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Ex-Falcon Jessie Tuggle will watch with pride as son, Justin, returns to Atlanta
Justin Tuggle, who made the NFL as an undrafted free agent, will have plenty of family to cheer him on in Atlanta. That includes his dad, Jessie, a former Falcons great. Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports
Tania Ganguli, ESPN Staff Writer
HOUSTON -- Justin Tuggle was only 9 years old when the Atlanta Falcons lost the Super Bowl on January 31, 1999, and he cried in the car on the way home.
His dad, Jessie Tuggle, then the Falcons middle linebacker, wondered why.
"I said, 'Justin, what’s the matter with you? What’s wrong?'" Jessie remembers. "He goes, 'Dad, I’m crying for you. I’m just so sad for you because I knew how bad you wanted to win.'
"I must have had a crazy look on my face. When a 9-year-old can tell you something like that ..."
That 9-year-old grew up to chase the same dream his father did, making it to the NFL as an undrafted free agent. On Sunday, Justin, now a Texans inside linebacker, will play at the Georgia Dome, the same stadium where his father's jersey hangs.
His brother, Grady Jarrett, will be on the opposite sideline, a rookie for the Falcons. His sister will fly down from college to watch and his mom and uncle will be there, too. About 30 family members in all.
"Even now when I watch him make plays, he gets up and pumps his fists in the air. That’s reminds me of myself," said Jessie, who pumped his fists in celebration when the Falcons drafted Jarrett. "… I’m not the kind of parent that lives through my kids, because I did it already. But I’m a proud dad because I know how tough it is. I know how tough it is to play in the NFL."
Justin was a 1-year-old during Jessie's first All-Pro season. He was 5 when his dad returned an interception for a touchdown. He was 14 when the Falcons inducted his dad into their Ring of Honor.
Having a father who played in the NFL meant a father who watched his football games critically. Jessie never glossed over anything he saw Justin doing wrong.
Texans linebacker Justin Tuggle (left) is seen here with his father Jessie, a former All-Pro with the Falcons, and his sister Jessica and brother Grady Jarrett. Courtesy of Jessie Tuggle
"I remember being little, it used to frustrate me so bad," Justin said. "I’d come home from football practice, I’d go running to my mom like, 'What is going on?' He’d be so strict on me. I’m grateful for that now. I understand where he’s coming from."
They play the same position, but it didn't start out that way. Justin was a quarterback in high school, a quarterback at Boston College and at Blinn College, a junior college, after that. He went to Kansas State as a quarterback, but switched to linebacker to better his chance of getting on the field.
When he did, Jessie flew to Kansas to watch some practices. Justin was raw, but that didn't change his emotions.
"It made me proud because that’s my kid playing linebacker, and that’s what I did my whole life," Jessie said.
The Texans gave Justin a chance in 2013, just as the Falcons gave Jessie one back in 1987, as an undrafted rookie. Justin spent his rookie season learning outside linebacker and inside linebacker, still fairly new to defense.
His years of dissecting defenses as a quarterback helped him. When the Texans coaching staff changed in 2014 and Mike Vrabel became his position coach, the learning process restarted. It progressed a little more smoothly since the new staff wanted Justin to focus solely on inside linebacker.
"It’s my third year in the league, my fourth year playing defense," Justin said. "... I feel really comfortable with what I’m doing. I put a lot of time and effort into a lot of film work in the offseason. Just really just tried to catch up because everyone else has been [playing defense] for so long. But I feel good in the spot that I’m at."
The Texans rely on Tuggle on special teams, but he has a role within the defense, too.
In Week 1 of this season, Tuggle played only four defensive snaps and 23 on special teams. In Week 2, Tuggle played 31 defensive snaps, recording three tackles, one for loss and a fumble recovery. That week he also played 23 snaps on special teams again. In Week 3, he played 14 defensive snaps and 20 on special teams.
"I don’t know how many plays I’m going to play when I get out there, so I just try to make as many plays as I can," Justin said. "Try to make them as fast as I can when I get on the field."
And afterward Justin will always call Jessie, eager to hear his father's thoughts and learn from his experiences. Jessie will always tell his son exactly what he thought -- the good and the bad.
To a stranger, though, Jessie just gushes about his son's memory, his football IQ, his instincts and how much better he still can get, given how new the position is to him.
To a stranger, he's just a proud father watching his son follow his own career path.
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