pugh believes even stars under that microscope — with secure roster spots and strong resumes — are sometimes a victim of society’s expectations. The Cardinals guard says NFL and college teams, players and football coaches down to the youth level can do more to help players to find their interests beyond the sport.

Even ones that are more well-rounded toward life after football like Gronkowski, with his bubbly personality, and Luck, with his architectural design degree, struggle to find happiness within a game they get paid millions of dollars to play.

Gronkowski, with his upbeat party boy image, was masking what troubled him with a genuine attempt to be his usual goofy self, Pugh believes.

“Just seeing him reflect on it, it’s tough as a player to watch that,” Pugh said. “I don’t know Gronk … I’ve met him a couple times, but like, I feel for that guy because he’s X, whoever you want him to be in this locker room right now.”

It’s at this point where you can see the complications for many of the players who will play in Week 4 of the NFL preseason.

Nearly half of the Cardinals roster will be looking for a new job after Thursday’s game.

For them, the risk-reward balance makes it a lot harder to be open about their work-related health problems — and the ability to walk away from football like Luck and Gronkowski.

“We have such a macho mentality in this league where you can’t show pain, you can’t show weakness,” Pugh said. “If you can’t be open and honest about where your mental health is, it’s going to come up and rear its ugly head at some point.”

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