Winston Justice knows it will always be the elephant in the room, but at this point he couldn't care less. His NFL career started -- and nearly ended -- on Sept. 30, 2007, in a game in which Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora booked his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
There's still some debate on the exact number of sacks Justice personally allowed in his first NFL start, but let's just say that the man lining up across from him, Umenyiora, had six of the Giants' 12 sacks that evening. Of course, Eagles coach Andy Reid and his trusty sidekick, Marty Mornhinweg, could've probably saved Justice from some of that damage in the Meadowlands, but that's not what folks remember.
It was the first start of Justice's NFL career, and right up until this past training camp, most Eagles fans hoped it would be his last. But while everyone else basically buried Justice's future, he quietly went back to work with the idea that he might someday get a second chance.
And that's exactly what occurred when the Eagles' faulty plan to have Shawn Andrews replace veteran Jon Runyan as the starting right tackle blew up in their face. Justice, a second-round draft pick in ’06 out of USC, became the starter by default. Coaches talked about how much progress he’d made since his disastrous debut, but their praise seemed forced as we waited for Reid to bring in Runyan to pick up where he left off in the NFC title game.
But as the ’09 season has unfolded, Justice has been the least of the Eagles’ worries. Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters stole all of the offseason headlines, but he’s been average at best while fighting through a series of injuries. Left guard Todd Herremans missed the first part of the season with an injury, and the projected starter at right guard, Stacy Andrews, has been a disappointment. Justice has played next to Andrews, Nick Cole and Max Jean-Gilles through nine games this season, but he’s never complained.
Over the past couple of years, Justice has gone through a transformation in his personal life that he’s now bringing to the football field. To refresh your memory, the Long Beach, Calif., native was destined for first-round riches as he became a Day 1 starter for Pete Carroll’s USC team that would soon win a national title. But two arrests -- the second for pointing a toy gun at a USC student during a drunken evening -- led to him being kicked out of school for the 2004 season.
Justice was sentenced to 60 days' house arrest during which he was only allowed to work out and visit the USC campus for counseling sessions.
“I used to try to get my socks just right so they would hide my ankle monitor,” Justice said via phone Wednesday. “I was struggling with depression at that point and I was bitter at USC, bitter at the people who called the police on me and I just had this huge chip on my shoulder.”
During his time away from football, Justice started showing up at Hollywood’s Wild Card Boxing Club, where he worked with famous trainer Freddie Roach. Justice knew that Roach had worked with Mike Tyson (he now has Manny Pacquiao) and he actually flirted with the idea of giving up on school and becoming a professional boxer.
“I had a pretty powerful right hand when I dropped it down there,” Justice said. “I was at 269 pounds and I was sparring against a lot of the top amateurs.”
Still hoping to play in the NFL, though, Justice returned to USC in ’05 and helped lead the Trojans back to the national title game. He left the school after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. And while he wowed scouts at the combine with his physical tools, Justice’s troubled past caused him to slip to the second round. Justice was also trying to overcome a speech impediment that had caused him to stutter since he was a child. He continued seeing a speech therapist right up until the time he was drafted by the Eagles.
Justice showed up in Philly as a brooding 21-year-old, vowing to become a force in the league. Turns out a lot of that was false bravado from an extremely immature young man. And when he finally got his chance to shine against the Giants in ’07, he was woefully unprepared for how to respond to adversity.
“I got away from my technique in that game and started getting anxious,” Justice said Wednesday. “I wasn’t playing the way I knew how to play and it was frustrating.”
Justice credits Eagles offensive line coach Juan Castillo for sticking with him. Even when it seemed like everyone had moved on without him, Castillo was a source of constant encouragement.
“He never gave up on me,” Justice said. “He was always saying I was a great player when everybody said I was a bad player.”
Justice also attributes his improvement on the field to his spiritual faith. His wife, Dania, and her brother, Evan, helped Justice make a decision to become a Christian and he’s now a staple at the Eagles’ Thursday chapel sessions. He basically can’t finish a sentence without mentioning his relationship with God.
“I used to always keep my faith completely separate from my job,” said Justice. “But this season, I made a commitment to be very open with how important God is in my life. On every single play, I’m trying to glorify him -- and hopefully that’s coming across.”
Justice has become somewhat of a renaissance man. In the offseason, he travels to exotic locations such as Bali and Costa Rica looking for the best places to surf. And you can imagine the sight of a 6-foot-6, 320-pound man catching a wave.
“The problem’s finding a board for him,” said Dania. “They don’t make a lot of those for people his size.”
At this point, Justice seems completely at peace with his career. He says it’s his goal to be an “extraordinary” player for the Eagles.
Although he still has a ways to go in that area, at least he has a chance to re-write the ending to his career.