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May 28, 2020

Esks’ Tuggle: ‘I’m really trying to raise the bar’

Justin Tuggle knows the highs and lows that come along with being a professional football player.

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound native of Alpharetta, Georgia is no stranger to the Canadian Football League, having played the last three seasons north of the border, however, he’s still working every day to perfect his craft at linebacker, a position he picked up later in the game.

He’s become one of the best linebackers in the entire league and he’ll be trying to earn his first All-Star honours in 2020 as one of the key cogs in the Edmonton Eskimos’ defence.

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Tuggle grew up as a quarterback, even playing under centre during his NCAA career, split between Boston College and Kansas State — he also had a stint with Blinn College, a JUCO school.

He decided to make the switch to linebacker going into the final year of his college career.

Luckily for him, football run in his bloodlines, so he didn’t have to look far to find advice on how to succeed on the defensive side of the ball.

His father, Jessie, played 14 seasons for the Atlanta Falcons as a linebacker, making five pro bowl appearances and earning a spot in the team’s ring of honour for his efforts.

On top of that, Tuggle’s brother, Grady Jarrett, was a fifth-round pick of the Falcons back in 2015. He has since developed into one of the best pass-rushers in football, earning his first pro bowl nod this past season.

Their great uncle, Rayfield Wright, was also a legendary offensive lineman with the Dallas Cowboys. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

“I talk to my dad very often, usually every day. We talk a lot about football and a lot about life and he’s the ace in my back pocket,” Tuggle said of his father. “He’s seen so much and he played at that high level for such a long time. So just to have him in my life as that resource, I just lean on him as much as I can.

“… When I made the switch, I had fun playing linebacker. It was fun from day one. My dad and I, we broke everything down and it ended up being a great move for me.”

Because of the switch, he went undrafted, signing with the Houston Texans following the 2013 Draft. He played in 42 games for the team over three seasons.

Tuggle moved to the Cleveland Browns in 2016 but was cut in September of that year. He began looking at options and decided to give the CFL a shot. He was interested in the nuances of the Canadian game and weighed which CFL team would be the best fit.

He ultimately landed with the Toronto Argonauts, where he started out as an edge rusher on the defensive line. He was able to learn quickly from the likes of Cleyon Laing and Shawn Lemon, who were both pivotal contributors. The team was able to go 9-9 during the regular season and Tuggle helped the cause in every facet, racking up 31 tackles, 13 special teams tackles, three sacks, one interception and a forced fumble while appearing in all 18 games.

Toronto go hot at the right time and made it all the way to the 105th Grey Cup presented by Shaw, where they’d take on the favoured Calgary Stampeders.

Little did either team know that the weather would play a major factor in the proceedings, as a snowstorm hit over TD Place before opening kick-off. The Argos were able to weather the storm and the Stamps to come out on top and capture their 17th Grey Cup in franchise history.

“We showed up to the stadium and it was an overcast day, but it wasn’t even really that cold,” Tuggle said. “Then we come out for warmups two hours later and there’s snow everywhere. It was just amazing to see how much had fallen and how much was still on the ground. I don’t think anyone was prepared for that.

“… The lasting memory was just the time (we had). At one point, we were below .500 and then we end up winning the Grey Cup. So I think that’s just what makes sports so amazing; You never know and you have to show up and play. Records don’t mean anything, it’s about the moment and taking advantage of it. Everything happened in those playoffs and we just kept rolling and rolling.”

Tuggle stayed in Toronto for 2018, but the team finished with a 4-14 record. He still had a career-best year, leading to interest when he hit free agency last year. He’d flip to the other side of the Ontario-based rivalry, signing to be the MIKE linebacker for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

The Ticats were dominant on the season, finishing with a 15-3 record and a perfect 9-0 at home. Their second win on the year was their most decisive, as they walked into Toronto and dismantled the Argos, winning by 50 points. That helped to get the team going early and they never looked back.

Despite a season-ending injury to quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the train kept chugging along.

Tuggle finished the year with a career-high 80 tackles to go along with a sack and an interception on a Ticats defence that was among the best in the entire league.

“I think in camp, we looked around and we knew what type of team we had,” Tuggle said. “The guys in the locker room and the coaching staff, everyone bought in and we were just ready to go from day one and we just kept that rolling. It just felt like we were going to win. We knew we were going to perform, go into that game and execute and come out with a win. We didn’t win every game but we had a great year.”

Hamilton was able to make it to the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw. But on that day, it was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who came out victorious.

The Bombers’ stifling defensive effort paired with the stout play of running back Andrew Harris was ultimately enough to snap their 29-year long championship drought.

After going through the highs of winning the Grey Cup, Tuggle had to go through the heartbreaking low of coming up just short in the biggest game of the year.

“You put in so much work and we knew the team we had and the guys we had together. And it was a team that we’d already beaten twice,” Tuggle said. “But you have to go out there and perform on the day and we just didn’t. It was just a perfect storm.

“We didn’t play like ourselves, and that’s what eats you up. I’d rather get beat at our best than not perform and get beat. That’s just how it goes and Winnipeg was the best team that day.”

Now, Tuggle will be venturing on another journey to a new CFL home, this time in Edmonton. He said that the Eskimos had shown interest in 2018 and came calling again once Tuggle was available in February.

The team has gone through changes in several different facets. Following their defeat in the Eastern Final to Tuggle and the Tabbies, Esks general manager Brock Sunderland relieved head coach Jason Maas of his duties, bringing in Scott Milanovich in his stead. Edmonton also has a new look on the defensive side as Noel Thorpe has been brought in as the new defensive coordinator.

They possess one of the best offensive units in the league, led by Trevor Harris, but the Esks did have some key losses on defence — specifically the secondary — this off-season. Tuggle was one of the organization’s key signings on that side of the ball and will be trusted to be one of the defensive leaders in 2020.

“Since I’ve come into the league, I feel like I’ve made a very high number of plays,” Tuggle said. “I really consider myself one of the best in the league, but you won’t see my name on any lists for whatever reason. So I take mental notes and I continue to perform. This year, I don’t see any difference in that. I’m really trying to raise the bar.”

Tuggle looks like the perfect man to insert into this defensive unit for the future. He lets his play do the talking and the tape continues to get more impressive with every passing season.

But with the chance that the 2020 campaign could be shortened, it leaves teams with less time to meshed heading into an almost immediate run for the playoffs and Grey Cup.

“This season will be really interesting because things will be accelerated. Before, you’d play almost half the season before you’d figure out what’s going on. I think after Labour Day, it’s a different season than before,” Tuggle said. “This year, you have to really be rolling from Week 1, because if not, you’re going to be too far behind to make a move or a push.

“It’ll definitely be different, but when you get in that environment with the same people, you’re surrounded by them every day. You spend hours and hours learning who the guys are, how they act, how they operate and how they think. That’s the fun part about it because every year is different. Every year is a learning process and guys will forever know each other, but you see the difference from year to year. But getting into camp and getting that camaraderie and bonding together, that’ll be special whenever the time comes.”