GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The thought of retirement entered Jessie Tuggle's mind, but only briefly. He couldn't go out like that - a broken-down player being helped off the field after his final play.
No, the Hammer had a few more hits in that ol' body.
"I still love the game," said Tuggle, who returned for his 15th season as the Atlanta Falcons' middle linebacker. "It's a challenge, literally, to see if I can stay healthy and compete with these younger guys."
He turned 36 a few months ago - downright ancient at such a high-impact position. He's coming off the first serious injury of his career, a torn ligament in his left knee. He couldn't play the final eight games a year ago - more games than he missed through the previous 13 seasons.
Naturally, there were plenty of people who wondered if Tuggle was washed up.
"When the knee injury first happened, I thought about retiring for maybe five or 10 minutes," Tuggle said. "Will I be able to come back? Do I even want to?"
He quickly answered his own question. Workouts resumed in January. He showed up at training camp last week with a chiseled frame, believing hard work and conditioning will overcome the ravaging effects of age. He even braided his hair, perhaps hoping a more youthful style would carry over to the field.
Coach Dan Reeves planned for Tuggle to practice only once a day, just to make sure his knee was in good shape. But the linebacker couldn't stay away, taking part in the first pair of two-a-day workouts.
"I looked up and Jessie was there," Reeves said. "That's usually the way it is."
The coach looks forward to having Tuggle back on the field, even if it's only in run situations. He no longer has the speed to play on passing downs.
"Jessie has always been a playmaker," Reeves said. "You can count on him making stops that get you off the field."
Tuggle has been making plays since he arrived at the Falcons camp in 1987 as an undersized, undrafted player from Valdosta State, a Division II school in south Georgia. He was a full-time starter by his third season, beginning a decade of brilliance for mostly woebegone teams.
From 1989-98, Tuggle played in five Pro Bowls and put together eight straight seasons with at least 180 tackles - twice eclipsing 200. Remarkably, he missed only one game during that span, and that because of viral meningitis and not an injury.
Tuggle would likely be considered a sure Hall of Famer if he played somewhere like New York or Green Bay.
"If we only could have won a few more games," he said. "I look at my stats compared with Mike Singletary (who's already in the Hall) and I'm equal or better in most categories."
Tuggle is the leading active tackler in the NFL (1,830) and holds the career record by turning five fumble recoveries into touchdowns. He even got a taste of the good life three years ago, helping the Falcons reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
But the team returned to form over the last two years (a combined 9-23) and Tuggle's play dropped off. Even before last year's injury, he was clearly slowing down - missing tackles, failing to plug holes, having trouble breaking away from blockers.
"I was off to the slowest start of my whole career," he conceded. "A lot of that was mental. I began to question myself, my ability to play, because of my age. I talked myself out of making plays."
This year, he knows right up front that he won't be playing on third down or in obvious passing situations.
"I'm a two-down linebacker now," Tuggle said. "I don't even think about third down anymore. I'm going to play hard, play free, go make plays."
In other words, he plans to be the Hammer again.
"I still feel I can one of the best middle backers in this game," Tuggle said. "But as far as covering guys like Marshall Faulk one-on-one, I can't do that anymore. I've got to be realistic. I'm 36. In those situations, put a 24-year-old out there."
While Tuggle's speed has slipped, he believes his quickness is still there. He's stronger that any linebacker on the team, and his body fat is among the leanest.
"He's got more heart than anybody I've ever been around, and he has a lot to prove to people," said fellow linebacker Keith Brooking, coming back from an injury marred season himself. "He's not going to go down without a fight. I know what people are saying about him. Well, I'm on his side. I know he's going to do it."
Tuggle has two more years left on his contract, but he's definitely in a one-season-at-a-time mode. As the games wind down in December, he'll begin to assess his level of play and decide if it's worthwhile to try for a 16th year.
"I want to let it loose," Tuggle said, his voice rising with excitement. "I want to go out with a bang."
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