Bill Parcells and I have something in common. We’re forever haunted, inspired and moved to tears by two individuals named John.
The Irrelevant Giant is an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary short, detailing the story of John Tuggle. Bill Parcells – in his first year as head coach of the New York Giants – made Tuggle the last pick in a 1983 draft, one that featured Eric Dickerson, Dan Marino and John Elway, thus earning Tuggle the nickname “Mr. Irrelevant.” In 11 minutes, Parcells narrates the tale of John’s journey in the NFL and his battle with cancer which would ultimately take his life August 30, 1986.
Football is a “man’s game.” Even those who never donned shoulder pads or experienced “two-a-days” subconsciously embody its principles. Signs of weakness are thought not to be tolerated. Yet, seeing Parcells openly shed tears – the same man who created a Hall of Fame legacy based dominantly on his vulgar in-your-face coaching style – was soul-piercing.
Having become rookies with the Giants the same year, perhaps Parcells gravitated to Tuggle because of the thought of “unknown,” The Tuna with coaching and Tuggle with playing. Neither knew what lied ahead except having each other in the process.
They were in the same war with the same purpose. Battles foster brotherhood. Brotherhood turns strangers into friends and friends into family. That’s the essence of football, sports, hell, life in general. Parcells understood this. Having viewed the clip more than 10 times, hearing the iconic leader-of-men recall of his last conversation with Tuggle never fails to evoke the same sort of emotional response.
Watching Parcells fight back tears while giving a play-by-play of their last moment together not only hit home, it rocked a foundation. Cowboys/Giants didn’t matter at the moment, and realizing the severity of the topic at hand allowed me to be appreciative there was even a rivalry in the first place. It was, as it is every year, an escape. But there was no escape from the memories Parcells’ final moments with Tuggle produced because too many parallels reminded me of my own.
Behind the scenes here at TSS, I’m known as the positive one. The guy who can see the good in most situations. That’s not a fake or a front. It’s how I am, how I’ve always been and probably how I’ll go in the dirt as when my time comes.
And yep, that’s me in the above photo. Big Coke-bottle frame glasses and all. Blame my mom for them. This was taken November 29, 1998, roughly two months shy of my 13th birthday with my Uncle John, a former college football player himself at Virginia State University. By this time, what originally began as stomachaches mutated into colon cancer which soon engulfed his entire body. Mid-December 1998 would be the last instance the two of us had a conversation.
Somehow, we were left alone in his hospital room in Richmond, Virginia, which was odd because there was always someone walking in and out. Sitting in the chair beside his bed, I told him he looked to be getting better and how I already had the December 27 Cowboys/Redskins game mapped out for us. Hot dogs, chips, beer (for him), the whole nine. He laughed and made a joke how after his team (the Skins) got through with my team (Dallas), the Cowboys would be more sick than he was.
He looked me directly in my eye and told me how much he appreciated the positive outlook. It was the same vote of confidence I’d given him all summer when he, myself, my grandma and my younger brother stayed at his D.C. apartment off Constitution Avenue. He’d go receive treatment, go to work and come home at one in the morning tired, but ready to watch his two favorite shows – Martin and The Jeffersons.
Despite all the prayers God could possibly handle, however, he admitted to me he wasn’t going to get better. The same way Parcells vividly recalled Tuggle walking into his office and offering him a drink of champagne while telling the coach his end was near, Uncle John did that for me. Truth be told, there’s another 10,000 words that could be typed on the last conversation I had with my uncle. As cliché as it sounds, it was as if time stood motionless. He talked for five minutes straight while I refrained from saying a word. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t.
“Just be good to people and let the universe pay you back. I’ve done that and it’s worked for me in ways I never thought it would,” he told me. The same guy laying in the last bed he would ever sleep in, in constant pain 24 hours a day and who was marching closer and closer to the end of his rope was giving me lessons on how to maneuver throughout life and the people I’d meet along the way doing so. He apologized for being unable to remain around physically. But he assured me spirits live forever and he’d always be around when I needed him.
His last statement was to be appreciate the memories. The memories of going back and forth why Michael Irvin was or wasn’t better than Art Monk. The memories of us going to the D.C. Wharf and buying $200 worth of crab legs, shrimp and whatever else I wanted. The memories of him teaching me how to use the D.C. metro system. The memories of Christmas 1997 and him serving as my “head coach” telling me which plays to select while playing Madden 64. And I did appreciate them. Even more so now.
The next time I’d see my uncle was December 29. By then, he was doped up on so much morphine to kill whatever pain he was under that he couldn’t speak. I’m not even sure he knew where the hell he was. All I asked from him was to squeeze my hand once if the answer was no, twice if yes. Did he recognize my voice? Two squeezes. Did he enjoy the Cowboys beating the Skins two days earlier, 23-7? One squeeze. Until the end, his sense of humor never left.
That was the last time I ever saw him alive. I’m not sure if my grandma and mom wouldn’t allow me to go back to the hospital or if I was too scared to see him in a vegetative state again. Nevertheless, my Uncle John passed away on January 2, 1999. Wondering how my world would be now if he were still around is a fantasyland I often travel to, especially now living in Northern Virginia, no more than 10-15 minutes from his old apartment. I am, however, eternally grateful and appreciative of the near 13 years he was apart of my life.
Similar to Bill Parcells filming Irrelevant, countless tears were shed as well as good and bad memories evoked while typing this. And, also, similar to Parcells, life moved on as did the both of us. He became one of the NFL’s most decorated coaches of all-time and I, well, I’m not sure what it is I’m supposed to be just yet. Hopefully, it’s something worthwhile. Hopefully, it’s something my uncle can nudge whoever he’s standing next to in heaven and proudly say, “That’s my nephew.”
The same way, in fact, Tuggle will watch Parcells accept his enshrinement in Canton tonight and say, “That’s my coach.”