Tuggle: From Mr. Irrelevant to unforgettable

Profile Picture: Rowan Ward

July 7th, 2021

Tuggle looked like he had a bright horse racing future from the start.

The son of multiple Grade 1-winning turf horse Point of Entry had class in his close family. His dam, the Awesome Again mare Satisfaction, was a half-sibling to Dancing Forever, who won the Manhattan H. (G1) just like Tuggle's sire did, and his family also featured 1994 champion three-year-old filly Heavenly Prize.

As a yearling, Tuggle sold for $160,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Sale. His buyer? August Dawn Farm, the nom de course of former NFL coach Bill Parcells, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tuggle's namesake didn't have as promising a beginning to his professional sports career. John Tuggle was a solid college player at Cal, and his hard work earned him a spot as the Bears' starting fullback all four years. But for a future in the NFL, the 6'1" Tuggle was marginal.

Every year, there's a "Mr. Irrelevant" — the tongue-in-cheek name for the last person taken in the NFL Draft. In 1982, that title went to whoever was picked 335th, last in the 12th round. With that pick, the New York Giants took John Tuggle.

Though Tuggle had also been drafted by the Boston Breakers of the USFL, once the door to Tuggle's NFL dream was open, he was going to fight his way through. He worked as hard at Giants minicamp as he did to secure the starting spot at Berkeley. His effort at minicamp impressed veteran running back Rob Carpenter enough that they began to work together.

Tuggle's first chance to prove himself at game time came in a 1983 exhibition between the Giants and the Jets. He played on special teams and at fullback during the final quarter of the game. In an August 1983 episode of Good Morning America, Tuggle recounted a story from that game. He tackled a Jets linebacker right in front of the Giants' bench. After that tackle, the Giants' brand-new head coach pulled Tuggle aside and told him, "Son, you can play for my team anytime."

That coach? Parcells.

Tuggle made the Giants. He was the team's Special Teams Player of the Year in 1983, and by the end of that season, he was starting at fullback, as well. Things were looking up.

In May 1984, at minicamp, Tuggle tore some ligaments in his knee during a drill. That summer, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, an angiosarcoma. That didn't dim his worth ethic. He kept lifting weights through chemotherapy and kept training for the day he could come back to play football.

Unfortunately, Tuggle would never play a game of professional football again. After two years of fighting his cancer, Tuggle died in his sleep on Aug. 30, 1986. He made the most of his life to the end and even went water skiing with his friends earlier that month.

Tuggle's equine namesake hasn't had it easy. He was a promising two-year-old for Parcells and trainer Jeremiah Englehart, a debut winner at Belmont in June 2019, and third behind Green Light Go in the Saratoga Special (G2). At three, he only started twice — both times in six-furlong allowance-level dirt sprints at Oaklawn, both times beaten only a head. Then, he was off for 14 1/2 months.

Tuggle returned for his four-year-old debut June 27 at Belmont. In his first start as an older horse, and his first against older horses, he showed he still has a racing spirit in him. Though eventual winner Mr Phil got the jump and won the race by a length, Tuggle overcame a wide trip, rallied from mid-pack, and fought past foes for the place spot.

On the football field, John Tuggle defied the "Mr. Irrelevant" moniker. On the racetrack, off his return effort, the horse Parcells named after this unforgettable player should be plenty relevant this summer at Saratoga.