All-Time Falcons Great, Jessie Tuggle Interview
Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle played for the Atlanta Falcons from 1987 through 2000 after going undrafted. He talks about his son, Justin Tuggle, the Pro Bowl, NFL player safety, his playing days in college, and the NFL, and one of his mentors Joel Williams. He is one of few players in Falcons history to have his jersey number retired, #58. He was a phenomenal player who made five Pro Bowl appearances and was selected to the All-Pro team three times. Check out our exclusive, one-on-one interview.
Jessie Tuggle : Hi… This is Jessie Tuggle, former Atlanta Falcons Linebacker, 5-time Pro Bowler, and you’re listening to ProInterviews.org!
Announcement : Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle played for the Atlanta Falcons from 1987 through 2000 after going undrafted. In the 1990s decade, he led the entire NFL in tackles. During his 14-year career, he totaled over 1800 tackles, over 20 sacks, forced ten fumbles, recovered ten more, and six interceptions. He is one of few players in Falcons history to have his jersey number retired, #58. He was a phenomenal player who made five Pro Bowl appearances and was selected to the All-Pro team three times. Check out our exclusive, one-on-one interview.
Max Strauss : How did you actually start playing football?
Jessie Tuggle : Football was my second love… It wasn’t my first loves because I was a baseball player also. So I grew up playing baseball, and I thought that going to college, I would probably try to play college sports through baseball, but ironically, I became pretty good at football and really did not know it. I was sixteen years old when I actually put a football uniform on, and two years later, I was able to get a scholarship to go to Valdosta State College.
Strauss : So you said you started in high school? What made you pick it up?
Tuggle : I don’t know. I felt like a couple friends and I decided to try out for the team. Back in Griffin, Georgia you actually had to try out. They had cuts where I think now every kid makes the team if he comes out and tries out, but back in the early eighties, you could have two hundred to three hundred guys come to try out to make the varsity team. I tried out in the tenth grade. I did not make varsity in tenth grade. I actually made junior varsity, which they called the B-Team, so I wasn’t actually on the Varsity until my junior year, and I just fell in love with it. I seemed to get better and better each and every year until I was able to move on to better gigs.
Strauss : Did you have any Division I offers on the table when you decided to go to Valdosta State?
Tuggle : I had no DI offers on the table when I came out. I played at a high school that produced a ton of Division I athletes. They had a very rich tradition with football. We had a ton of guys go to Georgia and Georgia Tech, and Alabama and Auburn, and Griffin High still does. But when I came out, I only had two offers. One was at Valdosta State and the other was at West Georgia University. They were both DII programs, and I decided to go a little farther away from home and go to Valdosta State more so than going to West Georgia.
Strauss : Did you have a particular experience in high school, or maybe before that, where you faced a lot of adversity, and you had to fight through it?
Tuggle : Yeah. I was a very quiet guy in high school, so I really had no earthly idea that I would play college sports. So when I didn’t get a D1 offer, it wasn’t a really big deal to me. I just wanted to go college on scholarship because my parents couldn’t afford to send me. So I wanted to use football as a tool to pay for all my expenses and everything else. My biggest concern when I was in high school was to make sure I kept my grades up, which I did, stay out of trouble, which I did, and just focus on trying to earn a scholarship to go to school and be the first one from my immediate family to graduate with a college degree. That was my ultimate goal. I had no sights on ever playing in the NFL. I just tried to go to school and actually graduate with a degree.
Strauss : At Valdosta State, did you have a favorite memory during your time there?
Tuggle : Yeah, I can remember when I went to Valdosta State in 1983. It was the second year of the University having a football program. So I was on the second team ever down there. I can remember the head coach, Jim Goodman. He had said to me when I signed there, “If you come here, you can literally put your name in the record books. You can be a four-year starter and you just never know what can happen.” But, I remember that conversation completely because I felt that if I come there I could be a part of history, and that actually I can help make history when you talk about a new football program starting. I can remember that was a big moment when he said that to me, and I was a four-year starter.
The next biggest thing I can remember being down there was my senior season, four years later. Mike Cavan became the head coach, and Mike had coached at the University of Georgia. He actually recruited Herschel Walker from Wrightsville to Georgia. So when Mike Cavan saw me in my senior season, he was watching my junior tapes and he said, “Jessie, I’m trying to tell you I think you’re better than every linebacker that I’ve ever seen at the University of Georgia.” He was there for over ten years and he said, “I’m not just saying that. I know talent when I see it. I recruited Herschel Walker out of Wrightsville. As a matter of fact, I’m going to get Herschel Walker to come here and speak to the team before the season starts.” So at that time, I was like “Man, you don’t know Herschel, right?”. Herschel came down to Valdosta State my senior season, and he spoke to the team and he talked about Mike Cavan who recruited him and why he went to the University of Georgia. Herschel was a Georgia legend, so everybody including myself looked up to him. I’ll never forget the time he came to the gym to actually speak to the team, and I thought that was pretty cool.
Strauss : Since we’re on the topic of Herschel Walker, did you ever play against him in the league and see him again?
Tuggle : Yeah, it’s so ironic. In fact, the very next year, when I left Valdosta and became a free agent signing with the Falcons, I wound up starting probably five games into my rookie year. I played against Herschel Walker, and that next year in 1988, I was tackling Herschel Walker. I can remember the first time I tackled him, and I was so excited I had to call home and tell my mom, “Hey, you’re not going to believe who I played against today and who I tackled?” Because she’s a big Herschel Walker fan, and she said, “Herschel Walker, right?” And I said, “That’s right.” It was just so ironic that I was a small kid that went to a small school, and I grew up right here Georgia, and that a year later after Herschel came to the school that I was actually playing against him. I thought that was pretty cool.
Strauss : Back at Valdosta State and everything… What do you think was the key to your success at Valdosta State was? What do you think you took from your time there that helped you the most when it came to going to the NFL and taking your talents to the next level?
Tuggle : I think, hard work. There is no substitute for hard work. I was always good in the offseason at putting in the extra time in the weight room trying to get bigger, better, and stronger. I was extremely strong for my size. When I came out in this league, I probably was close to 225, but I could bench press probably 485.
I think because I played the game that I really studied tape. I knew the game. I really knew how to hit. I knew the angles, and all the power angles. I knew how to move lateral and attack different weaknesses on ball carriers. So I was a very good hitter. So when I got to the next level, going through training camp back in the 1980s, it was very physical; it’s not like it is today. It was extremely physical for about five weeks, but because I always trained hard, and I was expected to be physical, that’s the only thing I knew. That’s what set me apart from some of the other linebackers. I was a real hard-hitting, hard-nosed linebacker, and people didn’t realize it until the actually saw me play. I think that’s the part that helped me more than anything. By studying the game a lot, and studying the tape and working extremely hard, and literally hitting people hard on the football team because I was a naturally hard hitter.
Strauss : I was wondering… What do you think goes into that mindset of “laying a player out and knocking him on his butt,” to say it nicely?
Tuggle : Right. I had a coach that told me when I was younger, that to be a good player and to really hit people you got to want to hit people. I mean you can’t be afraid to it, and I think I had no fear when I put the gear on that I would ever get hurt. So I would play and run as fast as I could, and hit people as hard as I possibly could, without any fear of being injured. I’m 48 now, and I’m a little wiser, a little smarter, but when I was 21 to 22 years old if you would have asked me to run through a brick wall I probably would have tried it because I had no fear of contact. I think that came from my coaches in high school. We used to hit so much in high school. We had a lot of big guys. At 5 foot 11, 225, any time I would have to hit guys in the league over 6-3, 300 or 320, the size factor would never even enter my mind that I was a smaller guy because I had no fear of hitting. I had no fear of size or of playing against bigger guys, and I think that helped me a ton as well throughout the league. Coming from a small school, as a small linebacker, I was able to adapt with the different speed of the game and the size of the game once I got in the NFL.
Strauss : Going to a small school and being praised by your coach, did you expect to get drafted back in the day, or not really?
Tuggle : No, not really… When I came out my senior season at Valdosta State, we had our best record which was 9-2. We had been 5-6 the three previous seasons. We had two cornerbacks on our team, and actually, they were identical twins…Dennis and Dallis Smith. The scouts would come down and look at these guys because they were about the ideal size, about 5-11, 165, and they ran 4.4 forties. When the scouts came out and looked at the twins, they would always see me on tape.
During my senior season, I probably got asked about three or four times, to come in and talk to the guys who were scouting our school, and then everyone of them would say, “Man, we wish you were taller. We wish you were taller. Your technique looks great on tape, you play hard, but we wish you were taller.” When draft time came around, you have to understand, now they have seven rounds, but back then, they had twelve rounds back in 1986-1987 when I came out.
I didn’t get drafted. The day after the draft, because I was a local kid, the Falcons had called me and asked if I would drive up and actually try out as a free agent. Basically the reason they knew something about me was because my head coach Mike Cavan had spoke to Marion Campbell who was the head coach of the Falcons. They had met at a convention or some type of banquet. Mike Cavan told him about me and about my size and how I work. He mentioned to me later that I found out that he said, “If you bring him into camp, he’s going to be hardest working guy that you will have there, period.” It went just like that…you know the coach had seen me work all the time. So they invited me to camp, and that’s how I made it through. I made it as a free agent. I was almost considered a walk-on like you’d do in college. I actually drove to the camp, they worked me out, they offered me a contract, and the next week I was in training camp. So, it was like that.
Strauss : You stayed with the Falcons your whole career, and we were just talking about how it’s tough for someone to even stay with a team their whole career nowadays. Even if it’s outside of football, for other jobs too, it’s hard to stay within one organization. I guess there’s a loyalty to the Falcons because you were a prime player, and you could have left, if you wanted to leave and go make more money elsewhere you could have, but you stayed with the Falcons organization?
Tuggle : Yes. You know what, Max. When I came into the league in 1987, there was no free agency. So once you sign with a team you were basically stuck with the team for your whole career. It’s hard to believe now, and a lot of young players that forget about that, and that’s one of the reasons we were on strike in 1987, and there was another strike later on in 1993, I believe. Either way, we couldn’t move until my seventh or eighth year. My seventh or eighth year, there was a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and that was the first time that we could literally be a true free agent and go to another team. Say if I played for the Falcons now, I could go to the Cowboys and play. It sounds crazy now because it happens all the time, but I saw seven or eight years of my career before we could even move. When we first got free agency, they came out with a thing called Plan B, and I was on the Plan B list where I was a starter and I couldn’t leave unless a team matched…I mean the Falcons were able to match any offer that any team gave me. That was pretty good because I was able to increase my salary like that, so my salary jumped like crazy my eighth and ninth year because of Plan B. But then I found a four-year deal, and then again I was able to leave, I was able to leave three times if I really wanted to when my contract was up. But I was getting older and I had decided, hey, I had been a Falcon all my career and it was tempting to leave probably in my tenth or eleventh year, and I didn’t, and I decided, hey, I was going to ride out my career here with the Falcons. The Falcons were very generous in offering me a decent contract so I decided to go there and stay. I might have made $800,000 or $1 million more on a three- or four-year contract, but at the end of the day, it really wasn’t worth it. I decided to go ahead and stay, and now I’m glad I didn’t go, and that I finished my career with the Falcons.
Strauss : When you first got to the Falcons, you told me about your experience there, and how you got there. Did you have anyone on that roster take you in and serve as a mentor, or was it all your own effort, your own initiative? Was there someone that talked to you and shared any advice with you beside the coaches?
Tuggle : In 1987, there was a guy named Joel Williams, and he was a veteran on the team at that particular time. Joel probably had played eight or nine years in the league at the time. It was my rookie year, and he kind of took my under his wings a little bit and talked to me, not about the physical part of the game, because I knew about the physical part. But, he taught me how to prepare for the NFL game. Once in the NFL the game is more mental, than it is physical because everyone there has all the physical parts and if not, they won’t be there. To set yourself apart from the other players you need to understand the game mentally, and then the right plays at the right time, know what to look for, and know what to do, and how to study and how to prepare for your opponent each and every week. He was the defensive captain, and just by listening to him and watching how he prepared showed me that one day, I’m going to be in his position. I’m going to be the oldest linebacker, and I’m going to need to prepare myself and the other teammates, so I need to know exactly what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and I was able to comprehend a lot of the information that he shared with me at that particular time on being a player.
Although it seems simple, football is more than X’s and O’s, it is a strategy game. You almost have to think like an Offensive Coordinator thinks so you can understand how and why he’s attacking you. Once that happens, I could really read plays, I could read offenses, I could read routes, formations, and I could almost visualize certain plays before they happened just by alignments. That gave me such an advantage that sometimes, I would make plays in games when I was in the early part of my career that other opponents would ask me after the game, “Jessie, how did you know that play was coming? How did you read it so fast?” Athletes would ask me those questions all the time, and that comes from field study. I mean, I’m not guessing, but I’m anticipating. I said I’m going to totally eliminate plays that you can run from that formation, but I’m doing it so fast that actually, by trial and error, your offense can only run three or four plays different what they had run in the past. So I was dissecting plays a lot faster because Joel Williams gave me the insight on how to do it, and I took that from the notebook to the practice field to game day and made it work for me.
Strauss : Looking at the linebackers of today, who do you think is the best linebacker in the league today that you’ve watched?
Tuggle : I think obviously Ray Lewis helped his team get to the Super Bowl. Since I’ve been retired, I’ve been retired now thirteen years, but I would tend to watch him a lot. I do agree with the media. He gets a lot of media attention, but he is, I think the best middle linebacker in the league. But there’s still a lot of good backers. I like San Francisco’s Patrick Willis, and I think either he or Ray would be #1 in my book if I had to choose one or the other. I respect those guys because they’re physical, they understand the game, they play hard, and they’re extremely intelligent and so they how to dissect plays and it puts them in the right position to make big plays. From that point of view, I respect guys who I call younger guys but where in the NFL they’re considered older guys, like Ray, and he’s still a young guy to me. To end his career now after winning the Super Bowl, I think is really big because not many players get the opportunity to walk out when they’re on top, and they gave him the opportunity to leave the game the way he wanted to. That’s pretty cool. I like a lot of things about him and how he finished up.
Strauss : You played in the Super Bowl, and you had a phenomenal defense with the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII. What was the Super Bowl like for you?
Tuggle : It was like, the word awesome gets used to much, but it was an awesome experience. The Super Bowl happened for me in my twelfth season, and the Atlanta Falcons organization hadn’t ever been to the Super Bowl before. I can recall the whole season. We had a really good team. I had played on eleven teams before my Super Bowl team, and I don’t think we were the most talented team from the previous years, but what set the team apart was that we played as one unit, and we believed in each other, and we supported each other. I’ll always say that football is the ultimate team sport, so you have to trust each other, and we did that, and once we started winning the confidence kept building and building.
To play in the Super Bowl that year, in 1998, to get there and play in Super Bowl XXXIII was like a dream come true for me because I had been through so many ups and downs. I probably had played on six or seven losing teams. To be a part of a team that had never, ever been to the Super Bowl, I had fans walk up to me and say things like they never thought they would put the two phrases together, ”Atlanta Falcons” and “Super Bowl.” They never thought they would ever say it out of the their mouths. The city supported us, the organization was ecstatic, and they could hardly believe that after such a long history, they now had the opportunity to get to the Super Bowl, and to be a leader on that particular team, and one of the star players. I know I was overexcited. It didn’t feel real to me. It was just, like I mentioned earlier, a dream come true. The only thing that could top it off was, I wish we would have won the Super Bowl, but you can’t go back and change history. Many players don’t even get the opportunity to even play in the Super Bowl, so I’m thankful that in my fourteen-year career that I did play in it, and I have a NFC Championship ring to prove it. Other than that, it was just great memories that definitely will last a lifetime.
Strauss : What’s it like to have a teammate of Cornelius Bennett when you were playing in the Super Bowl?
Tuggle : Cornelius and I were good friends. We had mutual respect for each other before we actually became teammates. He came in as a first rounder, and I came in as a free agent, although we both came out the same year in 1987. He was fortunate enough to have played in four Super Bowls before the Falcons. When we picked him up in free agency, we used some of that experience. He would come and talk to us about his experience and about going to the Super Bowl, so when you’re in mid-season and you stood like 8-2, and then you start to realize hey we got a good shot to make something happen, and then you become 10-2, 12-2, and the next thing you know 14-2, and now you got a real legit chance to get to the Super Bowl. He just kept perspective about his time when he was with the Buffalo Bills, and he never won it. He’d tell the guys, “Look, I’ve been to four and lost them all. I want to win this one.” I wanted to win it, not just for me, but for him too. It would be his first Super Bowl win, and that’s something he’d always remember is winning his fifth one. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, and I hate that, but he’s a good guy. He’s a real good guy, and I still see him and still talk to him. I’m glad we had that short time in our career that we shared together.
Strauss : You also made Pro Bowls in your career, and they still have trip to Hawaii and everything. Tell me about the Pro Bowl in your day versus the Pro Bowl now. Do you think it’s right with the scrutiny? Or, do you think it’s worth continuing to have a Pro Bowl? What are your thoughts on the Pro Bowl and the whole controversy?
Tuggle : The Pro Bowl status and everything about it has changed tremendously since I was an active player because the money changed. Back in the early 80s, mid-80s, early 90s and some part of the late 90s, to have a Pro Bowl status was like something that every player wanted. You wanted to light up the league because you could sit by your peers and watch the best players in the league. There was no fan voting and all that. It was voting by your peers and coaches. It was pretty cool because if you were the best at what you were doing, it means your counterparts and your peers are voting you in as a Pro Bowler. Not only that, but also for contract reasons, to make the elite money back in the 90s when you became a Pro Bowler, you had so much leverage to be paid among the highest players at your position, so everybody wanted that Pro Bowl status. I was a five-time Pro Bowler, and once you got to the game it was competitive because guys took pride in what they were doing, and you wanted to represent your conference, although the game didn’t start fast, it always finished hard because everybody was trying to make the extra $20,000 for the winner, and the loser gets $20,000 less, or whatever it was, at that time. So, the money was important too.
But now it’s changed to the point where a guy’s contract is so large because of free agency and the TV contracts that Pro Bowl status doesn’t mean that much to them anymore. One of the reasons is that their going to make the money regardless. There’s some guys who are making more money than any Pro Bowler made when I was playing, so the status of trying to work hard to increase your salary as a Pro Bowler, it doesn’t exist anymore.
Another thing is that you’re voted on by the fans and peers and coaches all have a third, and if you’re a popular guy you’re going to get most likely your play in the Pro Bowl even if you’re not the best guy at that position. It changes a little bit to that point, but I’m not envious of any of the guys because some of the guys who are in the Pro Bowl, they are some of the best players in the league. But the thing that has me a little upset is the quality of play. This year was better, and the last year was ridiculous. The Pro Bowl in 2012 was a joke, and you hate to say that because you have a lot of first time Pro Bowlers who are new and they didn’t want to be there. They were so afraid to get hurt, and they made it more of a flag football situation more so than an actual football game. So the status of the Pro Bowl has dropped.
The NFL is seriously considering canceling the Pro Bowl, which I hope they don’t do that. I hope guys start taking pride back in it because right now it could probably just be a status. I just hope the league don’t go with just a status as a conditional thing like for instance in college where you’re a minor right now. In college, you might have a 2013 All-American but there’s not an All-American game. There may be Pro Bowl players with no game, and oh yeah he’s a 2014 Pro Bowler but it’s a status more so than actually playing in a game. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that point because it does have a history and some fans do like it. I’m hoping that if it comes back to the way it used to be that it would be a little more competitive.
Strauss : You had your number retired by the Falcons. What was that experience like for you?
Tuggle : That was pretty cool because to have your number retired means they really have to respect you as a person and a player. I feel they had that respect for me, for what I did for the game and left on the football field, but also for my character and who I am and what I represent. It was an honor to have my jersey retired, and also to retire the jersey of a guy who came in un-drafted. Out of over 300 plus players to be chosen, I was not chosen. They chose a guy who didn’t play at the SEC or ACC or Big-10 or Big-12. I had gotten to play in the Gulf South Conference of Division II football. But what it also says, it shows a guy that really worked extremely hard to show his peers and teammates, the organization, and the fans how much he loved to play football. Now when I go to the Georgia Dome and I see my jersey hanging up, it just seems unreal because it’s just the jersey of kid who grew up right here in Georgia on dirt roads, who went to a small school, and played for his hometown team, the Falcons, his whole career, and now, my jersey hangs up there. Hopefully one day, I can go back and look and here the story of how and why my jersey hands up there. That’s pretty cool.
Strauss : What do you think of the rules today, and what do you think needs to done to the sport to keep players’ lives protected? Players sign up to play, but you also want to make sure they’re not hurting themselves.
Tuggle : Football is a physical sport, there’s no doubt about it. We all sign that contract and all know what’s at stake. But the came still can be safer. I think the game is slowly becoming as safe as possibly can be. The Commissioner with all the different rules changes will help the game some, but there’s still going to be a situation where there’s going to be heavy collisions because it’s football. Now guys will continuously still get hit unfortunately in the head, and guys still unfortunately will get their knees hurt, because the game is so physical. It’s so demanding.
But, there’s also the part of the game where the media and the players are far more educated about certain things and the physical part of the game is that you’ll probably see less and less guys take cheap shots because they know it can end a guy’s career. You may see the point where a defensive back will pull off and hit a guy in the shoulder pad instead of ramming helmet-to-helmet, but you still can’t avoid it 100% though, and that’s where it comes on the Commissioner and players and when they disagree… and even to myself, a guy that was a hard hitter, that you can’t take the physical part away from the game. The fans pay to see that, players know that it’s football and there’s going to be some hard collisions, but you have to just play smarter. It sounds like, “but how can you play smarter and not knock people out?” but you can, it can be done.
Also, it teaches awareness about teaching how to hit, and it starts from grade school, to junior high, to high school, to college, and then the pros. Everything the pros do, it is reflected in on the next level, on college, then on high school, then junior high directly, and the teaching of the tackling and everything is totally starting to change a little bit. When I first started playing they always told me to lead with my head first, and roll my hips and explode into people, and that was taught to me when I was sixteen years old. But since ,I’ve been retired from the league, when I teach football, I was a community coach for five years, I didn’t teach to lead with the head because now I know the dangers with that so I want the head to the side and to lead with the shoulder pad. So all this stuff is really making a lot of sense, and it’s going to take a few years to grasp everything and get everything in place. But the game will be safer, and I think it’s a little safer now, but the game is not 100 percent guaranteed you’re not going to get hurt. It’s football…it’s too physical.
Strauss : This past year what Adrian Peterson did was phenomenal. Who’s the toughest running back that you have ever had to face in your career?
Tuggle : I was fortunate enough to play against a lot of Hall of Famers from Emmitt Smith to Eric Dickerson. Man those guys were so tough. But I think the toughest of them all, and I played against guys like Christian Okoye who was 6’2”, 245 pounds…and Barry…
Strauss : I’ve interviewed Christian Okoye, and Lorenzo Neal you played against too, and I’ve interviewed him too.
Tuggle : Yeah, and Lorenzo Neal who I think was one of the toughest fullbacks that I ever went against. I played against a lot of good backs and fullbacks, and I can remember Darryl Johnston moves from the block for Emmitt Smith.
There’s just so many backs I’ve played against, but one that gave me more trouble than any of them was the Hall of Famer, Barry Sanders. He wasn’t the largest, but the thing with Barry he was so elusive that you could never really put a move on him to try and knock him out. He was just so hard to hit. So if I had to choose one guy, it would be Barry Sanders as the toughest back I ever played against.
Strauss : If you could describe yourself as any ice cream flavor, what would you be and why?
Tuggle (Laughs) : That’s a weird question. Let me see, I definitely would not say vanilla because I think you would just blend in with anything. I would say a mixture of chocolate and vanilla. The reason I’d say that is because off the field, I think if you ever knew me, and even in my playing days and even now, I’m the nicest guy in the world. I mean, I think I am. You would never look at me as a violent person or a very hard-nosed, physical guy, even from my demeanor, my physical look, my faith, you wouldn’t see that. But in my playing days, when I put the helmet on I became a totally different player. I would say chocolate because I was a darker player which means that mentally, physically and emotionally, my personality changed because I figured I had to be a lone heart, physical linebacker that intimidated people not by my size, but by my play. That’s the reason I choose chocolate and vanilla mixed.
This next question was asked before the 2013 NFL Draft.
Strauss : You’ve always say how family can’t be a reference when it comes to job interviews, but if you had to talk about your son to somewhat in the Falcons organization, or someone in any organization… What would you tell them about your son and how he plays, and maybe what he has in common with your style? How would you pitch your son?
Tuggle : When I look at my son Justin, he’s an outside linebacker. First of all, he fits the part. He’s 6’3″, 240 pounds. He is extremely good athlete, and a former quarterback. Understand he’s played quarterback since the tenth grade, actually earlier that that, all the way from eighth grade all the way up: eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade. He graduated high school and got recruited by DIs…it seemed like 11 or 12 DI colleges…wound up going to Boston College and then probably in his fourth year, he decided to change positions and play linebacker. Now understanding that his dad, which is me, was a five time Pro Bowler who played 14 years in the league, and although my son’s a quarterback, he’s also a physical quarterback.
He was blessed with great size, but he’s been around me and been a quarterback, so he’s extremely intelligent, so he knows the game mentally, and he knows how to be physical. Not many people can change from quarterback to linebacker. If they’re changing positions, normally it would be quarterback to wide receiver or quarterback to defensive back because it takes a different mindset to play linebacker. If a guy come up to me, or an organization comes up to my son, they’ve got to understand they’re getting a bright individual who can physically play football. He’s a really good athlete for his size. He’s built different than I am, obviously, so his strengths and weaknesses are different than mine. He’s faster, quicker, but he’s not stronger because I would stay in the weight room, but he’s not weak by no means. He’s just not going doing 525-pound bench presses, you don’t get that from him. But what you get from him is a guy who can vertical 35 inches, who can run the 5-10-5 in 4.20, and a guy who can run the cone drills in 6.75 at 240 pounds… Most defensive backs run it at that speed. His change-of-direction is really off the charts.
And you’re taking a guy who really understands pass defense. The NFL is a really moving from a two-back offense, when I played in the 1980s you needed somebody who can pound the fullback, pound the fullback, pound the fullback, and now there’s no fullback. So you need somebody who can play pass defense, and can change direction, and can leap, and who is physical but is more of an athlete. I think that’s what he has, and that’s what he brings to the table. He brings a guy who’s 6’3″, 240 pounds that can move like a defensive back, but he plays linebacker. So those would be my selling points for my son.
If he was a three-year starter, but he was only a one-year starter at linebacker, and a first-year player at linebacker, so teams are going to be a little cautious to actually draft him, or draft him high, so he might do like me and actually hit free agency, but what they’re getting, it’ll only take one team to project him as the athlete he is because they’ll understand what they’re getting. He’s the type of guy that I think will play, that God willing will play, ten to twelve years in the league because he’s extremely intelligent. He’s the hardest working guy you ever want to be around, and he knows the game, and he knows how to play football. So, that’s how I would sell my son.
I know all the fans are saying, “Well you’re Justin’s dad. You’re going to say all those things about him,” but when you speak to his weight coach, when you speak to his football coach, and when you speak to anybody who ever worked out with him or around him, that’s what they would say because that’s what they tell me. So what I do is I try to be realistic, and I try to judge him as not my son, so when I look at him I can see some of his weaknesses, but I also tell him what he brings to the table that are some of his strengths. You have to keep it extremely consistent for him for me, so I say, “Listen, there’s no doubt in my mind that you’re going to play in the NFL. What team you’re going play for, or where you’re going to get drafted, or if you’re going to get drafted, I don’t even care, to be honest with you, about the draft thing because I wasn’t drafted. I know 45 to 50 guys, maybe a hundred guys, who were drafted in front of me, and I out played every one of them.” My story, when I tell him, he can relate to it, and he don’t get caught up in the player or linebacker ranks. Because at the end of the day it’s about how you play football in the NFL, and I think he can play, and he can play for a long time. He’s smart enough that he knows the game, he’s been around the game, and he knows how to prepare for the game. So, that’s it in a nutshell.
It’s going to be interesting to see what team really goes after him, and it only takes one to project him as a first-year linebacker from last year going into the league as a second-year linebacker, but when they watch him on tape he brings a lot to the table. It was his first year last year, so where is he going to be two years from now? That’s where an organization has to look at him and say, “Alright, where is he going to be two years from now?” I think he’s going to be so far ahead of where he is now that’s it’s unbelievable when I look at his growth mentally, physically, and how he grasps things.
He’s a former quarterback, so when he came to defense, he put in the plays, he told me that the Kansas State guys had given me the entire playbook and I learned it in two days. He said, “It’s only got like 50-some plays…we had to learn like 300 to 400 plays as a quarterback. It was easy. I knew all the coverages, I had played against all of them. So teaching that stuff to me was nothing for me. All I had to learn to do was how to get my body in certain positions to take on blocks, how to blitz, how to do that.” He just kept getting better and better. He was raw at a lot it. He got knocked down a few times, but I never seen it happen to him twice. He learned and learned and learned, and he was one of those kinds of guys that when he sees it one time, he has a tendency to pick it up and run it immediately. So I think at that part of the game he’s going to be ahead of the curve more so that a guy whose playing a new position and don’t know what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing, and so that’s my selling points.
I think if you call me this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s going to be on somebody’s roster next year. There’s no guarantees in life, but he’s going to be on somebody’s roster because it’s still in him, he’s a part of me, he’s a part of. He has cousins who played in the league who still play in the league, and his uncle played in the league. He has a lot of history. He will get his opportunity. I think that he’s destined to play in the league, and that’s one of his goals.
Strauss : Who’s his uncle? Who’s your brother?
Tuggle : Actually it’s my wife’s uncle. My son’s grandfather is Lamar Wright. My son is 6’3″, 240. His grandfather is 6’11″. His brother, who is Rayfield Wright, who is my wife’s uncle, is my son’s great uncle, and he played with the Dallas Cowboys, and he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Strauss : It’s in his blood…
Tuggle : Yeah, it’s in his blood. Rayfield Wright is my wife’s uncle, and my wife’s maiden name is Wright. It’s her uncle, so her dad is 6’11″, and that’s Rayfield’s brother. So that’s his great uncle.
Strauss : The Big Cat, right?
Tuggle : Yeah…the Big Cat…yup..The Big Cat. When I was in high school, the Big Cat’s mother is Misst Opel Wright and she raised my wife. That’s who my wife was raised by, so I would go over to Rayfield’s mom’s house every day. So Rayfield would come home from the Cowboys when I was like seventeen years old or sixteen years old, and he’d have all his Dallas Cowboys stuff…and I never thought at sixteen that I would be playing in the league seven years later. I used to see him all the time, so when I made it to the league, he goes, “I knew one day you’d make it to the league.” It’s so funny that all the years passed I’m now my son is 23 years old.
I said, “You put your work together, you’re going to play in the league. Don’t think that you’re not. Prepare yourself as [if] you are, and you will play.” And it’s right here. In a few more months we’ll know for sure. I don’t think he’s going to be nowhere in the high round picks because he hasn’t played enough for the scouts to see him consistently. If he had been a two or three year starter and didn’t play quarterback, he’d be on everybody’s draft board. He’s super athletic. I’m not just saying he’s athletic. He’s really super athletic. But he’ll probably have to make it as a free agent or a lower round draft pick, and it doesn’t matter where you get your opportunity. I’m living proof that no matter how you come into the league. That’s the standard I set for him. I don’t care if you’re a draft pick or a free agent because the goal is once you get to the league to do something with it. You may know some guys that were drafted ahead of you, and then what you need to do is out work them and see where they’re at five years down the road, two years down the road, and that’s going to motivate you your whole career. You’ll out work them every year. And that’s the way he’s built. He’s built like me mentally, so I have no doubt in my mind he’s going to play somewhere. I just don’t know where though.
Strauss : Is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven’t touched on?
Tuggle : I appreciate the interview. I appreciate the time. Everything is good. Life after football is good. I’m 48 years old, I turned 48 in April, and my body feels good. I got bumps and bruises, but I enjoy life, and I love the game, I still love to watch football. At all levels, pro, college and high school… and I have a lot of respect for the game. So after that, I think I don’t have too much more to say, and I appreciate the time.
Strauss : Well. Thank you so much for the time, Jessie, I really appreciate it.
Tuggle : Alright, and you take care.