”Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."
Henry David Thoreau
I’m pretty sure most of us want to be remembered for something good we’ve accomplished along the way during our lifetime. I think it brings a certain kind of consolation or reassurance to one who is facing death to know that along the way they tried to give it their best shot and the curtain will close with no regrets. I’m pretty sure that nobody wants to consider their lives and their deeds here on Earth as irrelevant.
Unless of course you happen to be the last player picked in annual the NFL Draft.
You see, starting in 1976, the last player picked has also been given the nickname of “Mr. Irrelevant” since they were deemed to be such a long shot at making the team that it really didn’t matter. In honor of this "achievement", they get to spend a week in Newport Beach, California, play in a golf tournament, sail in a regatta and have a roast held in their honor. In fact, they were (and still are) awarded a trophy known as the “Lowsman Trophy” for their efforts. It’s sort of play on the esteemed Heisman Trophy which is awarded to the best college football player in the country. Rather than depict the imposing figure cast on the Heisman, the Lowsman Trophy depicts a player fumbling the ball.
A few Lowsman award winners actually did go on to make their respective teams but out of all of them only one stands out in my mind. His name was John Tuggle and he was the last player selected by the New York Giants by future hall of fame coach Bill Parcells in the 1982 draft.
You won’t find him in any record books and his Wiki page is small to say the least but John Tuggle provided inspiration to a struggling team that was just getting ready to turn the corner and win the Super Bowl three years later in 1986.
A fullback by trade, he made an immediate impression during training camp with his hustle and stellar play on special teams and managed to make the roster. It marked the first time in 47 years that the last player chosen in the draft would actually make the squad.
Three quarters of the way through the season the Giants starting running back went down with an injury and Tuggle was called upon to be the starter. In five games he rushed for 49 yards on 17 carries. He also scored one touchdown. In addition he caught three passes for another 50 yards and returned 9 kickoffs for another 156 yards. After the season was over, the team named him Special Teams Player of the Year.
The next year he arrived at training camp but began feeling a pain in his shoulder. It turned out to be a form of cancer. Upon being diagnosed he reportedly told one of his teammates ”Well, am I gonna sit around and cry about this or am I gonna take this as day one of beating it?"
The Giants kept him on the roster even though he began undergoing chemotherapy. Even though he didn’t play a single down that year the team voted him “Most Inspirational Player” for his work in the weight room and his positive attitude in facing his disease.
In 1985 the prognosis was not good. The cancer had spread to his lungs and the Giants advised him not to report to training camp. They had no self-interest in doing so. By not having to officially “cut” Tuggle he could still collect his salary under his contract. Even after his contract expired the next year, the Giants organization continued to pick up the tab for his medical insurance. As an act of gratitude, Tuggle instructed one of his friends to send a bottle of champagne to the Giants owner and general manager “just in case something happens to me”.
After a series of unsuccessful operations John Tuggle headed off to Mexico to try some experimental treatments. Two weeks later he died in his sleep at a clinic with his mother and fiancé at his side. He was all of 25 years old.
In the coming days, 28 years after his death and 31 years after having the distinction of being named “Mr. Irrelevant”, ESPN is going to tell the story of John Tuggle in their acclaimed “30 for 30” series about athletes and their life stories. If I had to hazard a guess, there won’t be a dry eye in the borgo household when I watch it.
It should also be noted that during the 1986 season, a year after Tuggle's death, the New York Giants wore his number (38) on their helmets in honor of their fallen comrade. They also went on to win their very first Super Bowl later that year. I guess his song was heard in the short time he was here.
Mr. Irrelevant indeed.