What he did: Jessie Tuggle’s struggle to greatness is certainly one for the textbooks. Call it perseverance, call it incredible determination. But whatever turned this player who received only two Division II scholarship offers and went undrafted into a five-time Pro Bowler, can be traced to his high school days about 36 miles from where he did some of his best work on the carpet of the Georgia Dome.
At Griffin High School, Tuggle played for the long time Bears coach Lloyd Bohannon, whose son, Brian, is the head coach at Kennesaw State. There, he played on three double-digit win teams, including the 14-1 squad in 1980 that lost to Lowndes in the state championship, though he said his most memorable high school moment was the semifinals lost to Peachtree his senior season.
Playing outside linebacker and offensive guard at just 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Tuggle anchored one of the state’s better programs, which today has a record of 609-331-34 with three state titles and has sent an incredible 18 players to the NFL. But Tuggle never was supposed to be one of them.
He wound up taking one of the two Division II offers he had, going to Valdosta State, where he was a four-year starter and helped build a base for a second-year program that would eventually win three national championships.
Tuggle, who quickly began putting weight on and finished his college career with a school record 340 tackles, would play his last game at Valdosta State not knowing if he would get a shot in the NFL. But during his senior season, former Georgia Bulldogs assistant Mike Cavan became Valdosta’s head coach and ran into then-Falcons coach Marion Campbell, telling him about Tuggle.
Campbell was not convinced enough to draft Tuggle, but when no other team went for him in the 1987 NFL draft, the Falcons brought him to training camp. No signing bonus, just a tryout, and from there Tuggle quickly proved his lack of size was not going to hold him back.
Tuggle arrived when Buddy Curry and Joel Williams were anchoring the team’s linebacker group and because of injuries to other players in training camp, he found himself as the only rookie starter in his first preseason game.
Getting to 255 pounds, he started only four games his rookie season and eight his second season, the latter in which he collected 108 tackles. He broke out in 1989, starting a string of five seasons in which he had a mind-blowing 969 tackles. He quickly became known as “The Hammer” and despite one losing season after another, made five Pro Bowl teams, his first in 1992.
It wasn’t until 1998, when he career had begun to wind down, that the Falcons finally made the big time with Tuggle on the field. Nine of his first 11 seasons with the Falcons were losing ones, but in ’98 the Falcons made the Super Bowl, losing to Denver 34-19 in a game marred the night before with the arrest of safety Eugene Robinson.
Tuggle retired after the 2000 season, finishing with 2,065 tackles and 12 consecutive 100-tackle seasons. He led the Falcons in tackles 10 times and collected 20 or more tackles in a game on four occasions, his best being 24. He made 189 career starts in 14 seasons and his 209 total games played are third-most in Falcons history. His five Pro Bowl appearances (1992, 1995, 1995, 1997, 1998) are tied for the third-most by a Falcons player.
He had his number (58) retired by the club and was placed in the inaugural class of the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, joining Tommy Nobis, Jeff Van Note, Steve Bartkowski and William Andrews.
Since his retirement, Tuggle has worked closely with his son Justin Tuggle, who now plays for the Houston Texans and his other son, Grady Jarrett, who was drafted by the Falcons.
While many feel he should some day go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007 in a class that included Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham.
Where he lives: Tuggle, 50, lives in Alpharetta and has been married to Dujuan for 25 years. He has two sons, Justin and Grady, and a daughter, Jessica. He lives in the same house he built in 1994.
What he does now: Tuggle said he enjoys life and being an empty-nester, but is very close with his three children. He expects to be at an NFL game every Sunday this season, watching one of his sons.
On one memorable though losing night in a Griffin High School football uniform: “Never forget it. We were playing Peachtree in the semifinals my senior year. We had all this speed and everything and thought we were going to go up there and beat them bad. We thought we were so much better than them. It rained the entire game, and we were slipping all over the place. We lost (17-14), and I will never forget that feeling. It helped me a lot going forward and not taking anything for granted again.’’
On his days at Valdosta State: “That is where my skills were fine-tuned. I was far from being the biggest player, but I think my skills were so much better than the players in the ACC and SEC. They taught me how to play at Valdosta and when it comes down to it in the NFL, it is about skill. Yes, size makes a difference, but skill is what you have to have to be successful at that level. I was all about learning how to be a good player in college, and some how, some way, the NFL always finds the talent, no mater where it is.’’
On how he received his chance with the Falcons: “Mike Cavan had come to be our head coach (at Valdosta State), and he was the Georgia coach that recruited Herschel Walker. I heard that story a million times. Mike ran into coach Campbell at a conference and told him about me. He told Marion he had a short linebacker that would run through a wall for him. They invited me to camp and there was no signing bonus, nothing. I remember taking my father’s truck to camp and back then we had two-a-days and camp was super physical. I had watched Buddy Curry play for years, and now I was playing with him. We had about 120 guys in camp and one after another at the linebacker spot got hurt until I was starting the first preseason game.’’
On the toughest NFL running back he faced: “I remember hitting Eric Dickerson one time. I hit him so hard that I was yelling and screaming and suddenly I just felt numb. I took more of the hit than he did.’’
On the ’98 season and the Super Bowl: “We lost to San Francisco after winning our first two games and then things just started to happen. I remember going into Minnesota (for the NFC Championship game) and they had rookie receiver Randy Moss and were supposed to kill us. But after Gary Anderson missed what was his first field goal of the season, I knew we were going to win that game.’’
On the Eugene Robinson arrest the night before the Super Bowl: “Let’s say this, we were behind the eight ball before the game because of it. I can’t say it is the reason we lost, but I certainly think we would have had a better chance of winning if it didn’t happen. My wife called me that morning and told me what happened, and Chuck Smith and I went in and talked to coach (Dan) Reeves. We then went to Eugene, and I asked him if he wanted to play, if he felt he could be effective. He was not only a very good player for us, but he had played in some Super Bowls before and was a big leader. I could tell he hadn’t slept all night. He said he felt he could play and from that point on we didn’t talk about it. He got beat for a long touchdown pass (by Rod Smith), and if that would not have happened the night before, maybe that receiver doesn’t get behind him. It was just one of those things.’’
On his two sons playing in the NFL: “Of all the players I have been around, I never thought it would be my boys getting the chance to play. What Justin has done is incredible considering he switched from playing quarterback to linebacker. Grady is going to get a chance to play with the team I played my whole career with. To say I am proud is an understatement.’’
On keeping a clean image during his career: “I wasn’t perfect, but I remember every coach I played for would always tell us it takes only two or three players to ruin it for all of us. I have always remembered that and worked on doing my best off the field. I know the NFL has some problems, but for every bad guy out there, there are a lot of good players who have really good character and do the right thing.’’
On whether he is worried about having effects for all the hits he gave out during his career: “I probably had more concessions than anyone in the league in the late 1990s. I don’t know what the future will bring. My health is pretty decent and some days are good and some are not. I don’t complain, and I am just going to keep going and not worry about it.’’