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LONG WAIT OVER
TUGGLE PAID HIS DUES FOR FIRST SUPER TRIP

These are the good times for Jessie Tuggle.

Reporters and photographers jam four deep in front of his podium, hanging on his every word. Teammates and coaches say that, as happy as they are for them to be participating in the biggest of sporting spectacles, they're even happier for him. VIP treatment for him is everywhere as he and the rest of the team go throughout South Florida.

Forgive Tuggle for having the urge to pinch himself this week.

After experiencing so many bad times during his 12 seasons as a linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, it is occasionally hard for him to believe that he is actually preparing to play in the Super Bowl.

In their 33-year history, this is the first time the Falcons have played for the NFL championship, just as their stunning upset win over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17 was the first time they had played for the NFC title. The Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons.

And no player on their roster knows about the franchise's losing reputation more than Tuggle -- about the 3-13 finishes, about the "crowd" of 5,000 that was scattered around Fulton County Stadium on Christmas Eve 1989 to watch the Falcons take on another bottom-feeder at the time, Detroit. If that weren't enough to make him the consummate Falcon, he grew up in Georgia and was a fan of one of the NFL's foremost group of bumblers.

"It's been such a long time coming for me," he said of facing the Denver Broncos Sunday in Super Bowl XXXIII in Pro Player Stadium. "The road that I had to travel to get here was a rough road . . . and there was a steep incline. But yet I've overcome the obstacles and I've made it here.

"When I look around at some of my teammates and hear them always mention my name, it does make me feel great. It makes me feel old, too. But I feel that all the work and all the blood and all the tears were worth it."

Tuggle is 33, which, by NFL standards, makes him a senior citizen. He stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 230 pounds, which, by league linebacking standards, makes him small.

Add that to the fact he signed with the Falcons in 1987 as a long-shot rookie free agent from Division II Valdosta State in south Georgia, and the fact nine of his first 11 seasons in the league were spent on losing teams, and it is easy to understand why Tuggle is trying to savor every moment of this experience.

"It's an uphill fight from Day One, and just by hanging in there and going out there and being focused, staying positive and doing everything you possibly can do to make this team better, I can appreciate this now," Tuggle said. "It's just about hanging in there."

In his first three seasons, the Falcons won only 11 games and had two head coaches in the third, Marion Campbell and Jim Hanifan. There was a glimmer of hope in 1991, when Jerry Glanville guided them to a 10-6 record and a wild-card playoff game, which they lost. But that was followed by three more losing seasons, two under Glanville and one under June Jones.

In 1995, the Falcons made the playoffs again as a wild card. Although they were promptly eliminated from the postseason once again, Tuggle saw reason for optimism. He thought with Jones' creative offensive mind and the talented passing arm of quarterback Jeff George -- whom the Falcons had acquired a year earlier from Indianapolis -- bigger and better things were to come.

Instead, it was back to the same old thing as the Falcons fell to 3-13 in '96 and there was a major falling out between Jones and George.

"That was the lowest moment for me," Tuggle said. "That was the disaster year. Things were really falling apart inside and out."

It was so bad, Tuggle even contemplated retiring.

"I was sort of beat up a little bit that year, and I felt, 'OK, this is my last year,' " he recalled. "But I really didn't want to go out like that because I knew that I had a couple of more years left in me and that I hadn't had a chance to show a lot of people what I could do."

Tuggle decided to stick around after it was announced that Dan Reeves would replace Jones for the 1997 season.

"I knew then we had a proven coach," he said. "I thought we had a legit chance at that point to compete for the NFC championship."

After a 7-9 finish in '97, the Falcons made a remarkable turnaround and proceeded to go 14-2 in '98, winning the NFC West and then the conference title.

Tuggle has played a major role in their newfound success. He hits opposing ball-carriers with enough force to earn the nickname "The Hammer." A teammate once was quoted as saying, "The Hammer hits 'em so hard, their mammas can feel it."

Despite the Falcons' 6-10 record in 1992, Tuggle was voted to his first Pro Bowl. He was selected for the fifth time last December, and draws favorable comparisons to other smallish linebackers such as Mike Singletary and Sam Mills.

Tuggle is the NFL's leading active tackler with 1,903 stops. His 114 tackles in 1998 marked his 11th consecutive season with 100 or more.

Beyond the numbers, however, is a player who commands respect for his approach to the game and the quiet leadership he provides. Tuggle practices as if he were still that rookie free agent desperately trying to make the squad. You won't hear him join cornerback Ray Buchanan in boldly guaranteeing a Falcon upset or engage in any other of the trash talk that has gone on between a couple of Atlanta's players and Denver's Shannon Sharpe.

"The guy's incredible," Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks said. "Every day, you know what you're going to get. He gives you great effort every play in practice. He gives you great effort every game. His consistency is unbelievable."

As far as Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith is concerned, the Super Bowl is allowing the rest of the world to see the Jessie Tuggle it has been his pleasure to call a teammate for the past seven seasons.

"I'm glad that we finally have a forum like this," Smith said. "Jessie won't say it, but if Jessie Tuggle is anywhere else the last seven years, he's a guaranteed Hall-of-Famer. There hasn't been a linebacker that has played better than Jessie Tuggle since I've been in the league."

Of course, Tuggle didn't have to remain in the shadows of the Falcons' ineptitude. Free agency makes it possible for veteran players to go from worst to first as fast as they can sign their names on a contract.

"In this age of free agency, everybody had opportunities to jump teams and try to become winners instantly," Tuggle said. "But not for me. I wanted to be a part of the solution. I was a part of the problem and I wanted to be a part of the solution.

"And it makes it that much sweeter for me to be here."

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