NorthJersey.com / Jeff Roberts
Those white leotards still haunt him, taunting Justin Tuck like a nightmare that just won't end.
I His voice drops an octave or two as he talks about them, the laughter evaporating as he becomes deadly serious.
"They were not white leotards! They were white football pants," Tuck pled over the phone after a recent Giants practice. "Everybody thinks they were white leotards. I know, I know — they look like leotards.
"I still get crap. I think it's going to stick with me for awhile."
Tuck pranced in a white leotard-looking outfit to Swan Lake's "Dance of the Little Swans" in a SoBe commercial that aired during Super Bowl XLIII, fumbling through the steps alongside Ray Lewis and Matt Light. It was his first real leap in the world of sports marketing, a gamble that left him ballet dancing for 95 million viewers.
But that gamble paid off, and now Tuck is everywhere. In a Nike TV ad for Foot Locker. In an EA Sports spot for "Madden NFL 11" filmed this summer in Ridgewood. And in Subway ads playing around the clock.
The marketing of Tuck offers insight into how athletes' images are shaped and sold to advertisers and the public. It also shows why some athletes find lucrative partnerships while others make no impact in the marketplace.
Tuck's self-effacing plunge has since grown into three national endorsement campaigns: with Nike, Electronic Arts and Subway.
The Bergen County resident is a Pro Bowler, the face of the Giants' defense. But the defensive end is unrecognizable to most non-football fans.
Yet Tuck, 27, still has landed endorsements that make elite players jealous, experts say.
"We're surprised. I doubt we're the only ones," said Matt Delzell, group account director of Davie Brown Talent, part of The Marketing Arm. The company represents advertisers that seek athletes and celebrities to endorse products. "When I first saw him in a Subway commercial, I knew who he was, and I still thought it was surprising."
The fundamentals of sports marketing are relatively simple: Take a player who excels on the field, who is recognizable. Craft an image for him, ideally a genuine one reflective of who he is. Then match the athlete with the marketplace.
The goal is to move people, to engage them and to sell whatever the athlete is endorsing. Tuck has done that, through an intimidating glare and his imposing 6-foot-5, 275-pound physique in Nike ads and through humor and personality in Subway commercials.
"He's got that knack when he walks in a room, he lights that room up," said Doug Hendrickson, Tuck's agent at Octagon, a Virginia-based firm. "That's rare. That's something you can't teach."
Tom George, a senior vice president for Octagon, sells that and Tuck's other "assets."
There's the powerful "brands" associated with Tuck's name: New York City, the NFL, the Giants, Notre Dame. The work he does for his charity, R.U.S.H. for Literacy, that combats illiteracy in his native Alabama and in New York.
Tuck also has the ability to connect with hedge-fund managers — he has a business degree from Notre Dame — as well as the average fan.
Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, said Tuck is attractive as a pitchman because his physique is "the embodiment of heath" and he is well-known in the metropolitan area.
George, who shapes images and lands product endorsements for Octagon's elite athletes, used those gifts in crafting a marketing plan, a road map selling Tuck as a "different kind of NFL superstar," a "leader" and "role model."
In other words, Tuck is packaged as the anti-Ben Roethlisberger, who will light up the screen but never will end up in a perp walk.
Tuck earns six figures annually from endorsements, putting him on par with bigger names such as CC Sabathia ($500,000) and Philip Rivers ($250,000) and dwarfing Julius Peppers ($75,000).
Tuck, a third-round pick in 2005, was hardly a crossover star coming out of Notre Dame.
But then came the Giants' victory in Super Bowl XLII — and Tuck's two sacks and forced fumble in the upset over the Patriots. TV broadcasts began isolating him on screen and selecting him for postgame interviews.
"That's when I knew I had something," George said. "He was being anointed."
But success on the field only offers opportunity. Success off it is a different story.
That could explain why Mariano Rivera, maybe the greatest closer of all time, has little to no impact in the marketplace, nor does Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte.
Brandon Steiner, the founder and chairman of Steiner Sports Marketing, cautions that the New York market offers unique challenges.
"The thing of marketing players in New York is it's a tremendous amount of more work," he said. "The demands are tremendous."
When he began marketing Tuck, George unleashed a 15-person team that includes creative services, public relations, sales and public-speaking experts. Tuck had homework, too.
He schmoozed with corporate and political powerbrokers. And he studied marketing 101, encompassing minute details such as smiling during interviews, thanking the interviewer and using her first name.
"Guys think it's all glitz and glamour and you go and drink some sweet tea and eat cheese and you just go home," Tuck said. "But it's work."