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Tuggle retires

Daily News Assistant Sports Editor

FLOWERY BRANCH - With teary eyes, Atlanta Falcons All-Pro linebacker Jessie Tuggle announced his retirement Tuesday at the Falcons' suburban training facility northeast of Atlanta.

The Griffin native said he was hanging up his cleats after Falcons' head coach Dan Reeves decided not to keep him on Atlanta's roster.

However, the 36-year-old Tuggle stopped short of completely closing the door on his playing career, saying that he'd consider returning to the NFL trenches if the right offer came along.

And, although the Falcons previously announced that the organization would employ the five-time Pro Bowler in a non-playing capacity, team officials admitted Tuesday that they have nothing specific in mind at the moment.

Tuggle, who played 14 seasons for the Falcons, and was the all-time active NFL leader in tackles, was gracious in his apparent leave-taking.

"It's a sad day for me, leaving the Falcon family that I feel like I have been such a big part of," Tuggle said. "There have been so many great moments here. There are so many good people to thank. I want to thank (Falcons' owners) Taylor and the whole Smith family for everything they've done for me. They gave me an opportunity. That was the biggest thing I wanted from the beginning was just an opportunity. I'd like to thank Dan Reeves and the whole coaching staff, but most of all I want to thank all of you guys, including all of my fans who supported me over the years."

Tuggle didn't forget his alma mater or his hometown, either.

I want to thank my family in Griffin, all my friends in Valdosta, and just so many people to thank. Most of all, I want to thank my wife who has supported me throughout everything and mostly through what I'm going through now."

Reeves met with Tuggle Sunday night to tell him the team wanted him to retire in lieu of cutting him from the squad. Tuggle said the decision to retire was an emotional one.

"It's been tough," he said. "It really has been. I talked to a lot of great buddies. That's the best part about this business is playing with some great guys and mostly former Falcons and former teammates."

He said his closest friends encouraged him to go up and "hold his head up high," mentioning teammates Jamal Anderson, Keith Brooking and Henri Crockett, among others.

"I feel that I gave everything I could give. I worked as hard as I possibly could work, and eventually you know you are going to see it come to an end."

Tuggle said the multimillion dollar, multi-year contract he signed with the Falcons last year spoke volumes to him.

"When they signed me back when I just had turned 35 a year ago, they let me know then what they thought about me." Tuggle said. "My voice may tremble a little from being up here and just saying goodbye, but I'm not sad. I'm happy about the whole thing that's going down ... I just want to sit back and consider my options ... My thing was to sit back and make a serious decision about what I really really wanted to do, and being here in Atlanta has been so special to

"I realized, you never know how much you mean to people until you're gone. I walked by, and all of them were shaking my hand and patting me on the back ... It's been good. It really has been. I wouldn't have changed anything in the world."

With that, a number of Tuggle's teammates walked into the press conference, and Tuggle broke down.

"I did really good until these guys walked in," he choked. "It's been great. They told me to keep my head up - that's all."

Tuggle was momentarily consumed by his emotions, weeping unashamedly.

"I would just go out there and give it my all ... and you guys have been great. You've been great to me. I wanted to retire as an Atlanta Falcon, and hopefully that's the last uniform that I'll wear."

Later, team president Taylor Smith said no other player would ever wear Tuggle's No. 58. In addition to his stellar play, Tuggle has acted as the spokesman for a number of charities, maintaining a squeaky clean profile in a world of pro athletics that is often tainted with scandal.

Tuggle said his greatest thrill was making the Falcons in 1987, recalling how he telephoned his mother to give her the news. He also cited his first Pro Bowl selection and the Super Bowl visit as career highlights.

Despite his affinity for the Falcons, Tuggle said he'd seriously consider continuing to play football if an offer came along that was right for his family.

"I'm 36, and I've had 14 years in the league," began Tuggle. "If there's an opportunity for me at linebacker or if a team really needs a middle linebacker, that's something I don't want to completely shut the door on, and maybe, but it would have to be the right situation for me and my family."

Tuggle signed with the team as an undrafted free agent in 1987 for a $500 bonus and went on to a storied career as one of the most fearsome linebackers in pro football. At 5-11 and 230 pounds, most thought him too small for college football.

He was a walk-on at Valdosta State University after a stellar career at Griffin High School.

Falcons' Media Director Aaron Salkin said late Tuesday that the team really hasn't firmed up its plans for Tuggle.

"We don't have anything in mind right now," Salkin said. "Hopefully we'll be able to make a decision in the near future."

Tuggle confirmed that he wants to remain a part of the team.

"I don't know for sure what I'm going to do as part of the organization. Nothing's been offered to me, and nothing is truly expected. But I'm definitely going be around. Anytime I'm needed I hope they'll call me."

The beginning of the end for Tuggle was a season-ending knee injury last Oct. 22. Then, on July 27, he tore two ligaments in his right thumb, once again relegating him to the sidelines. He said he was disappointed that he couldn't make a comeback, while admitting that he wasn't happy with the level of his play last season.

"My biggest thing was continue to play as hard as I can as an Atlanta Falcon, and I'm not a Falcon anymore on the football field, but I'll always be a Falcon in my heart," Tuggle said. "And that's why it means so much to me."

Tuggle injured

Falcons' All-Pro linebacker undergoes weekend surgery

Jessie Tuggle will miss between three and four weeks after having a pin surgically implanted at the base of his right thumb Sunday at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.

“He tore the ligaments on Saturday, but finished the practice,” Falcons spokesman Aaron Salkin  said. “We also discovered he had a bone chip in there, too.”

The former Griffin High Bear returned to the Falcons workout site Monday afternoon. The Falcons are training at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. The team just completed its second week of preseason camp.

“The doctor put a pin in there to stabilize the thumb and immobilize it,” Salkin said, “and we expect he'll miss three or four weeks, but we do have a bye week in our preseason this year.”

The operation on the 36-year-old Tuggle was conducted under the supervision of a hand specialist, Dr. Houston Paine. Piedmont Hospital spokeswoman Nina Montanaro referred all questions to the Falcons, declining comment.

Although Tuggle suffered a season-ending injury  to his left knee last year against the New Orleans Saints in the eighth game of the season, Salkin said the Valdosta State graduate is fully recovered from those woes.

“He's back from the knee injury,” Salkin said. “He's a veteran and he'll continue with his conditioning drills in the meantime. We're really not too concerned about that.”

Tuggle was understandably upset.

“The most disappointing thing of all is I'm going to have to go back to the Georgia Dome on Friday and stand on the sidelines,” said Tuggle, “but it's only the first preseason game and I'm not going to worry about it.”

It was a fluke injury, Tuggle said.

“It happened at the beginning of (Saturday's) practice,” Tuggle explained. “I was working on my individual pass rush and sort of ripped my guy, and my thumb hit on his kneecap. I got a full swing and that popped the thumb out of joint.”

Last year's knee injury was the first time in Tuggle's career that he had to be placed on the injured reserve list.

With Tuggle temporarily out of action, Salkin said third-year pro Jeff Kelly will vie with second-year pro Mark Simoneau to occupy the No. 1 middle linebacker slot. Kelly was Tuggle's primary fill-in last year after Tuggle tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He missed the last eight games of the season.

Last year was also Tuggle's first since his rookie season he recorded fewer than 103 tackles in a season.

Tuggle has been the Falcons' starting middle linebacker since 1993 and is the National Football League's leading active tackler with 1,837 tackles over 14 seasons.

The Falcons signed Tuggle as an undrafted free agent in 1987.

As a teen Tuggle was initially relegated to Griffin High's B-team. By the time he  graduated he was the team's most valuable player. Tuggle continued making his mark while at Valdosta State, where he was a four year starter and was the conference's “Defensive Player of the Year” as a senior.

Tuggle's work ethic is legendary, and his alma mater dubbed its new workout center the “Jessie Tuggle Strength and Fitness Complex.” Valdosta State retired Tuggle's jersey No. 88 in 1993. Griffin did so two years ago.

Even Falcons head  coach Dan Reeves marveled that Tuggle was participating in both practices during two-a-day workouts.

“I looked up and Jessie was there,” Reeves said on July 20. “That's usually the way it is.”

Effective today the Falcons are cutting back to a single practice per day.

The Griffin native said the thumb injury won't keep him out of the starting lineup once the regular season gets underway.

“I'm going to keep at it, stay in shape and be ready to play by the season opener,” he vowed.

Tuggle swells the ranks of the walking wounded on the Falcons squad.

Linebacker Corey Atkins will undergo arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday in Atlanta. Atkins strained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during practice last week, and was originally scheduled to have surgery Monday, but the team sought a second opinion.

Atkins was signed by the Falcons last year after being waived by Dallas, playing in 12 games as a rookie due to injuries suffered by the linebacking corps.

Free agent Corey Brown, a receiver from Tulsa, suffered a sprained right knee in Saturday's practice. Officials don't know when he'll return to the practice field.

A second receiver, Jammi German, missed a week's practice due to a left hamstring injury. He began practicing again Monday.

Running back Rodney Thomas, who missed two days practice last week, the result of an ankle injury, re-injured the ankle Saturday and didn't practice Monday.

Two other members of the offensive squad - tight end Jevaris Johnson and offensive guard Anthony Redmon, both recovering from knee injuries  - are also watching practice from the sidelines.

The Falcons play their first preseason game Friday night at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Little E: Dad made me ditch full-face helmet before Daytona 500

Daily News Assistant Sports Editor

HAMPTON - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now voluntarily donning a full face helmet in addition to the newly NASCAR mandated head-and-neck restraint system.

In a far-ranging interview at Atlanta Motor Speedway Saturday, the Intimidator's namesake said his father, Dale Sr., spotted a full-face helmet in Junior's No. 8 car during a practice session prior to the running of the Daytona 500 during which Dale Sr. was killed.

Junior said his father demanded that his namesake stick with the traditional open-faced helmet. The younger Earnhardt said he'd worn a full-face helmet while driving and had grown to like it.

“I ... actually brought one to Daytona and had it in the car for the first practice, and my Dad saw it and jerked it out and said not to have it no more,” Earnhardt said.

Apparently the idea stayed with him because when a NASCAR official approached him at Talladega several weeks ago and asked why he refused to wear such a helmet, he went to his father's widow, Teresa, and sought her opinion.

Teresa, he said, “said not to worry about it, and go ahead and wear it.”

The only other hurdle Earnhardt said he wrestled with was the memory of how much his father disliked them.

“It's a little lighter and my Dad always felt it was the weight that could cause some injuries to the sternum and the neck but with the restraints now being mandated I try to think about what my father would've thought about that,” Earnhardt said. “I think he'd be fine knowing I had a full face helmet and a neck restraint on. I always wanted to wear one. The only reason I haven't was because of him. I feel fine with it now, really comfortable. So now I wear it all the time.”

“Little E” also took a stand on another safety question - helmets for pit crew workers.

“I think they need to put some pads and some helmets on those guys in pit row,” Earnhardt declared. “They definitely need some pads around certain areas of the body. And definitely helmets.”

He minced no words, strongly urging NASCAR to require more protection for the crews.

“You make rules, and if people want to play on the same field they've got to play by the same rules,” he said. “I think that they definitely should do that. I think they definitely should make them wear helmets and pads specifically for the guys who go over the wall.”

Earnhardt said he was comfortable with the other safety measures mandated by NASCAR since his father's death, but he also warned that the head-and-neck restraint system could backfire on a driver if it was improperly worn.

“I think about it when I'm going out on the race track what if my head restraint isn't tight enough? Don't be surprised when the day comes that some guy gets a  similar injury with the head restraint on. So don't say then `Are we doing the job?' We don't want to put a noose around my neck when I get in the car.

“I think NASCAR made a timely decision, and I know some people thought they took too long. But they had liabilities ... I'm pretty comfortable with what they did.”
Labonte wins NAPA 500
Leading field, Nadeau runs out of gas on last lap

HAMPTON - Most everybody knows what it's like to simply run out of gas.

Certainly Jerry Nadeau does.

To his everlasting regret - and that of his crew, Nadeau - the leader of the NAPA 500 - ran out of gas between the third and fourth turns of the final lap.

Just as he was about to lock up his second consecutive NAPA 500 crown, Nadeau discovered he was out of fuel, allowing Bobby Labonte to overtake him and win the race.

Adding insult to injury, Nadeau was also passed by Sterling Marlin and Kevin Harvick, relegating him to a fourth-place finish. Ward Burton placed fifth.

Jeff Gordon, who contended for the checkered flag throughout much of the race, finished sixth, but in doing so won his fourth Winston Cup title.

Gordon is only the third driver in Winston Cup history to win more than three titles, joining Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

Ricky Rudd, who had been a distant second to Gordon in points, had car problems and ended up third in the Winston Cup standings by finishing the race in 35th place. He lost second place in points to Tony Stewart, who finished Sunday's race in ninth place.

For Nadeau, the miscue was a bitter blow, as he'd topped the field by overtaking both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte late in the race. Going into the last lap he was clearly unbeatable, with a 3-second lead over Labonte.

Then his Chevrolet faltered going into the fourth turn, its nose swerving back and forth, as Labonte hit the gas and blew by him.

“Good going guys,” Nadeau said to his pit crew via his microphone, voice dripping with sarcasm.

By the time Nadeau coasted across the finish line the checkered flag had waved thrice.

Labonte closed out a disappointing season on a positive note by taking the flag, as he failed to successfully defend his 2001 Winston Cup championship.

It was the fourth time Labonte won the NAPA 500 at AMS.

Ironically, Labonte had to utilize a provisional start to make the field. Marlin and Nadeau also used provisionals, while Harvick qualified 29th in the field. Labonte said he wasn't sure what happened when Nadeau faltered.

“Those guys had a great car,” Labonte said. “It ended up that we weren't quite as good as Jerry was, so when we battled there at the end and I got around him coming off turn four, it was a gift at that point in time.”

Following the race Nadeau wasn't clear on why he ran out of gas.

“We had a good car,” he said. “We had good pit stops. We just ran out of fuel and I'm not sure why.”

The lead changed 13 times, with Earnhardt leading the most laps. He battled with Gordon, Stewart and Ricky Craven repeatedly to maintain his edge.

All three early challengers to Earnhardt's mastery alternately dominated the field, however Craven developed transmission trouble that cost him more than 50 laps, although he ultimately returned to the field.