Most football fans these days are familiar with the term "Mr. Irrelevant." It is the title given to the last player selected in the last round of the NFL draft. And the name says it all: this guy is not supposed to make the team and is, frankly, considered to be a bit of a joke. In 1983, "Mr. Irrelevant" was a running back from the University of California named John Tuggle. He was the 28th player selected in the 12th round of the NFL draft. But John Tuggle was already known as a player who might not have the greatest athletic gifts, but who did have the biggest heart and the strongest drive to succeed. In 1983 he became the first "Mr. Irrelevant" in NFL history to make the roster of the team who drafted him, the New York Giants. And by the end of his rookie season, he had become the Giants' starting running back. Just how amazing John Tuggle's story might have become will never be known. Shortly after his rookie NFL season ended, Tuggle was diagnosed with cancer. Although he faced his illness with the same fighting spirit he brought to playing football, John Tuggle died two years later. As this year's NFL draft nears, let us remember the life and career of Cal's four-year starting running back, the hero of two Big Game upsets, and the "Mr. Irrelevant" who overcame the odds to become an NFL starter.
John Tuggle was a hero of the Bears' Big Game upsets in 1980 and 1982.
John Davis Tuggle was born in Honolulu on January 13, 1961. When he was a child, his family moved to San Jose, where he became the star of the police athletic league team that won the state championship. His mother, Anita Faye, later said, "He was a defensive linebacker, a quarterback, and did the punting. Once he had one of his own passes knocked back into his arms by a defensive linebacker, and he ran his own pass for a touchdown. People used to say he did everything but pass out the Gatorade." Tuggle was a stand-out athlete at Independence High School in San Jose, where he was voted the MVP in every sport he played -- including track, where he set the school's pole vault record.
Tuggle entered the University of California in 1979, where he began playing as a true freshman. By the Bears' fourth game of the season, against Michigan, Tuggle had earned the job of starting fullback. In that first start, Tuggle only rushed once, for 9 yards, but he also caught a 17-yard pass for his first collegiate touchdown. Cal's head coach, Roger Theder, later said of Tuggle, "He was one of those overachievers, so physical and so mature that he was a starter from the beginning. You actually had to tell John to slow down the tempo on the no-pads drill. He wasn't a great talent, but he made up for that with desire."
The 1979 Bears had a modestly successful 6-5 regular season, including a win over Stanford. This was followed by an appearance in the Garden State Bowl -- the Bears' only bowl game appearance between the 1959 Rose Bowl and the 1990 Copper Bowl. Unfortunately the Garden State Bowl ended with a disappointing 28-17 loss to Temple, leaving the Bears 6-6 on the season.
John Tuggle remained the Bears' starting fullback going into the 1980 season. Hopes were high after the 1979 bowl appearance, but the season turned out to be grim, due in part to a season-ending injury to Cal's senior quarterback Rich Campbell. Cal's record was only 2-8 going into the Big Game, where they would face Stanford's sophomore star John Elway, for the first time. As it turned out, it was Cal's sophomore, John Tuggle, along with walk-on quarterback J Torchio, who were the stars of that game. Tuggle ran for 110 yards on 27 carries, and caught two passes for 37 yards, accounting for almost half of the Bears' 310 yards of total offense. He also scored two touchdowns on runs of 2-yards and 15-yards, as the 15-point underdog Golden Bears upset Stanford and kept the Cardinal out of the Peach Bowl. On the season, Tuggle led the Bears in rushing, with 603 yards, and was second in pass receptions, with 36, for a total of 332 yards (an average of 9.2 yards per catch). (For more on the Bears' 1980 upset of Stanford, click here.)
John Tuggle, #31, racking up some of his 110 rushing yards in the 1980 Big Game
1981 proved to be another dismal year for the Bears, who finished the season 2-9, without even the comfort of a Big Game win. But John Tuggle remained the team's leader, both on the field and off. Once again, he led the Bears in rushing (524 yards), including a 78-yard touchdown run against Arizona State, the longest of his career. And he was third in pass receptions (20, with an average of 9.5 yards per catch). Perhaps more significantly for a team that had such a difficult season (ending with the firing of head coach Roger Theder), Tuggle helped keep the players together emotionally. His teammates voted him the 1981 Ken Cotton Award, given annually to the team's most inspirational player.
Tuggle and the rest of the Bear veterans were rewarded by the 1982 season -- by far the best season of Tuggle's four-year Cal career. Under new head coach Joe Kapp, the Bears had their best year since 1977, finishing 7-4. Tuggle led the Bears in rushing for the third straight year (538 yards). And he finished his Cal career with 1,909 yards rushing, placing him fourth on Cal's all-time rushing list at that time. He was also fifth on Cal's all-time receiving list, with 108 catches.
But, of course, the most memorable event of the 1982 season was the Big Game. Although everyone remembers that game because of The Play, it was actually a very close, exciting, and hard-fought game long before those wild last four seconds. John Tuggle had an excellent game, rushing for 97 yards on 28 carries to help keep the game close, allowing The Play to happen. A few months later, in Ron Fimrite's terrific Sports Illustrated article, "The Anatomy of a Miracle," John Tuggle described The Play as, "an Act of God."
Cal's 1982 Big Game victory ended Stanford's last chance to get to a bowl game under their senior quarterback, John Elway, and gave Elway only one Big Game victory in his four years at Stanford. Tuggle, by contrast, had played in the Garden State Bowl and had been able to lift The Axe over his head in triumph three times during his four years at Cal. And while Elway famously complained that The Play had "ruined my last game as a college player," it was a grand send-off from Berkeley for Tuggle and the other Cal seniors, who had fought through some dreadful seasons as Golden Bears.
As the NFL draft approached in the spring of 1983, it was generally assumed that John Tuggle would be picked in the middle-to-late rounds. But on the first day of the (then un-televised) NFL draft, Tuggle waited hour after hour for the call that would tell him he had been selected. The day ended without a call. The big news that day was that Stanford's John Elway had been selected as the #1 pick overall by the Baltimore Colts, even though he had loudly proclaimed that he would refuse to play in Baltimore. The call to Tuggle did not come until very, very late on the second day of the draft. Just when it looked like he would remain undrafted, Tuggle got the call from the New York Giants. He had been selected as the last pick of round 12, the #335 pick overall. John Tuggle was "Mr. Irrelevant."
Obviously there has always been a last player selected in every NFL draft dating back to its beginning in 1936. But it was in 1976 that a former NFL wide receiver, Paul Salata, came up with the idea of "Mr. Irrelevant" as a charity fundraiser. He also came up with the "Lowsman Trophy" (a pun on "Heisman Trophy"), and with a series of events in Newport Beach, California, called "Irrelevant Week."
The "Lowsman Trophy," is modeled on the Heisman Trophy, except that the player is fumbling the ball
When John Tuggle was invited to appear at the "Irrelevant Week" events in Newport Beach, he readily agreed. He was happy to attend "a little party down in Newport." He embraced the events of the week, appearing in a parade and being the subject of a roast, among other activities. In fact, Tuggle enjoyed the events with such good humor that he brought considerable attention to "Irrelevant Week," and received a great deal of favorable press coverage.
Tuggle also made an excellent impression at the Giants' minicamp. Veteran running back Rob Carpenter was so impressed that he began to act as Tuggle's mentor. Said Carpenter, "When I saw him working out at the minicamp, I just said to myself, wow, if this guy keeps this up in training camp, he'll make the team, last pick or not, and I want to help him get there." Tuggle won a place on the Giants' roster by his special teams work in pre-season games. According to Tuggle, after he made a tough tackle of a Jets' player in front of the Giants' bench, the Giants' first-year head coach, Bill Parcells, called him over and told him, "Son, you can play for my team any time." And with that, John Tuggle made the roster of the New York Giants, the first time in the 47 years of the NFL draft that the last player picked made the roster of the team that drafted him.
Although the Giants had an abysmal 1983 season (they would finish 3-12-1),Tuggle was a stand-out on special teams throughout the year. And when Rob Carpenter went down with an injury eleven games into the season, Parcells chose Tuggle to take over as the starting fullback for the last five games. Because of his rise from "Mr. Irrelevant" to starting fullback in a single season, Tuggle became a bit of a cultural phenomenon, and was invited to appear on national television talk shows. As a starter, Tuggle rushed 17 times for 49 yards and a touchdown. He also caught three passes for 50 yards, 16.7 yards per catch. On special teams that season, he returned 9 kick-offs for 156 yards. When the season ended, Tuggle's teammates selected him as the Giants' special teams player of the year.
During spring camp in 1984, Tuggle suffered a knee injury, which kept him out of action for several months. Then he began feeling a pain in his shoulder. It turned out to be a form of cancer, an angiosarcoma, which is a malignancy in cells that line vessel walls. The day he was diagnosed, Tuggle told his teammate and friend Rob Carpenter, "Well, am I gonna sit around and cry about this or am I gonna take this as day one of beating it?" There was no doubt which choice John Tuggle would make.
Tuggle remained on the Giants' roster throughout 1984. He continued his demanding workouts in the team weight room, even as he was undergoing chemotherapy. The Giants' strength and conditioning coach, Johnny Parker, said, "You could tell what a terrible thing his chemotherapy was, but John actually got stronger, and although it broke your heart to do it, he wanted to be pushed, he didn't want sympathy. In the weight room, John Tuggle was not sick. John Tuggle was a standard." Although he had not been healthy enough to play in 1984, at the end of the season, Tuggle's teammates voted him the team's Most Inspirational Player.
The Giants advised Tuggle not to report to training camp in 1985, as that way they would not have to cut him from the team and he could continue to collect his salary until his contract expired in February 1986. And after his contract expired, the Giants continued to pay for Tuggle's medical insurance. In gratitude for the Giants' generous treatment of him, Tuggle asked one of his friends to send the Giants' owner and general manager a bottle of champagne, "if something happens to me." During 1985, he underwent multiple surgeries, as the cancer spread to his lungs, but to no avail. But he remained convinced he would beat the cancer and he became engaged to his girlfriend, Kathy Cram.
In August 1986, Tuggle asked a couple of friends, including Steve Cacciari, who had been his teammate and roommate for four years at Cal, to go water-skiing with him, before he headed to a clinic in Mexico for experimental treatments. Although his friends thought he was just going to try out his new powerboat, Tuggle had other ideas. "We didn't realize he wanted to ski himself," said Cacciari. "But when he did, there was no stopping him." Cacciari added, "The ski trip was vintage John. He was always like a horse who'd run himself into the ground if you'd let him. When he was first diagnosed, the doctors gave him six months, but John didn't listen. After he'd been back in the hospital with pneumonia and a collapsed lung . . ., the doctors told him they didn't think he was ever going to be able to check out, but 10 days later there he was, playing tennis again. John thought he was bulletproof; he just wanted to live so bad."
On August 30, 1986, two weeks after water-skiing with his friends, John Tuggle died in his sleep while undergoing treatment at a clinic in Mexico. His mother and his fiancee were at his side. He was 25 years old.
John Tuggle, 1961-1986: Golden Bear Extraordinaire
Note: Most of the quotations in this story come from an outstanding article about John Tuggle entitled, "Tuggle's Fight Against Time," by Robin Finn, which was published in The New York Times on September 14, 1986. I highly recommend this article to anyone wanting to read more about John Tuggle.
Anonymous, "Irrelevant Week"
Cal Public Relations Dept. Staff, California Football Media Guides, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983
Finn, Robin, "Tuggle's Fight Against Time," The New York Times, (Sept. 14, 1986)
Nix, J.W., "NFL Draft's Mr. Irrelevant Still Reverberates Impact on Football Today," (Sept. 1, 2011)
Peters, Nick, 100 Years of Blue and Gold, JCP Corp. of Virginia, Virginia Beach, VA (1982)
Sullivan, John, The Big Game, Leisure Press, New York (1983)