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NFL: Tuggle tastes good life at last

THE AWARD for the happiest man in Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII must go to Jessie Tuggle. For 12 years, the Atlanta Falcons linebacker has been one of the NFL's best kept secrets, spending his entire career with a team that gained so little respect they were hardly noticed even in Atlanta - until this season.

On Sunday, the five-time Pro-Bowl selection finally manages to showcase his talents before a worldwide audience on the game's greatest stage when his Falcons side take on the defending champions, the Denver Broncos.

"This has been such a long time coming for me," he said. "A lot of people say you play for the money but it's not true." Tuggle, the NFL's leading tackler among active players with 1,682, added: "You play for pride, you play for respect and you play to get to the Super Bowl. Everybody wants to make it to the show.

"You got to talk to the young guys because they think: `OK, man, I'm a rookie, hey, it's easy to get to the Super Bowl. This is going to happen four or five times in my career.' Let me tell you, this don't come around very often." Tuggles knows the truth of that statement - it took the Falcons 33 years to get to the title game for the first time.

"There have been many times when I thought it would never happen. We had so many guys who played for this franchise longer than me, who played 17, 18 years, and they never did make it. It don't come easy," said Tuggle, who has racked up more than 100 tackles for 11 consecutive seasons.

The durable linebacker, who has missed just one game in his entire career, is many things, but a quitter is not one of them. In this era of team- hopping free agency, Tuggle simply refused to give up on the lowly Falcons. "I didn't want to take the easy way out," said the Georgia native, who joined the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 1987. "To say `let me jump teams so I can be a winner' was never part of my mentality. I wanted to be a part of the solution for the Atlanta Falcons."

Of all the bad times, and there were many, Tuggle cites the 1996 season as rock bottom. Coming off a year in which the Falcons had made the play- offs, Tuggle had reason to believe the club were going in the right direction, only to watch them self-destruct with a dismal 3-13 campaign. Then, though, a new coach with a history of success came to the rescue.

"When they finally got Dan Reeves I knew things would really turn around for us. I just didn't imagine that it would happen this fast," Tuggle said. "This year we made believers out of everybody. This was a magical, special year."

Still, when Tuggle takes a step back to survey all the pre-Super Bowl media circus he cannot quite believe it is actually happening to him. "It all felt like a dream at first when we went to Minnesota and beat the Vikings," Tuggle said of Atlanta's overtime victory in the heart-stopping NFC title game. "You're lying on the floor there and your team-mates are jumping on you and crying, pulling on your jersey and saying: `Can you believe it? We're going to Miami.' All of a sudden, you feel like you're in a dream world.

"All those guys who were there for many years that are retired now, this is for them."