MANHATTAN, Kan. — The Hammer’s ride of choice happened to be a Lamborghini Diablo, because this is how Hammers roll. Jessie “The Hammer” Tuggle was a bad man at his apex, one of the baddest dudes in the NFL, a heat-seeking missile in cleats, a five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons. The Hammer has always been a car freak, and the Diablo was the sexiest beast in the stable, a supermodel with four wheels and 48 valves. She could hit 100 miles per hour in about four seconds. Fewer than 3,000 were made.
Occasionally, for a chuckle, The Hammer would pick his children up from school in the Diablo. The other kids flocked to that puppy like it was an ice cream van; Jessie figured his son Justin would get a kick out of it.
That is, until he saw the look on Justin’s face.
“Dad, please,” the younger Tuggle said. “When you come pick me up at school, please do not drive the Lamborghini.
“Please don’t. I already get enough attention at school. Do not drive the Lamborghini.”
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding?'” The Hammer says now, laughing as he recalls the conversation. “This time, I was at the prime of my career. And he didn’t want to just be thought of as ‘Jessie Tuggle’s son.'”
Justin Tuggle prefers to go his own way. Given a choice, he’d rather forge his own path, plot his own course, open his own doors. He could’ve stayed in SEC or ACC territory and played safety, but he wanted to be a quarterback. He could’ve stayed closer to home, but he wanted to see the country, spread his wings.
“My whole life, people always wanted to put me in the shadow of my dad,” recalls Justin, now a fifth-year linebacker with No. 6 Kansas State. “He’s always trying to push me out of the shadow, telling me, ‘Do what you want to do. If this is what you want to do, then go ahead and do it.'”
Being the son of a sports icon sounds like a blast, until it’s your face inside the fishbowl. It’s a tricky balance, sometimes. On one hand, you’re born into privilege and celebrity and wealth, and proud as heck for the old man. On the other, there are the endless comparisons, the lumping, the constant narratives about legacy. Justin’s dad was one of the hit machines of his generation; his mother’s uncle is former NFL Hall of Fame lineman Rayfield Wright. You’re typecast before you get a chance to hit life’s center stage. Paul McCartney’s kid? Oh, you must be a virtuoso. Michael Jordan’s kid? Wow, can we see you dunk?
“He said, ‘Dad, I want to get out of the south,'” Jessie says. “So he went to Boston College. I guess he wanted to do his own thing. He said, ‘Everybody knows me here.’
“When I went to BC to see my son, he’s up eating in one of the cafeterias with some of the kids, and they didn’t follow the Falcons much. They’re like, ‘Is that your dad? He’s kind of ripped.’ And he says, ‘That’s my dad, he played in the NFL for a few years.’ ‘How many?’ ‘Like, 14. I don’t want to make a big deal out of it.’ It’s so funny that he’s always been that way.”
What’s even funnier is that the two are closer now than they’ve ever been, from Atlanta to Chestnut Hill to Blinn College to K-State, through coaching upheavals and the transition from quarterback to linebacker. Father and son talk on the phone at least once a day, and the texting back and forth runs fast and furious. It’s been that way since last December, when Justin walked into coach Bill Snyder’s office, and — realizing that playing primarily on special teams in 2011 wasn’t as much fun as he’d thought and that Collin Klein wasn’t going anywhere — asked if he could make the switch to defense, with an eye toward seeing the field in 2012.
When Justin played quarterback or tailback, Jessie made a point to offer help where he could. When his son told him he was moving to the family position, The Hammer was — well, The Hammer was ecstatic.
“After hanging up the phone the first time he called to tell me, I looked at the mirror,” Jessie says. “And I had a little grin on my face. My son playing linebacker. That was pretty cool.”
So every night, they break it down. Formations. Scenarios. Techniques. Linemen. Quarterbacks. Tricks of the trade.
“We watch film when I’m at home,” notes Justin, who goes into this weekend’s visit Iowa State tied for second on the team in sacks (2.0) and fifth in tackles for loss (3.5). “If I’m not at home, we talk on the phone about it. We go over the situation. My dad has a good memory, a really good memory, so he can see a play that maybe happened two weeks ago, and he’ll just come out with it out of the blue, just like that, and tell me about it. When he can see a play, he can really remember it, so that’s one thing I can really lean on.”
At 6-foot-3 and 233 pounds, the rest of the package is God-given, more or less. In three games at quarterback for Boston College in 2009, Justin passed for 229 yards and four touchdowns. At Blinn in 2010, he passed for 2,015 yards and accounted for 29 scores. The younger Tuggle knows exactly what’s going through the minds of the guys across the line. And what he’s lacked in experience, he’s made up for in pure instinct.
Justin: “Always run to the ball. The play is never dead.”
Jessie: “Attack the linemen before they attack you.”
Justin: “The guys who stop running to the ball, those are the ones that get into trouble. If you run to the ball, you never know what can happen. You may make a tackle that saves a touchdown, you may scoop up a fumble, you may get the interception.”
Jessie: “If you’re thinking about it, it’ll slow you down.”
Justin: “Never take a play off. Always run to the ball.”
Two generations. Two linebackers. One voice.
“It is natural,” K-State linebacker Jarell Childs offers. “(Justin) could be on the basketball team if he wanted to. He’s a great all-around athlete. Obviously, his dad was a great linebacker, and I’m guessing he learned a lot from him, because he’s stepping out on the practice field and on the game field and showing it.”
It’s a crash course, learning on the fly. Jessie travels to every game, home and away, taking mental notes, playing the game in his head in the stands while his son plays it out between the white lines. As this is Justin’s last year of eligibility, he’s trying to enjoy every snap.
“Every time he sees something new, he learns from it,” Jessie says. “He’s not going to make the same mistake.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How do you look at him at the next level — do you think he’ll have an opportunity?’ He’s going to have an opportunity, that’s for sure. As far as (projecting) what draft pick, I can’t really say. It depends on how the season goes. If he was at Georgia or Alabama, where they’re 10-deep, he might not have had that opportunity to be where he’s at right now.”
The kid power-cleans more than 365 pounds — “The most I did was probably 345, at the most,” Jessie says, laughing again — while running a 40 in the 4.65-4.7 range. Of all the flashy sets of wheels in The Hammer’s life, those are still the ones that make him the most proud.