SUWANEE, Ga. -- As Jessie Tuggle prepared to leave the Atlanta Falcons training center Friday afternoon, he took a moment to look around his locker.
As he hoisted a bag over his shoulder, he couldn't help but make an observation that's certain to be one of the biggest issues facing the team this off-season:
"Is this my last practice in pads as an Atlanta Falcon?"
For 13 years, most of them non-glorious, Tuggle has played middle linebacker for the Falcons. His professionalism and dignity off the field have been matched by intensity and passion on the field for as long as most Atlanta fans can remember.
And now, at 34, Tuggle wonders what's next.
Monday night's game against San Francisco will be the last game under his current contract. The Falcons, so far, haven't shown any interest in negotiating with Tuggle although both sides seem to agree on the same things: Atlanta needs to strengthen its future with young players while maintaining the kind of stability only experience can bring.
It's a difficult balance -- one that Tuggle both understands and respects.
"I have to be realistic about it. Their biggest concern, obviously, is my age," Tuggle said. "Will I be healthy at 35? Would I be as productive? And when you have young guys sitting in the wings, is it time for those guys to step up? What are they going to do in the future? Do they needed to get those (younger) players some experience so they'll be ready for the future?
"From that point of view, I understand it's a business. From that point of view, it doesn't bother me because I know it's nothing personal. I don't take it personally. I know it's a business decision they have to make. I guess we're waiting to see what happens. The challenge is to prove I'm not too old to play. I'm not dead yet. I'm having fun. I'm not ready to quit."
Even in high school, the 5-foot-10, 230-pound linebacker was considered too small. He carried that stigma through a career at Valdosta State and it's followed him through 13 National Football League seasons. Now there's a new challenge -- to fool Father Time for another two years.
"I never thought I'd be in this position," Tuggle said. "I mean, 13 years, five Pro Bowls, a trip to the Super Bowl -- I would have never thought that was possible when I was at Griffin. I was always too small, even back in high school. I've spent my entire career proving people wrong.
"When we did the deal three years ago, I thought to myself that would be it. I find myself at 34 -- I'll be 35 in April -- and I still have the chance to play pro football. I've truely been blessed. I've been blessed in so many ways: injury-wise, health-wise and, most importantly, mentally-wise. I still love the game. That competitive fire still burns.
"I think that makes the difference. You tell me I can't do something and I'll work twice as hard to prove you wrong. Even when I played on teams that wasn't too successful, I always gave it my best. It's something that makes me want to push a little harder, push a little more."
Tuggle missed two games earlier this year with a strained thigh. The injury is likely to keep Tuggle from his 12th consecutive 100-tackle season. Nonetheless, he's still second on the team in tackles with 82 and is a first alternate to the Pro Bowl.
"Jessie has had an outstanding year," coach Dan Reeves said. "He ended up missing some games there with an injury. He probably came back from it quicker than most guys his age because he takes care of himself. He is able to heal fairly quickly.
"(Playing hard and being aggressive) is something you can count on Jessie doing. I don't think there's any question that Jessie can continue to play fr a couple more years if that is what he wants to do. He gives us the indication that he does want to continue to play because he takes such good care of himself. I think he can play for several more years."
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