LARAMIE – If it made her son contemplate whether he still loved football, Tiffani Vander Waal knew things must be pretty bad.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tyler Vander Waal started the 2018-19 season as the University of Wyoming’s starting quarterback, tasked with the unenviable job of taking the reins of the Cowboys’ offense from the legendary Josh Allen, now the starting quarterback for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
The Pokes went 2-6 in Tyler’s first eight starts, with the results a somewhat mixed bag: 1,044 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions. On Oct. 20, 2018, in a homecoming matchup against Utah State, Tyler was benched for true freshman Sean Chambers.
It marked the deepest valley in what has been a roller coaster career for the California native.
“I remember that Utah State game,” Tiffani said. “That was probably one of the lowest points.”
Chambers went on to start the next three games, all UW wins, before an injury against Air Force knocked him out for the season. Tyler then started the season finale at New Mexico, a 31-3 victory. After spring football, Chambers was tabbed as the team’s starting quarterback. To an extent, Tyler expected it; he “saw the writing on the wall,” his mother said.
For a time, Tyler truly wondered whether he still loved the game he has played since he was 6 years old. For much of his life, his success was intertwined with being a starting quarterback. What was he without that piece?
“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know my identity anymore. I’m playing football, and I’m not the starter. What do I do?’ It was weird for me. Do I really want to play football?” Tyler said. “It’s hard being the backup. You don’t really see much of the benefits of anything, like you’re going to practice and you’re putting in all these hours, but you’re not seeing any of the results.”
After a little time, some deep soul searching and help from his family, Tyler has emerged on the other side. He is finally in a position to take everything thrown his way in stride, both on the football field and off of it.
As fate would have it, Tyler once again finds himself in the driver’s seat of a Pokes team that has a chance to win the Mountain West, as Chambers will miss the rest of the season with a left knee injury. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, UW stands 6-2, an exact reversal of where Tyler stood as the starter a season ago.
“He has been where we need him to be before. It’s not like he is some new guy coming in for the first time,” redshirt senior tight end Josh Harshman said. “Having Tyler as a backup throughout the season was really a blessing … we have full belief that he can get the job done.”
In many ways, Tyler is in a better position to lead the Cowboys than he ever has been. Sure, he has gotten stronger, and his football acumen has improved. But everything he has gone through off the field in the past 12 months has prepared him better than any experience inside the hashmarks could.
“I’ve always been proud of Tyler, to be honest with you,” his mother said. “He is a strong kid despite going through the lows. Because he knows that he has the support system behind him.”
Following that fateful homecoming against Utah State, Tyler was crestfallen. Tiffani distinctly remembers talking him through things with her husband, Jeff. Tyler, not generally emotional, was lost for a time. But his mother was honest: He wasn’t playing well. And, being a team player, Tyler did what he had to do, even if it didn’t sit quite right.
Coming out for the Colorado State game, Tyler’s first after being benched, was a tough pill to swallow. He wasn’t familiar with wearing a headset and holding a clipboard.
“(There was) a lot of talking him off the ledge,” his mother said. “Football is, in a lot of ways, kind of how life is. There’s a lot of highs and a lot of lows.”
The Vander Waals are an extremely close-knit family. They talk on the phone constantly throughout the week and text every day, Tiffani said. No one has a better read on Tyler than Tiffani and Jeff Vander Waal do.
Mother usually knows best and, in this case, she knew in part what ailed her son: Tyler’s natural disposition is to be his own worst critic. He gets in his own head, she said. Interceptions or incompletions are abject failures.
If you want to improve your situation, you must take action. And Tyler did just that. He read self-help books, including “The Purpose Driven Life” and “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence.” He also joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Both were exercises in gaining perspective. The coaches had made their decision; the best Tyler could do was accept it and continue to better himself, on and off the field.
“He has gotten a lot better. He has put a lot of work in, and it’s shown over time,” senior wide receiver Austin Conway said.
Part of what has helped him move on, his mother said, was learning to let go of mistakes and enjoy the moment. Part of that is self-preservation; the other part is life experience.
“He has really matured,” Tiffani said. “I think a lot of that is just growing up … learning that if something’s not working, you need to change it.”
Coaches often tell players that they’re “only one play away” from being thrust back into action. But for Tyler, that glimmer of hope kept him going. He got a taste of it following Chambers’ 2018 season-ending injury against Air Force, when he was thrust back into action and started the season finale. He also got a brief taste of it this season against Tulsa, when Chambers was pulled for a few series due to ineffectiveness.
“Everyone always talks about ‘one play away,’ and that could just be lip service,” Tyler said. “But once I actually got thrown in (against Air Force), I was like, ‘Holy cow, it’s happening. I really was one play away.’”
As hard as things got throughout the last year, Tyler didn’t want to be anywhere else. It was UW coach Craig Bohl who gave him an opportunity to play Division I football when others wavered. More than that, though, was the fact that football isn’t everything. He was in Laramie to get an education, his mother told him. He had made great friends on the team. In the grand scheme of life, getting benched is far from a tragedy. Patience is a virtue.
“I’m in a better place mentally,” Tyler said. “Things are going to happen that are out of your control … for me, I think it’s how I react to it.”
Tiffani got the text message at halftime.
Chambers left the game against Nevada briefly in the second quarter after diving toward the pylon on a touchdown run, leaving Tyler under center. Chambers returned after a couple drives, though, and Tyler resumed his spot on the sideline.
But at halftime, Tiffani received a text from her son. He was going to play the second half. Of course, with technology seemingly always having its own agenda, the Vander Waals had streaming issues watching the game on Facebook. They plugged the computer into the television and watched as best they could.
The family beamed with delight as Tyler threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a 25-yard strike off of play-action to tight end Jackson Marcotte.
“I can’t even tell you how proud (I was),” Tiffani said. “I was literally showing the video at work.”
Tiffani said her son found out he would likely be the starting quarterback going forward for the Pokes on Wednesday or Thursday of last week. A matchup with No. 22-ranked Boise State (7-1, 3-0) isn’t exactly a way to ease back into things. If anything, it’s baptism by fire.
But Tyler’s teammates and coaches have complete confidence in him.
“We’re excited about Tyler,” Bohl said. “He has been working well in practice, he is an experienced player. And he is certainly more experienced than he was last year at this time.”
In another unscripted twist of fate, the Vander Waals were already planning to attend Saturday’s matchup in Boise before learning of their son’s impending start. A number of Tyler’s high school friends attend Boise State, his mother said, which was going to make for a nice reunion, regardless of whether her son played.
Plans have changed, though only slightly, as family friends are now flying in from Arizona to watch Tyler’s first start in nearly a year. It is also an opportunity for his great-grandfather in West Virginia to watch the game on ESPN.
With a laugh and a helping of sarcasm, Tiffani said she is prepared for another emotional roller coaster, though this is one ride the family will enjoy.
“I’ll probably be the lady throwing up on the sideline,” she said.
After everything her son has been through over the past year, hearing whispers that a promising 6-2 start to UW’s season could be going sideways due to the loss of the team’s starting quarterback isn’t really that big of a deal. If anything, it just makes the chip on Tyler’s shoulder that much bigger.
“Life isn’t always going to be easy,” Tiffani said. “Through adversity, through challenges, that’s where the best lessons are learned, through hard times.”
As for Tyler, he is more than ready to take the bull by the horns for as long has he can. He wishes the best for Chambers. The quarterback room is extremely close, and no one wants to see a friend go down. At the same time, though, Tyler is embracing a moment he has waited nearly a year for.
In a perfect world, Tyler keeps the quarterback job going into next year, he said. He admits he wants to be UW’s starter. It would be startling if that wasn’t the goal. But if things don’t work out, Tyler will be OK. He has been through the fire and come out relatively unscathed before – what’s one more trip?
“This game has knocked me down a countless number of times,” Tyler said. “And I’m going to keep getting back up.”