As the Falcons prepared to kick off their 2015 season on Monday Night Football against the Eagles, rookie defensive tackle Grady Jarrett's dad was at the Xfinity store in Midtown discussing the new Comcast XFINITY Sports App on XI.
Jarrett's dad, of course, is legendary Falcons middle linebacker Jessie Tuggle. Tuggle, a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro, took the time to speak to us about how the game has changed since his playing days, what it's like to be the parent of NFL players, and his fondest memories from his career with the Falcons.
Over the course of Tuggle's twelve seasons in Atlanta, he amassed 1,640 tackles, 21 sacks, six interceptions, 10 forced fumbles, and six defensive touchdowns. His hard-hitting style of play earned him the nickname "The Hammer." Tuggle said that he never gave much thought to the physical nature of the game when he was playing, but watching his sons -- Jarrett, of course, and Justin Tuggle, who plays for the Texans -- play has changed his perspective a little.
"I think the biggest thing with me is that you want them to be successful. You want them to go out there and play hard," Tuggle said. "When I played, I never even thought about the injury factor of the game — the physical part of it, and with them, I think I have a tendency, when I see them have a hard hit or something, I just look a little extra second longer and see them get up, you know what I mean? And that, I think, that's the hardest part of being a parent of the game."
It doesn't necessarily worry Tuggle to watch his sons taking hard hits on the gridiron. He trusts their preparation.
"Physically, they're prepared to play," Tuggle said. "They're ready to go, and I know that they know the game, but at the same time, as a parent, when it's your kid lying on the field, you just want to see them get up."
That's only natural, but it certainly doesn't hinder Tuggle's ability to enjoy watching his sons play. He relishes it.
More than anything, Tuggle is simply proud of all his sons have accomplished so far and looking forward to what they'll do with their opportunities.
"You've been watching them ever since they were babies, and now they're playing in the NFL," Tuggle said. "It can't get higher than that, as far as their profession is concerned, and it's really cool. So I'm excited for both of them."
Grady Jarrett was projected as second-round talent by a number of draft analysts, and Jarrett fell to the Falcons in the fifth round. Jarrett was labeled as a player who "lacks ideal size" for the defensive tackle position at the professional level. His dad was also told he was too small to play middle linebacker in the NFL when he went undrafted out of Valdosta State in 1987.
Tuggle was looking forward to watching Jarrett's regular season NFL debut when I spoke with him, and he was very impressed by Jarrett's preseason performance.
"I think that last game he really showed people why they drafted him," Tuggle said. "He had a couple of tackles for loss, he had a sack. He was very energetic. I thought he really was playing to show, hey, I can play at this level, and I'm excited for him."
Tuggle couldn't be prouder of the men his sons are off the field as well as the hard work and commitment they give to their efforts on the field.
Tuggle said that he gives Dabo Swinney a lot of credit for his work with Jarrett at Clemson, where Jarrett was a three-year starter, for helping to foster Jarrett's strong work ethic and team-first attitude.
"[Swinney] had nothing but positive things to say about my son, and that means so much to me when someone else says something so positive and so encouraging about a kid who works hard in the weight room, on the gridiron," Tuggle said.
Genetics certainly play a role in Grady Jarrett's talent and commitment to the game.
"He's going to give you everything he has on game day, and that's the way I played," Tuggle said. "And so I guess the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree."
Tuggle actually started playing football later than most, donning pads and a uniform for the first time at age 16.
It's unusual, to say the least, for someone to pick up football at that point of their high school career and go on to earn a scholarship for their play, much less become a starter at the professional level. Tuggle credits hard work and the passion he quickly developed for the game with helping him exceed all expectations.
"I guess it took me a while to learn the sport, but when I learned how to do it and I had a love and a passion for it, and then you want to be the best at whatever you're doing," Tuggle said. "So I figured if I could work in the weight room and get as strong as I possibly could get — I was naturally a strong athlete — and then I wanted to take that to the gridiron, to the playing field, and then ... I had a tendency to show people that I was stronger, faster, bigger than my size."
Looking back at Tuggle's career and accomplishments, it's almost impossible to believe he went undrafted. His size was a major factor.
Rather than being discouraged, Tuggle let the naysayers motivate him to excel.
"I wasn't very tall — 5'11" — and people kept saying, "You can't play in the NFL and be a middle linebacker," so I always played with a chip on my shoulder, and I think that's what motivated me a little bit to go out there and to show people I could play at a high level, although I started late," Tuggle said.
Tuggle's love for the game helped, also.
"When the passion hit me, I loved the game. And when it hit me, that was the only thing I could focus on all the time," Tuggle said. "I thought about football, I trained about football, and I just kept doing it over and over and over again until I really got good at it, and then from that point on, I just wanted to take advantage of every opportunity I had, almost like seizing the moment. You want to seize the moment, because you don't know if you're going to get the opportunity again, and that's how I became — really, that's how I became a starter in the NFL."
Tuggle tries to impart what he learned through that experience to his sons as they both pursue their NFL opportunities.
"They never predicted me as a starter. Someone got injured, I get an opportunity, you play well — oh, okay, he might can play, and it just keep happening for me like that," Tuggle said. "And that's the same thing I talk to Justin and Grady about, because the NFL's about opportunities. Everybody there can play, and when your opportunity comes, whether it's through injury or through a guy retiring or if you get drafted so high — when your opportunity comes, you've got to seize the moment. And that's why the league is so great, because no one gives you nothing. You've got to go out there and earn it."
In the '80s and '90s, when Tuggle was playing, offenses were built around power runners. Tuggle said he had to stop running backs who were bigger and faster than he was.
The emphasis now is on the passing game, and Tuggle said that is one of the primary ways the league has evolved.
"I think now it's more of a finesse league and more of a passing league. If you watch every game now, they're going to pass the ball more than 40 times, it seems like," Tuggle said. "It's just they're going to throw the ball around a lot. So I think the league has changed in that perception of it ... When I played in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, it was stop the run. Stop the run. Stop the run. And I think that's the biggest difference."
Another big change in the league since Tuggle's pro career ended is the rules governing contact during practices. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement severely limits the number of padded practices and establishes strict rules for contact during practices.
You'll occasionally hear a fan or a former player refer to the changes in rules about contact during practice in a derogatory way, insinuating that these changes make the league and players "soft." Tuggle, on the other hand, sees this transition as a smart move.
"Everyone says that [my] generation was more physical," Tuggle said. "Everybody probably thinks that the game is still tough now, but it was a hard-nosed, four weeks of training camp, hitting twice a day — it was brutal to the point where now, with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, you only hit a certain number of days. And to be honest with you, almost every practice was a padded practice — even during the season, except on Fridays. On Wednesday and Thursday, full pads every day of the week, and I think that's the biggest difference right there. They learned, and I think the league and the teams get smarter."
Tuggle said that the limits on contact and padded practices allow players to be fresh and ready on game days.
"Save the body. Save the body until game day so you can be at 100%," Tuggle said. "I've played games and left my best days on the practice field, because I'm all beat up. You'd be so beat up from Wednesday and Thursday, then your body doesn't have time to recover for Sunday. So I think the league got smarter and teams got smarter."
Like many fans, Tuggle has fond memories of the 1998 season, a season that culminated in a trip to the Super Bowl for the Falcons.
Tuggle was nearing the end of his career in 1998 and had consistently played at a high level and accomplished a great deal, but every NFL player dreams of making it to a Super Bowl. The Falcons had a remarkable regular season, finishing 14-2.
"1998. Awesome, awesome year," Tuggle said. "You know, I played on teams with more talent before — we had Deion Sanders and Andre Rison and we had more talent in the skill positions, but that year, we all blended as one. We had one common goal, and we started off 2-0. We lose at San Fran, and guys seemed to just regroup after that. We went on like a nine-game win streak after that, and the confidence level kept building. I think our next loss came in New York, and [Chris] Chandler was hurt that game. We had a backup quarterback in. I got hurt at New York also — I hurt my ankle in that game. It was just one of those crazy things in New York, but then we just stayed focused, you know? We finished the season at 14-2 and went up to Minnesota."
The Falcons were most assuredly not expected to win against the Vikings in the NFC Championship game. The Vikings were an offensive juggernaut, and Randall Cunningham and rookie Randy Moss were damn near unstoppable.
Tuggle had already defied the odds by becoming a defensive force despite his size. The Falcons defied the odds in 1998 as well.
"We were not supposed to win in Minnesota. At that time, I think they were like 15-1, and we'd get in there, and it was Randy Moss' rookie year — rookie sensation, no one can stop him," Tuggle said. "They broke all the NFL passing records. And all of a sudden, we go up there, we put ourselves in a situation to win, and when that kicker, Gary Anderson, missed, and Morten Andersen, for us, made it, we knew at that point that we were going to the Super Bowl, and there was no feeling better, because any profession, you want to reach the highest you ever can reach, and to get to a Super Bowl — I was in my 12th year. I was 33 years old, and I was thinking to myself, at some point, will I ever play in the Super Bowl? Once you get — to play 12 years is a long time, but now you're starting to think, okay, I'm getting older, and will I ever play in the Super Bowl? And that year was awesome."
Obviously, 1998 would have been even more memorable if the Falcons had won the Super Bowl. Still, Tuggle cherishes the fact that he had the opportunity to play in the ultimate game at the NFL level.
Tuggle has vivid memories of standing on the sidelines prior to the game and trying to process the experience.
"[It was] the experience of a lifetime for me. The biggest thing I can remember, also — I'm in Miami, and I'm standing here and I'm thinking, having all these flashbacks. I'm a small kid, playing at a small school at Valdosta State. I grew up on a dirt road. Wasn't drafted. Everyone told me I couldn't do it, and here I am on the sidelines standing right beside Cher," Tuggle said.
Yes, Cher. It was the year that Cher's 'Believe' came out, and she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
"Cher was standing right beside me. I was standing right beside her. And I'm thinking, I cannot believe I'm in the Super Bowl, you know? Unbelievable," Tuggle said. "The jets fly by and the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and it was the most awesome feeling. Surreal. I don't know — it just — it was almost like a moment where, to me, there weren't fans there. I wasn't about to play the game. I was thinking and just remembering all the little things, like, why am I here? You know what I mean? What brought me right here in the biggest game in the world, and everybody around the world gets an opportunity to see me play?"
Tuggle's love for the game hasn't diminished since his playing days ended, and he spends his Saturdays and Sundays enjoying college and pro games with the Comcast XFINITY Sports App on XI. If you have Comcast, the app is available to you on your current system, and having seen a full demonstration, it's really useful and has a lot of interesting functionality. You can bring up real-time stats and visualized data in a sidebar as you're watching, and you can track scores from around the league. During the game, you can keep up with fantasy leaders, win probability and more without ever having to turn away from the game you're enjoying, and there are different pre-game and post-game statistics and data available, also.
Tuggle is a fan of the new Sports App.
"I really used it this weekend. It was so helpful with college football," Tuggle said. "There are so many games. Then on Sunday, with all the NFL games, it was so easy to keep up with the stats. It's just so convenient."