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Top 50 Falcons: No. 6, Jessie Tuggle

Jesse Tuggle, Atlanta Falcons

Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, also known as “The Hammer,” pounded ball carriers for 14 years from 1987 to 2000. (Andy Lyons /Allsport)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 50 players in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 6 is linebacker Jessie Tuggle.

Years played for Falcons: The undrafted Georgia-native was scooped up by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 1987 and proved to be one of the greatest steals in NFL history. After starring at Griffin High School, scouts said that Tuggle (5-foot-10) was too short to play at the next level. He settled on taking a Division II offer to play at Valdosta State where he became a consensus All-American and Gulf South Conference Defensive Player of the Year. 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, “The Hammer” pounding ball carriers for 14 years from 1987 to 2000.

Jersey No.: 58

His impact on the team: 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 his 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.

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 somehow, some way, the NFL always finds the talent, no matter where it is.” (AJC)

Jesse Tuggle, Atlanta Braves

Jesse Tuggle had his number (58) retired by the club and was placed in the inaugural class of the Falcons’ Ring of Honor. (Doug Pensinger /Allsport)

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.’’ (AJC)
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.” (AJC)

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.” (AJC)

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.” (AJC)

Where he is now: 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.

The countdown to the Top 50 players in Falcons history runs through the end of the season.

Top 50 Falcons Countdown

50: Chuck Smith
49: Michael Haynes
48: Jonathan Babineaux
47: John Zook
46: Ken Reaves
45: Lynn Cain
44: Justin Blalock
43: Bobby Butler
42: Tim Mazzetti
41: Buddy Curry
40: Scott Case
39: Jeff Merrow
38: Elbert Shelley
37: Matt Bryant
36: Alge Crumpler
35: Michael Turner
34: Ray Buchanan
33: Chris Hinton
32: Terance Mathis
31: Devin Hester
30: Don Smith
29: Greg Brezina
28: Chris Miller
27: John James
26: Bob Whitfield
25: Rolland Lawrence
24: Alfred Jenkins
23: Billy Johnson
22: Chris Chandler
21: Morten Andersen
20: John Abraham
19: George Kunz
18: Jamal Anderson
17: Keith Brooking
16: R.C. Thielemann
15: Tony Gonzalez
14: Andre Rison
13: Julio Jones
12: Roddy White
11: Steve Bartkowski
10: Michael Vick
9: Bill Fralic
8: Gerald Riggs
7: Matt Ryan
6:
Jesse Tuggle


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