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NFL DRAFT: Thirty years later, John Tuggle is no 'Mr. Irrelevant'

by ROBERT WEINTRAUB New York Times News Service on April 22, 2013 11:00 AM

Thirty years ago, the fabled 1983 NFL draft gave the league John Elway, Dan Marino and Eric Dickerson. But the last player picked in that draft, with the 335th overall pick in the 12th round, left a mark as well.

His name was John Tuggle, a fullback out of the University of California. While he might have been 1983’s Mr. Irrelevant — the nickname traditionally given to the last player picked — he was anything but to the New York Giants, who selected him, and to their starting fullback, Rob Carpenter, who mentored him.

“I think about him every day,” Carpenter said. “I loved his enthusiasm right away.”

Tuggle, with his shaggy mustache and sunny personality, also impressed with his devotion in the weight room. He introduced the team to lifts that built explosiveness.

He also adhered to a strict diet, unusual for the era.

Carpenter knew Tuggle’s best chance to stick around in the NFL was to carve out a role on special teams, so he quietly steered Tuggle to veterans who could give him tips on how to impress in that phase of the game. The advice worked. Tuggle made the team after some excellent blocks and tackles on special teams plays during a preseason game against the New York Jets.

After that game, the Giants’ rookie head coach, Bill Parcells, called Tuggle aside and whispered in his ear, “Son, you can play for my team anytime,” according to an anecdote Tuggle relayed on “Good Morning America” in 1983, after he became the first player picked last in the draft to make the NFL.

His rookie season was successful, albeit within the context of the Giants’ three-win campaign. He was named the Giants’ special teams player of the year, played five games at fullback when Carpenter was injured and scored a touchdown in a game in Philadelphia.

 

The off-season was less positive.

Tuggle and his college sweetheart, Stephanie, got divorced, and Tuggle injured his knee working out during the May minicamp, leading to minor surgery. Shortly afterward, he noticed pain in his shoulder, along with a lump.

Tuggle did not think much of it until later that summer. He and Carpenter left the Giants’ facility at Pace University to have a few beers. A third player drove them back, and they hit a telephone pole. The players were not seriously hurt. But Tuggle’s shoulder hit the door, and he thought the pain he felt was too great to have come from the force of the crash.

“You got a problem, bud,” Carpenter recalled telling Tuggle after his teammate said he was in pain.

Tuggle got his shoulder checked out at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and Carpenter accompanied him to a meeting with his doctors. The news was not good.

Tuggle was told that he had a rare cancerous sarcoma and that the treatment would include chemotherapy. Carpenter, who had been silent to that point, whispered something to Tuggle, who then asked his doctor: “When can I put my sperm in the bank? I don’t want it affected by the chemo, and I plan on having children when this is done.”

“That positive attitude excited the doctors,” Carpenter said.

 

For a while, Tuggle got the upper hand on the disease.

“He didn’t just keep working out,” Carpenter said. “He was making strength gains. It was amazing.”

Tuggle was one of several Giants of the era to receive a cancer diagnosis, including Karl Nelson, Doug Kotar and Dan Lloyd.

“We were all aware of that and wondered what it meant,” Carpenter said, “but we were football players, trained to be tough and not be afraid.”

Tuggle went on to show his teammates new levels of toughness. He spent two more seasons with the team, inspiring others with his presence.

“We had some rough, tough, mean” players on that team, Carpenter said. “But still, there was always a reason not to give 100 percent — ‘my ankle hurts,’ ‘my wife kept me up half the night,’ whatever — but when guys came off the practice field and saw him working hard, with cancer and no hair, everyone would ask, Why can’t I give my best?”

But after the 1985 season, Tuggle’s contract was up, and he was not re-signed. Tuggle’s daily routine was gone, and his cancer worsened, spreading to his lungs and then to his brain. And for the first time, he showed signs of weakening.

“He needed football, that was his life force,” Carpenter said. “Not going to the facility every day was tough for him.”

 

In the summer of 1986, Tuggle got in touch with his college teammate and roommate Steve Cacciari.

“He called me and said he wanted to come back to California to die,” Cacciari said.

He and Tuggle drove west in Tuggle’s Chevy Blazer. As they wound their way to the Bay Area, Tuggle stared out the window for long stretches.

“It was the first time I ever saw him down,” Cacciari said.

Tuggle had at least one more upbeat moment. Shortly after returning to California, he insisted Cacciari go water-skiing with him. When Cacciari pointed out that they did not have a boat, Tuggle replied that he had just bought one.

“He said, ‘I didn’t have to make a payment for 90 days,’” Cacciari remembered, laughing.

Tuggle headed south to begin experimental treatment in San Diego and in Tijuana, Mexico.

“He turned over every rock to try and find something to help fight it,” Carpenter said.

But his cancer was too advanced. On Aug. 30, 1986, Tuggle, 25, died in his sleep from respiratory failure. Cacciari read about it in a newspaper.

“I started shaking,” he said. “He fought and fought and fought for so long. Many people would never have lasted as long as he did.”

 

The Giants wore a sticker with Tuggle’s No. 38 during the 1986 season, which ended with a Super Bowl championship.

“It helped the Giants reach their final destination,” said Carpenter, who left the team after the 1985 season, a decision he said was related to Tuggle and his struggle with cancer. “I had a hard time dealing with it. Since I felt so responsible for his making the team, I felt I had to get out of there.”

Carpenter has not spoken publicly about Tuggle for nearly three decades, a period in which he became a high school football coach in his hometown, Lancaster, Ohio, and raised his sons to play the sport (Bobby Carpenter played in the NFL for seven years, and three other sons played in college). He traces his football path to Tuggle.

“I was going to chase the dollars and all the opportunities you get from playing in New York,” he said. “His inspiration got me to change my life plans. I looked at life differently. Don’t plan too far ahead, cherish what you have and cherish your family.”

Tuggle remains a daily presence in Carpenter’s life.

“I use him as an example to my players,” he said. “No roadblocks ever got John down. And I keep a photo of him on my desk, and he’s smiling, you can see his teeth.

“That’s how he was — always smiling.”

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