De’Montre Tuggle just wanted to leave.
He was stuck in Kilgore, a town of about 15,000 people located in rural Texas, to continue his football career at Kilgore College in the Junior College Athletic Association, and he hated it.
The town felt empty. The buildings looked abandoned. The football wasn’t fun. Tuggle wasn’t himself, but he didn’t know where else he’d go. Kilgore was the only spot to keep his football career alive two seasons after he played with current Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman candidate Jalen Hurts at Channelview High School in Texas, where high school football players are the kings of their school.
Tuggle was originally supposed to attend the University of Central Arkansas in 2017, but his future moved to Kilgore after he was declared academically ineligible.
In Kilgore, no one cared where Tuggle came from or who he played with.
“The town was pretty much dead,” Tuggle said. “(In high school), I always had people talking about how I was so good and how I was going to thrive at the next level. I just didn't even want to be there.”
Tuggle smiles and talks with a gentle voice as he stands on the turf at Peden Stadium. The junior doesn’t enjoy looking back at his days in Kilgore, where he once played a road game on a field with a cemetery visible across the street, but he can talk about it now that he’s comfortable with his new scenery in Athens.
After two years in Kilgore, he’s just happy to be comfortable again. In JUCO, Tuggle averaged 6.8 yards per carry and caught 13 passes for 320 yards, enough production to receive an offer from Ohio. He’s been in Athens since May, and he finally feels at home.
“I felt the brotherhood almost immediately,” Tuggle said. “You could tell people were behind this team. It had a nice little atmosphere. People are pretty close when everybody is around.”
Not every part of Kilgore was bad for Tuggle. He’s in a group chat with 30 former teammates who message each other every day, and the brotherhood is the only aspect Tuggle misses about the town.
Most of Tuggle’s former teammates left Kilgore to join FBS schools, too, and several of them sent their Week 1 highlights into their groupchat as a playful boast.
Tuggle was one of them. He scored two touchdowns on three carries in Ohio’s win over Rhode Island last Saturday, including a 55-yard touchdown run four plays after he sprinted 78 yards to the end zone on a play called back by a penalty.
“I was so gassed after that one,” Tuggle said in his postgame press conference. “I just needed some water.”
Tuggle has forced his way to the top of a running back rotation Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin plans to carry into Week 2 against Pitt. He’ll split snaps with Julian Ross and O’Shann Allison, two formidable backs who were originally slated to take the majority of snaps to open the season.
His vision is among the best of the running back group, and the Bobcats will keep giving him the ball if he continues to show his explosiveness.
"I think he's got a great deal of potential,” head coach Frank Solich said. “He gives us that home run threat there. He seems to find his way and do things very well, and then he explodes on the final burst. I think that's what can separate him from just being another back.”
The on-field workload, however, is secondary to Tuggle. He’s more humble than when he departed for Kilgore two years ago, and his maturity has allowed him to settle in and carve a bright future with the Bobcats.
Tuggle doesn’t feel on the bottom with Ohio. He’s comfortable no matter who he’s around or where he’s at, which is why he spent 10 minutes stretching and joking with teammates at midfield Tuesday after another two-hour practice in the heat.
“Going to JUCO was a real reality check,” Tuggle said. “There wasn't any more special privileges. I feel way adjusted (now).”
The days of playing in front of a few fans from a desolate town with tombstones in the background of the field are over. Now, Tuggle is preparing to play at Heinz Field and give the Bobcats a win over their only Power 5 opponent this season.
The scenery couldn’t be better. Tuggle’s in a new chapter, and he’s here to stay.