In fact, his mom and the mom of his best friend since first grade, Jake Lerner, have provided those perfect ingredients. And that helped Justin and Jake, find just the right nourishment to make their lofty dreams come true.
“My dream has always been to play in the NFL,” says the 23-year-old Pugh. “So I tell every child who looks to me as a role model, to follow his or her dreams. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Setting goals is a big thing that helped me.”
Pugh’s mom, Carolyn Gavighan, is a local special education teacher, and Jake’s mother, Pattie Lerner, is a former nurse. Pugh’s mom says she taught her son the importance of a kind heart, of remaining humble and giving back to the community – all life lessons he practices today.
The football player has also never strayed far from his roots. “Justin is in a position where he can help, and I am very proud that he takes it seriously,” his mom said. When asked what the family recipe was to get her son to the NFL, she said, was that they shared his enthusiasm for the game. “Justin just loved football. For him it just got to be the pure love for the sport.”
His mom also said that despite any of his big dreams her son did not have it easy. “Justin always had to prove himself. He wasn’t a star in high school or college, and the fact that he had to push himself has meant that he never had a big head about any of this.”
Mrs. Lerner said that the life lessons she shared with Jake started at age two. Jake learned very quickly how to care for others, a trait that carries over today. “It started one day in first grade when he picked a child no one was playing with for his team during recess, and watched how that made such a difference for that child. It made him feel good about himself, and I was very proud.”
The moms remember fondly that the two young boys were frequently found in one another’s homes for after-school snacks, meals and attending their son’s football games together. And Pugh says that Mrs. Lerner has always been like “a second mom.”
So, it is no surprise that these close family ties have spilled over into Pugh’s life in the NFL.
As a result of these bonds, when Pugh discovered that Mrs. Lerner had taken her passion in the kitchen to creating a gluten-free bakery business, Sweet Megan Baking Company, in Holland Pa., (www.glutenfreesweetmegan.com), he was especially enthused about her venture.
Two years ago, Pugh was the first one to taste Mrs. Lerner’s “spoonful,” a gluten-free, soy free, peanut free cake on a spoon dipped in chocolate, and Pugh knew from that first bite that his “second mom” had scored a touch down. Now, she is selling her healthy and scrumptious cupcakes, cookies, other desserts, on-line and locally and he is in her corner to spread the word.
In fact, Justin and Jake munch on Mrs. Lerner’s healthy pizzas all the time, when he is back home or at home or in New Jersey where he attends practice for the upcoming Giants season, playing the game he has loved since he was a young boy.
“It inspires me to keep going,” Mrs. Lerner said, “because Justin is very honest, so I know if he is behind me, my products must be top notch.”
For his hometown in Bucks County, (Pa,) Pugh is nothing short of a local hero. He played for the Council Rock South Golden Hawks where he was named 2008 team MVP and defensive player of the year as a team captain.
Pugh went on to play college football for Syracuse University earning All-Big East Conference honors in three consecutive seasons, and was selected by the Giants with the 19th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The life lessons that the two moms imparted on their sons are valuable ones. Pugh’s mom said she told her son “to always remain steady and consistent whether he wins or loses. And he knows he has to give back, and that his example goes a long, long, way,” the proud mother said. “With our family and friends he is just regular Justin; everything is pretty low-key and normal.”
Jake Lerner and Pugh are still often found in Mrs. Lerner’s kitchen trying out new confections. So, recently, when Mrs. Lerner mentioned to Pugh that she was extremely involved with her local Autism Cares Foundation, which provides free programs to children, teens and young adults with autism and their families, Pugh wanted to be there for her to lend a hand. Pugh joined the Lerner family at a recent Gala and Charity auction in downtown Philadelphia that raised $125,000 for the Foundation.
For the live auction, Mrs. Lerner donated one of Pugh’s blue Giants Jerseys that Pugh autographed. Almost immediately the bidding was at $5,000, one of the highest fetching items of the night. “I was afraid that my Jersey would only go for one hundred bucks; I wish I had a few more of them out in the car,” he joked after the auction.
Mrs. Lerner became involved with the Foundation when she decided to make her cupcakes and other goodies dairy free so that autistic children could eat them. “I am one of those people who doesn’t like to say no; if I didn’t not decide to change to dairy free I would have had to say no to them and that would have broken my heart.”
One of Mrs. Lerner’s goals for the bakery is to give people who suffer from Celiac disease or a gluten allergy healthier options.
“It meant everything to me that my son, Jake, and his best friend, Justin, think so much of what I am doing they are willing to stand behind me 100 percent,” said Mrs. Lerner. “Justin is very special; he is like a son to me. I know him since he is 5. I’m so proud of what he has accomplished thus far and I beam from ear to ear when I think of him.”
When Pugh has the time he returns to his high school to spend a little time with the coaches and the players. Jake says that he is not surprised that Pugh is concerned about autistic children and their families.
“Justin is a very caring guy,” said Lerner, also 23, an aspiring sports agent, who plays basketball at Drexel University, where you will often find Pugh in the stands cheering him on. “Truthfully, in my opinion he’s gotten more humble since he got to the NFL. He’s always been a level-headed guy who puts family and friends first.”
Here is an exclusive chat with Justin Pugh while he was spending time with the Lerner family:
Q: Why did football do for you at a young age and what did you love about it?
JUSTIN PUGH: The competition that was my biggest thing. I always loved to compete. It taught me discipline and it taught me how to work well with teams. In the world today everything you do you are going to be working with people from all walks of life. I have worked with people, I have played with people who come from different races, creeds, religions, you have to be able to communicate and work efficiently with them to win and it’s the same thing on and off the football field. You need to be able to work with people from all walks of life. I think that’s something that football has definitely taught me that will help me for the rest of my life.
Q: What was it like when you got picked for the Giants?
JP: It was a surreal moment a surreal experience. Obviously, growing up in Philly as an Eagles fan, it would have been great to have gone to the Eagles you know, but they drafted a guy in my position ahead of me, so it was easy for me to get over it when the Giants drafted me. Being in New York is probably the best place for me to have ended up. It’s a great market, a terrific organization and I’m very excited to be there.
Q: Have you changed at all?
JP: I don’t think I have. Obviously, going from being a college kid to playing in the NFL it’s a little bit different. But I like to come back home and hang out with the same people I’ve always hung out with. So my friends always make sure that I stay grounded, they always make fun of me like they always have and my family treats me the same way.
Q: When you are not playing football what are you doing?
JP: I am big into fishing. I recently got a house down at the shore in Sea Isles so I will be down there. I enjoy hanging with my best friends – there are eight of us so there is always something going on. My buddy, Jake Lerner, goes to Drexel, so we will often go to his basketball games. We are up in New York City lots of times doing different events, it’s a good time – as long as we are together we have fun.
Q: You recently became involved in helping autistic children and their families through the Autism Cares Foundation (in Richboro, Pa), what does it mean to you?
JP: It’s great to be from the Bucks County area and to be able to come back and give back and be associated with such a great organization means a lot to me. What’s so great about this is the Foundation is that it is affording the kids an opportunity to do something they may not been able to do or may not have done before – and just to put a smile on their faces is the most rewarding thing for me.
Q: How did you feel being at the recent Foundation Gala?
JP: It’s definitely a great experience to be able to help out and do things like this gala for Autism Cares Foundation and be with the people who have been with me from day one – from way before I made it to the NFL. I love children, and I learned from my family that you have to care for those who need you, and never forget your roots.
Q:What’s it like to be back home with your mom and the rest of your family?
JP: They love having me around. My mom is very happy that I am not in Seattle or somewhere across the country. She would probably cry every night if I wasn’t close enough. So, to be back and be around my family has been great.
JP: Yes. They come up to all my games, they are part of the ‘Pugh Crew,’ when it comes to the games, that’s kind of what we call the fan club – it’s great to have them there. I get to see my mom and everyone very often. My brother has three little kids, so seeing them and spending time with them is very important to me. I was thrilled to come home and celebrate my nephew’s birthday this weekend.