Eighteen years ago, Jessie Tuggle sat in the Super Bowl’s losing locker room, wrestling with those common conflicting emotions that sit with any athlete who ascends to the greatest moment of his career, only to then get pushed out the window.
“It was a magical year,” Tuggle said after the Falcons’ loss to Denver. “But my ultimate goal was to come here and win the Super Bowl, not just be part of the Denver Broncos’ show.”
The Falcons’ franchise has its second chance in 51 years to finish the season with a win Sunday against New England. The next generation will take it from here.
Grady Jarrett, the Falcons’ starting defensive tackle and Tuggle’s son, was only 5 years old at the time of the Super Bowl loss to Denver and 7 when his father retired. But he said he was aware enough at the time to “know what was going on.
“I was young when he played, but I went back and watched film. I definitely know the reputation he held. It’s awesome to have that mirror presence. It’s cool.”
There aren’t many similarities between this Falcons’ Super Bowl team and the last one. These Falcons are young and still going through some growing pains on defense, but are improving. The 1998 team was older and had a smaller window.
Jarrett is 23 and in his second season. Tuggle was 33 and in his 12th, near the end of his career.
“I remember 18 years ago, it was a surreal time for me to be in Miami at the Super Bowl,” Tuggle said. “Driving around I’d see all of the flags saying ‘Falcons and Broncos.’ It took a few days for it all to sink in. The one thing I told Grady before he left was just to take it all in, enjoy yourself because you never know when you’re going to get back. I told him, ‘Play hard, play aggressive, but most of all have fun.’ I just felt like when I was there, I let the moment slip away. He’ll do well. He’s a good kid. He’s a really good kid.”
Jarrett will have 15 family members at the game, but Tuggle won’t be one of them. He has had three knee surgeries in a span of five months. A knee replacement in June was followed by two more surgeries for complications. As recently as Monday, Tuggle was still considering traveling from Atlanta to Houston for the game, but he has been in some pain.
“I can get around if I had to but at this point I think it’s too much trouble — I’ll enjoy the game at the house,” he said.
Jarrett has a good relationship with Tuggle, though he was raised by his mother, Elisha, and her husband. But the physical similarities and attributes with Tuggle are obvious. Both are relatively undersized for their positions in the NFL: Jarrett is a 6-foot interior lineman, Tuggle a 5-11 linebacker. Both made up for that with strength, physicality and tenacity.
When there is conversation about the Falcons’ defense, it tends focus on the overall youth or Vic Beasley, Desmond Trufant (when healthy) or Dwight Freeney. But Jarrett led all defensive linemen in snaps this season, recorded four tackles for loss, three sacks, he has been one of the team’s better run defenders, and he knows how to penetrate.
Coach Dan Quinn hasn’t hesitated to play young players, starting four rookies and four second-year pros in his defense. Jarrett has connected with Quinn, as he did with Dabo Swinney at Clemson.
“I’m sure some people are like, ‘Oh they’re only in their first or second year,’ but we’re having fun and just going out there playing, just like we’re in practice.”
During his playing days, Tuggle often spoke about being the smallest kid on the team, but once he hit somebody in practice nobody wanted to go against him. Jarrett exudes that same confidence and inner belief.
“I feel like that’s something I developed over the years. I was always the guy that was overlooked. But when you put the tape on, people would try to deny it, but the production was there. One thing I’ve learned is the guys who look the part, who do this and do that, or run this run that, it don’t mean nothing when that ball turns over.
“That’s my mindset. That (confidence) is just something that develops. You have to go though it yourself, no matter who your dad is, no matter who your mom is.”
Let me translate: Jarrett is in the NFL and a starter for a Super Bowl team because of what he has accomplished, not his father. The significance of genetics carry one only so far.
It seemingly wasn’t great foreshadowing for Jarrett’s career when he dropped from a projected second-round pick to the fifth round, before the Falcons took him, nor when he and family members had to bolt from their Conyers home because of a fire (right about the time of the Falcons were taking Jalen Collins in Round 2).
“My draft experience wasn’t what you think about growing up as a kid,” Jarrett said. “We were watching the draft and smelled something, so my uncle went upstairs in the game room and a little fire had started. It wasn’t my whole house, you could say half, that caught on fire. We had to get everyone out. All in all, my house caught on fire and I watched my phone throughout the whole night wondering when I’m going to get drafted.”
Not the ideal start to a career. But things have worked out nicely. Maybe this Super Bowl story will have a different ending.