Some of the greatest success stories in NFL history involve athletes who were long shots to make a roster.
These are the players who were late round picks or undrafted free agents who defied the odds, made a team, and became a valuable asset.
One such player was Jessie Tuggle.
Tuggle was a good prep athlete who only had two college offers.
Then, after breaking school records at Division II Valdosta State, he wasn’t selected in the 1987 NFL Draft.
Jessie Tuggle, aka The Hammer. pic.twitter.com/rS6NUXth7T
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) July 3, 2022
He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons and proved his worth by becoming one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
During his time with the Falcons, Tuggle was a five-time Pro Bowler and helped the franchise reach Super Bowl XXXIII after the 1998 season.
This is the story of Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle.
Fireplug for Griffin High School
Jessie Floyd Tuggle III was born on April 4, 1965 in Griffin, Georgia.
RT to wish the legendary Jessie Tuggle a happy birthday! pic.twitter.com/YPTLYE4bhV
— Red Stallions (@AtlantaFalcons) April 4, 2022
Tuggle grew up loving sports and gravitated toward football even though he was small in stature.
When he reached Griffin High School, Tuggle was still shy of six feet tall and weighed roughly 180 pounds.
However, Bears coach Lloyd Bohannon liked the little fireplug and put him at linebacker on defense and guard on offense.
Tuggle turned into a gridiron terror and helped Griffin High rack up several wins each season and play in the state playoffs three times.
During his sophomore year, the Bears reached the state championship with 14 victories before losing to Lowndes High School.
Griffin High School (Griffin, GA)
Jessie Tuggle ’83
Willie Gault ’79
Chris Clemons ’00
Charlie Clemons ’90
Sherrod Martin ’04
Bobby Rainey ’07
Johnathan Sullivan ’99
Randy Baldwin ’87
Alton Montgomery ’86
Corey Moore ’11
Nic Clemons ’99
‘Omar Ellison ’90@GriffinFB1 pic.twitter.com/liXfGcL26Y
— Prep2ProDB (@Prep2ProDB) February 24, 2022
Then, as a senior, Tuggle piled up tackles and sacks as Griffin reached the state semifinals before losing to Peachtree High School.
“We thought we were so much better than them (Peachtree),” said Tuggle. “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.”
Despite the loss, Tuggle was voted by his teammates as the team’s MVP.
The Griffin High football team attracted quite a following while Tuggle was playing for the Bears.
Unfortunately, numerous trips to the playoffs, piles of tackles and pancake blocks, and a team MVP award did little to bring college programs to Tuggle’s door.
Coaches from the big schools certainly saw Tuggle making plays, especially as a senior.
The major issue was that he wouldn’t grow any more than 5’11 and defensive coordinators thought Tuggle was not fast enough.
Only two colleges, Valdosta State University and University of West Georgia, both Division II schools, showed interest.
Not one to back down from a challenge, Tuggle took the offer from Valdosta State.
Tuggle and “The Nasty Bunch”
In the summer before Tuggle’s freshman year in 1983, he put 20 more pounds on his frame and started at defensive end.
The Valdosta State football program was only in its second year, but the team won five games and Tuggle was given the Most Improved Player for the defense.
In 1984, the Blazers went 5-6 for the second year in a row, but the losses weren’t because of the defense.
Today is the birthday of @ProFootballHOF member, @JimKelly1212, and @cfbhall members, Jessie Tuggle (Valdosta St.), Steve McNair (Alcorn State), and
Woody Hayes (Ohio St.). #football #HappyBirthdayJimKelly #JessieTuggle #SteveMcNair #WoodyHayes pic.twitter.com/AdRNacMH1z
— Porkchop Branch (@porkchopbranch) February 14, 2022
Tuggle and teammates Lenny Parker and Dallis Smith formed a potent unit known as “The Nasty Bunch.”
Through the first four games, the group allowed only 25 total points and the Blazers raced out to a 5-2 start.
Although Valdosta dropped its last four games, the defense ended the season as one of the best in the Gulf South Conference.
Tuggle was voted to the All-Conference team for the first of three times.
Before Tuggle’s junior year, Blazers coach Jim Goodman left and defensive coordinator Jim Berryman took over.
Berryman then moved Tuggle to inside linebacker and “The Hammer” was born.
Through his first two years at VSU, Tuggle had worked on his speed and continued adding weight.
By the time the 1985 season began he was up to 230 pounds.
Valdosta once again went 5-6, but Tuggle was a nightmare for ball carriers and tallied 107 total tackles.
He was named first-team All-Conference for his efforts.
The Nasty Bunch continued to do its job by giving up only 14.8 points per contest, good for 23rd in the nation.
Even more impressive, the secondary surrendered just 133 passing yards per game, good for 13th in the nation.
Berryman moved on himself after 1985 and Mike Cavan became the Blazers new coach.
At long last, the offense stepped up and the team won nine games in 1986, the most wins in a season by the program at the time.
— Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (@CFAPeachBowl) September 20, 2013
Tuggle and Smith were named team captains and The Hammer pounded out 129 stops, which led the team.
“That (VSU) is where my skills were fine-tuned,” said Tuggle. “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.”
After the season, Tuggle was voted GSC Defensive Player of the Year (a first for VSU), first-team All-Conference, and a Kodak All-American.
During his college career, Tuggle set a school record with 340 total tackles and received VSU’s Hugh C. Bailey Player of the Year award twice.
His number 88 has been retired by the program, and in 2007, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Valdosta State opened the Jessie Tuggle Strength and Fitness Complex in 2009 in honor of The Hammer’s career with the Blazers.
Tuggle Gets an NFL Opportunity
Without the benefit of social media or modern day scouting, Tuggle’s play at Valdosta State brought no interest from NFL teams.
Thankfully, Tuggle’s coach at VSU, Mike Cavan, knew then-Atlanta Falcons coach Marion Campbell and put in a good word.
“Mike ran into coach Campbell at a conference and told him about me,” recalled Tuggle in 2015. “He told Marion he had a short linebacker that would run through a wall for him.”
Just like he experienced coming out of high school, Tuggle was overlooked in the 1987 NFL Draft because scouts thought he was too small.
When the draft ended and Tuggle was not selected, Campbell reached out and offered him an opportunity as an undrafted free agent.
“I’ve tried my whole life to work hard and prepare myself for that opportunity when it comes around,” Tuggle said years later. “It doesn’t do you any good to get a chance if you’re not prepared to take advantage of it.”
Tuggle wasn’t offered much money and he didn’t receive any bonus.
However, all he needed was a shot and The Hammer made the most of it.
Coming out of training camp in 1987, Tuggle made the opening day roster alongside veteran linebackers Tim Green, John Rade, and Joel Williams.
Happy birthday to former #Falcons LB Jessie Tuggle (58)! The undrafted talent had a stellar 14-year career in Atlanta. "The Hammer" went on to get over 18k tackles & 5 Pro Bowls during that span. He was added to #TecmoSuperBowl after 201 tackles in '90. Happy birthday Jessie! pic.twitter.com/RSSlAaR5zh
— SBlueman (@SBluemanTecmo) April 4, 2023
As a rookie, Tuggle started four games and collected 35 tackles and one sack as the Falcons won three games.
In 1988, Atlanta drafted Auburn linebacker Aundray Bruce with the first overall pick and put him at outside linebacker while Tuggle played inside.
The team struggled to a 1-7 start but played .500 ball the rest of the way to finish 5-11.
Tuggle got more playing time and started eight games, leading to 103 total tackles and a fumble return for a touchdown.
Tuggle Becomes a Full-Time Starter
By 1989, Tuggle must have been feeling Deja vu.
His first three years at Valdosta State brought losing records.
In 1987 and 1988, the Falcons won eight games total and went 3-9 to begin the ‘89 season.
At that point, Atlanta management fired Campbell and offensive line coach Jim Hanifan coached the remainder of the year.
Even though the team was struggling, Tuggle started every game for the first time in his career and had 183 tackles and one sack.
1990 brought the arrival of former Houston Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville.
Glanville was a bit of a maverick who wore black, liked racing cars, and enjoyed coaching defense.
In the late 1970s through the early 1980s, Glanville coached defense for the Falcons and formed the infamous “Gritz Blitz.”
Jerry Glanville, architect of the Falcons' "Grits Blitz" of the late 1970s
— Clayton Trutor (@ClaytonTrutor) April 24, 2019
Atlanta won only five games in Glanville’s first year as head coach, but the roster was beginning to take shape.
Receiver Andre Rison came over from the Indianapolis Colts before the season and was paired with veteran Michael Haynes.
In the 1989 NFL Draft, the Falcons had selected Florida State corner Deion Sanders.
Rison and Sanders brought flash and sass to Atlanta, just what Glanville liked.
In the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft, Atlanta general manager Ken Herock selected University of Southern Mississippi quarterback Brett Favre.
Glanville absolutely hated the pick, believing Favre to be a drunk and a party animal who wouldn’t last long in the NFL due to his immaturity.
Brett Favre also had his first pass returned for a TD with the Falcons in 1991. Jerry Glanville did not like the draft pick and Favre only threw four passes for Atlanta. Two picks and two incomplete. He was traded the next season. pic.twitter.com/BUvJh5ruxI
— 𝙃𝙚𝙡𝙢𝙚𝙩 𝘼𝙙𝙙𝙞𝙘𝙩 (@HelmetAddict) September 10, 2018
Instead of playing Favre, Glanville turned to veteran Chris Miller.
The Falcons offense became the 5th best in the NFL behind Miller’s 3,103 passing yards.
Meanwhile, Tuggle followed up his team-leading (and NFL-best) 201 tackles, five sacks, and one fumble return for a score in 1990 with 207 tackles, one sack, one interception, and another fumble return for a touchdown in 1991.
For the second year in a row, Tuggle’s tackle total led the NFL and it was the most tackles in a season in Atlanta history.
— Who Did You Boycott Today (#NegroAmerican) (@YourSportsCards) February 28, 2017
The Falcons began the year 2-3, but gained steam as the season continued and finished with a 10-6 record.
With Glanville at the helm, 1991 was like a circus.
Movie and music stars, such as rapper MC Hammer, frequented the Atlanta sideline and Hammer dedicated his song “Too Legit to Quit” to the team.
In the Wild Card round, Atlanta beat division rival New Orleans for the franchise’s first playoff win since 1978.
The wild and crazy season ended when the Washington Redskins thumped the Falcons, 24-7, in the Divisional round.
Pro Bowl at Last
One would think that a player who piled up more than 200 tackles a season for two straight years (only the third time in history that had happened) would have been selected for the Pro Bowl.
Surprisingly, Tuggle was not recognized by his peers in either season.
It wasn’t until 1992 when Atlanta took a large step backward and finished 6-10 that Tuggle was finally recognized.
That year, he had 193 tackles, one sack, one interception, and for the third year in a row, a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Happy Birthday, Jessie Tuggle:
5X Pro Bowl
4X NFL Tackles Leader
2X 200+ Tackle Season
1X AP 2nd Team All-Pro
1,805 Tackles (4th All-Time)
10 Forced Fumbles
10 Fumble Recoveries
5 Fumble Recovery TDs (2nd All-Time)
Do you think Tuggle belongs in the HOF? pic.twitter.com/OKdJIb2p09
— Jim Miloch (@podoffame) April 4, 2023
In his sixth season as a pro, Tuggle was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
Atlanta followed 1992 with another 6-10 record in 1993, which spelled the end of Glanville’s time with the Falcons.
Tuggle added 185 tackles, two sacks, and a fumble recovery in ‘93.
His average tackles per year between 1989 and 1993 was a hefty 193.8.
Tuggle Sticks with the Falcons
June Jones took over as Atlanta’s coach in 1994, but the team only improved slightly to 7-9.
By then, Tuggle was in his eighth season and had been to the playoffs once.
Plenty of players in similar predicaments would have abandoned ship years before.
That wasn’t Tuggle’s nature, however, and he continued re-signing with the franchise, endearing himself each time to the Falcons fan base.
5 Pro Bowls
Made more tackles than anyone during the 1990s
— Clayton Trutor (@ClaytonTrutor) April 24, 2019
In 1995, Atlanta returned to the postseason with a 9-7 record then lost to former teammate Brett Favre and the Packers in the Wild Card round, 37-20.
Tuggle was voted to his third Pro Bowl after he led the NFL with 152 tackles and picked off three passes (returning one for a score) and added a sack.
The following year, he compiled 114 tackles and a sack while Atlanta lost 13 games and Jones was fired.
Before the 1997 season began, former Denver Broncos and New York Giants coach Dan Reeves was hired by the Falcons.
In Reeves’ first year with the club, Atlanta went 7-9 while Tuggle went to his fourth Pro Bowl on the strength of his 92 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Then, in 1998, the skies opened, the sun shone, and magic rained down on the Atlanta organization.
Given the team’s record the previous two years there was no indication that 1998 would be anything special.
However, quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson drove the offense while Tuggle, Chuck Smith, Cornelius Bennett, rookie Keith Brooking, Ray Buchanan, and Eugene Robinson paced the defense.
The @AtlantaFalcons were 1-7 in 1997.
Jessie Tuggle challenged his teammates.
The Falcons went 6-2 and 14-2 in 1998.
Here's what he said.
🎙️Bird Noises: https://t.co/pq1HXUvFCu
— Matthew Tabeek (@MatthewTabeek) November 8, 2019
After a 2-1 start, the Falcons took off and finished the regular season with a 14-2 overall record, the most wins in team history.
Both the offense and defense were ranked fourth in the NFL and Tuggle was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl after getting 86 tackles, three sacks, and returning a fumble for a touchdown.
In the Divisional round, the Falcons beat their division rival, San Francisco, for the second time that year, 20-18.
Atlanta Shocks the Vikings
Atlanta was in for another tough contest one week later in the NFC Championship game.
The Falcons headed north for a showdown against the Minnesota Vikings and rookie receiver Randy Moss.
Minnesota was the easy favorite, especially since the team went 15-1 and set an NFL record for the most points scored during a regular season.
“I remember going into Minnesota (for the NFC Championship game) and they had rookie receiver Randy Moss and were supposed to kill us,” recalled Tuggle in 2015.
Instead of a blowout, the two sides were evenly matched and Tuggle set a Falcons playoff game record by netting 11 tackles
At one point late in the contest, the Vikings could have gone up by ten points and essentially run out the clock.
Kicker Gary Anderson trotted out to attempt a 39-yard field goal, and at that point, it had been a long time since Anderson missed a kick, especially from that close.
In addition to going 35-35 on FG during the 1998 regular season, Gary Anderson had made 13 straight postseason FG between 30-39 yds.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2020
Then, disaster struck for the Vikings.
The Falcons radio broadcast delivered the news to its listeners.
“Here’s the snap, the kick is up, and it is … no good! No good! Gary Anderson has missed a field goal for the first time in two years!”
With the miss, Atlanta had new life.
“…after Gary Anderson missed what was his first field goal of the season, I knew we were going to win that game,” Tuggle continued.
Sure enough, Chandler found receiver Terance Mathis minutes later for the game tying touchdown.
Who really invented the Dirty Bird? That, along with other secrets from the 1998 @AtlantaFalcons #SuperBowl team. @therealtmathis #TerencesTake #NFL #Falconshttps://t.co/KiMIxYoo1t pic.twitter.com/SpPJs59Zel
— Terence Moore (@TMooreSports) October 17, 2018
In overtime, Falcons kicker Morten Andersen connected on a 38-yard field goal to upset the Vikings, 30-27.
Super Bowl XXXIII
One year after winning just seven games, the “Dirty Bird” Falcons were facing Reeves’ former team, the Denver Broncos, in Super Bowl XXXIII.
During the media sessions before the game, Tuggle was front and center as the face of the franchise, especially since he had endured so many losing seasons.
“What kept me going was trying to get here, to a Super Bowl,” Tuggle said. “I felt one day things would turn around for this organization. I didn’t know when. It’s been 33 years, this franchise has never, ever been to a Super Bowl, but now we’re here. This is something I worked for for a long time, something I wanted for a long time. This is something I helped make happen.”
Tuggle’s good friend, Chuck Smith, shared with the media what Tuggle meant to the team and how The Hammer was going to hurt the Broncos.
“If Jessie Tuggle is anywhere else the last seven years, he’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer,” said Smith. “If he’s with the Niners or Cowboys or Broncos, there’s no questions asked. No one hits like this guy. On Sunday, he’s going to hit some people and knock the hell out of somebody. I’m talking about one of those ‘Ooohhh’ hits. He can really put a guy out for the day with the way he hits.”
Although Atlanta was a feel good story, safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the day before the contest for soliciting a prostitute.
Earlier that same day, Robinson had received the NFL’s Bart Starr Award for good character.
“Let’s say this, we were behind the eight ball before the game because of it,” remarked Tuggle about the incident. “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.”
— Today In GA History (@2DayInGAHistory) January 31, 2017
The Falcons scored first on a 32-yard Andersen field goal, but by halftime, it was already 17-6 in favor of Denver and the final score was a 34-19 Broncos blowout.
Unfortunately, incredible highs can also be matched by terrible lows.
Atlanta went from 14 wins and a Super Bowl berth in 1998 to just nine combined wins in 1999 and 2000.
NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons at the 1999 Pro Bowl.
Listed left to right: S Eugene Robinson, QB Chris Chandler, LB Jessie Tuggle, RB Jamal Anderson, CB Ray Buchanan, & OT Bob Whitfield. pic.twitter.com/Sn195yTeu5
— Evan Birchfield (@EvanBirchfield) January 27, 2018
Tuggle continued putting in the work and had 92 tackles and 3.5 sacks in ‘99 before injuries shortened his 2000 season that resulted in 33 tackles.
He wanted to continue playing, but Tuggle’s body had given its all and he officially retired during the Falcons 2001 training camp.
“I gave everything I could give,” said the 36-year-old. “I worked as hard as I possibly could work. Eventually, you know you’re going to see it come to an end.”
Additionally, Tuggle had 21 sacks, six interceptions including a pick six, and 10 fumble recoveries, half of which he returned for touchdowns.
At the time of his retirement, Tuggle held the NFL record with his five fumble returns for touchdowns.
— Antwon Smith (@FatboiSlim_21) February 11, 2023
He also had the most tackles in the NFL between 1990 and 1999 with 1,293.
Tuggle was a five-time Pro Bowler, an All-Pro once, and led the NFL in tackles four times.
He has since been added to the Falcons’ Ring of Honor.
Life After Football
After retiring from the game, Tuggle has been mostly busy as a husband and father.
Tuggle and his wife, Dujuan, have three children, Justin, Grady, and Jessica.
Both sons followed in their father’s footsteps and played football in college and the pros.
Justin was most recently with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts in 2021 and Grady (who’s last name is Jarrett) was drafted by Atlanta in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
— Red Stallions (@AtlantaFalcons) May 3, 2023
In 2022, the Falcons extended Jarrett with a three year deal worth $67 million.
“Of all the players I have been around, I never thought it would be my boys getting the chance to play,” said Tuggle. “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.”