‘I genuinely gave it my all’
POCATELLO, Idaho -- No one ever accused Tyler Vander Waal of not being open, honest and talkative.
In other words, a reporter's dream.
Last week, our DJ Johnson made the seven-plus hour road trip to Pocatello, Idaho, home of the Idaho State Bengals and new address of Wyoming's former quarterback.
They chatted about the tutelage of Josh Allen, the improbable 2018 comeback win over Air Force in the snow and the ultimate decision for Vander Waal to transfer from Laramie. As always, the gunslinger from California was welcoming and ready to chat.
Vander Waal started 13 games during his three seasons in Laramie. He won just four of them. He tossed six career touchdowns and for more than 1,800 yards. That isn't good enough. Vander Waal will be the first to admit that.
What happens behind the scenes -- or between the ears, in Vander Waal's case -- is something most fans aren't privy to.
Not with this guy.
What goes through the mind of a competitor when his dream is stripped away? How do you keep grinding when you know your place is on the bench? What is it like to be a teenager and hear the words "kill yourself" from an adult?
Vander Waal tells you all that and more right here:
7220sports: So, how’s life in Pocatello, Idaho? How is the town different than Laramie?
Tyler Vander Waal: Pocatello is very similar to Laramie. It’s a nice small town. A nice college town. It's a bit bigger and a little warmer than Laramie, and I’m glad that I missed that snow in Laramie a few days ago. The speed of life here is a little faster, as it’s a bigger town than Laramie and there’s more to do. There’s several more restaurants and other options to chose from, but overall, it is very similar to Laramie and provides that small town college feel. The Pocatello life and Laramie life aren’t too far apart.
7220sports: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the players here and what have you been doing to continue preparation for the upcoming season?
TVW: Life is different now, and life can throw you a curve ball at any time. You have to learn to deal with it and adjust accordingly to life situations. Everyone is back now and we’re all working out again. It’s really good to start thinking of football and the upcoming football season. It is a little bit different since we’re still having to exercise social distancing and ensure we’re meeting all of the policies/guidance that are in place. Even before I came back to Pocatello, back when I was home in California, I was training with my quarterback coach and we would have to meet at 6 a.m. in a park three-days a week just to ensure we didn’t get caught at a park with more than five people. I also had picked up a job while I was back home, which meant I was getting up at 5:30 a.m., training with my quarterback coach and then working from 9-5 every day. It was a whole different world to adjust to, but it taught me a new way of life and I learned how to adapt to the way things were.
7220sports: I’d like to step back to your time at the University of Wyoming, when you were there from 2017-2019. Let’s go back to 2017 when you were a redshirt freshman, playing behind a quarterback named Josh Allen. What was it like to learn from Josh, what was your relationship with him, and do you still keep in contact with him?
TVW: Josh is one of the most down to earth, real guys to have a conversation with and one of those guys that won’t let the fame get to him just because who he is. In the summer, before I got there, I had reached out to Josh via Instagram to ask if he could help me learn the playbook and guide me through the system, and we even Facetimed a couple of times to go over the playbook. It still speaks wonders to me that a quarterback who is getting all of the draft hype made time for an incoming freshman. It shows what type of person he is and how humble he really is. Even after I arrived in Laramie, I was living in the dorms and didn’t have a car. Josh would pick me up and take me to weights, to film, to meetings and things like that. Just going out of his way to pick me up and take me under his wing really says a lot about who he is. I also remember that after he was drafted and left Laramie, he still reached out to me before my first start at New Mexico State. He sent me a text that said “Good luck, go get ‘em tonight. I’ll be watching.” I can’t say enough good things about Josh, the type of person he is, the amount of talent he has, and the leadership he possesses.
7220sports: What would you say is the number one thing you learned from Josh?
TVW: When I first saw him throw a football, I was like 'holy cow!' This is college football! I remember the first game that I traveled to with him, which was to Iowa, and witnessing some of the things he did. The gunslinger mentality that he had, he really didn’t care about making mistakes and he knew that he was going to make them… He would continuously learn from the mistakes, but he’d continue to maintain that gunslinger mentality. That’s really something that I personally like about him and wish I could be more like him. He was also great at shutting the outside world down while on the field. At Iowa, the fans are right there on your back, and I’m sitting right there with Josh and the fans are chatting Josh up and just berating him. I was like, don’t you hear what those fans are saying? Josh just told me that he doesn’t care, and told me to ignore it and not to turn around or you’ll be next. To see him be so calm, cool and collected in high-pressure and contentious situations will always have an affect on me.
7220sports: Do you still keep in contact with Josh?
TVW: Yeah, every now and then I wish him well. When the Bills played the Texans in their playoff game, I sent him a message wishing him good luck and he responded after the game thanking me. I’ve talked to him about how it is living in Buffalo, how life is with the Bills and how the transition to the NFL has been. Even when I put my name in the transfer portal, Josh reached out and wished me the best of luck with everything. Again, it speaks to the type of genuine person he is.
7220sports: The end of the 2017 season came in Boise, Idaho, after the Cowboys beat Central Michigan in the Potato Bowl. While standing on the podium, an ESPN reporter asked Josh what his next step was. That’s when Josh announced that he would be declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft. What went through your mind when he made that announcement, knowing the starting quarterback position was going to be open the next year and you could very well be the next man up?
TVW: Actually, it was funny, because after the game in the locker room I asked Josh if he wanted to make that statement when he did. He said not really, but he was so in the moment that it just felt right to say it then and there. It really didn’t cross my mind that I could in fact be the next starting QB until we got back to Wyoming and started practicing again in late January. As we were working out, it was Nick (Smith) and I, and that’s when I realized it was either going to be him or me. He was the senior and I was the redshirt freshman. That’s when it hit me that I wanted this. I wanted to fill Josh’s shoes. I wanted to start for the University of Wyoming at quarterback for the next four years. I wanted to be the next great Wyoming quarterback. I wanted to go to the NFL. I still remember when I was told that I was going to be the starter for the New Mexico State game. Coach (Brent) Vigen called me into his office and sat me down and told me. With a big grin on my face, I couldn’t believe that here I was, a 19-year old freshman and I was going to be starting my first college game -- on ESPN 2 nonetheless. I was thinking to myself, 'there was no way.' The world seemed so surreal at the time.
7220sports: The New Mexico State game is a good transition into the 2018 season. New Mexico State was your first college start. It’s a night game, under the lights, on ESPN 2. You had to have some nervousness about the whole thing. Frame that whole experience for me.
TVW: After the game, I felt like I was on top of the world. As a 19-year old, winning your first college start, it doesn’t get much better than that, especially on the road and being televised on ESPN 2. I’m playing in front of a national audience and my guys back home. Everyone back home is watching me on TV, and after the game, I checked my phone and I see hundreds of notifications on Twitter. You know, guys blowing me up congratulating me. It was crazy because just months ago I’m in high school dreaming about it and now I’m living it. That game is literally a memory that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I had been told that I’d never make it to this moment and you always want to prove people wrong, but for me, it was more of proving myself right, and I did that, that night. At that moment, I had proven that I was supposed to be there. I was capable of playing college football, being a quarterback in the Mountain West, and being successful doing it.
7220sports: After that win, you then face a really tough schedule the next seven games, including four nationally ranked teams: No. 13 Washington State, at No. 23 Missouri, No. 25 Boise State and at No. 21 Fresno State. You go 2-6 as the starter during those eight games and the coaching staff makes a quarterback change, inserting Sean Chambers as the starter. How does that change affect Tyler Vander Waal, the quarterback?
TVW: It was tough -- it kind of breaks you down. It’s humbling in a sense but it really makes you question how much you love this game. Starting the first eight games and not performing well -- not performing to the level of what you know you can play to -- it kind of gets into your head. You continue to put in all of the work on the practice field, in the film room, in the weight room and you’re not getting to see the field. It really gets to you mentally and your mind tells you that this isn’t fun -- that football isn’t fun anymore. I still remember when I got pulled during the Utah State game after the first play out of halftime, only later to be put back in during the last drive of the fourth quarter. I recall being so mentally discouraged and couldn’t perform. I had the ‘yips’ per se. After the game, I remember talking to my parents and being broken down. I feel like I’m not Tyler Vander Waal, I’m viewing myself as a failure, feeling that I don’t love the game anymore. I pretty much shut myself down. I felt I was done at that time.
7220sports: How did the perspective you just described change in the days or weeks to come?
TVW: Well, after those feelings were shed, the next day I kind of had a come-to-life moment and I told myself that I had two options -- kind of like a flight-or-fight mentality. 1.) I can either give up; or 2.) I can keep going. I realized that I still have a huge opportunity. I’m on scholarship, I’m still playing football at a D1 level, I’m doing what so many high school/college athletes wish they could be doing, and I’m going to seize this opportunity that I sill have. So, that’s when I made the decision to put my head down and continue to work hard. Ever since then my mentality changed. I lived by the saying 'nobody cares -- work harder.' That’s also the time that a switch flipped where I realized that it wasn’t about me, it’s about the team. I could throw for 400 yards a game, but if we didn’t win, nobody cared. I realized that I wanted to be the team guy, and if that meant being the best 12th man on the team, then I was going to be that guy and do it better than anyone else.
7220sports: So, after that Utah State game, Sean is named the starter against Colorado State, San Jose State and then Air Force. Sean leads the Cowboys to victory against CSU and San Jose State, but in the Air Force game, he goes down with an injury. Next thing you know, No. 18 gets the call to finish the game. Walk me through that one.
TVW: That game was one of those games that you can’t just really describe. It was cold and snowy, yet everything just seemed to go right after I got in. I recall being on the sideline and seeing Sean go down. It was so cold that day, I had on cold weather compression gear, the big overcoat on, and I immediately shed that overcoat and found a center to start taking snaps from to warm up. Once I got in the game though, and completed that first pass to Rocket (Raghib Ismail Jr) for a touchdown, I felt to myself that I was back and was ready to take on that game. I recalled having that mentality of 'I’m going out there to play. No matter what happens, now is the time to just go out on the field and play the game.' I did that and we won the game with that incredible catch by AC (Austin Conway) with a minute or so left in the game. It was another one of those feelings that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
7220sports: After that Air Force win, you start and lead the Cowboys to a victory against New Mexico. That victory was win No. 6, making the team bowl eligible. Bowl selection rolls around, and Wyoming doesn’t get an invite. How frustrating was that for you? I mean, if selected, you’d be the starter in a bowl game -- a big deal. It had to be disappointing/frustrating not to receive an invite.
TVW: I recall vividly watching the remaining games that would determine bowl invites, while also texting Coach Vigen, asking what had to happen in order for us to go to a bowl? When selection Sunday rolled around and we didn’t get a call, I realized that my redshirt freshman year is over just like that. That’s when the ‘what-ifs’ scenarios started playing in my head. After the Air Force comeback and the win against New Mexico, my confidence was at an all-time high and I felt like I was back to playing at the level of football that I was capable of playing. What if we got invited to a bowl game? What if we would have won that game? What if I play well that game? Maybe if all of that happens, it’s different going into spring ball. Maybe I have more confidence going into the season. Maybe I have a better understanding of what the coaches want in a quarterback. The ‘what-ifs’ though is a situation that you can’t remain in as a quarterback, or any athlete. I had to get out of that, and I eventually did.
7220sports: So, 2018 wraps up, no bowl game, and we head into the 2019 season. After healing, Sean is named the starter, and you, the backup. How did you approach the season knowing you were in the backup role?
TVW: It was interesting the realize how quickly things can flip. One year ago, I had been named the starting quarterback, and now I was named the backup. It goes to show how quickly things can change in a short amount of time. It was really a reality check for me. Although I’m not the starter it begs me to think of how much I love football and what I will do to make the team successful. Again, it begs the question you have to ask yourself, 'am I going to keep going for all of these guys and working hard to make the team successful, or am I going to throw in the towel as a backup, shrug my shoulders and have a bad attitude for the season?' I obviously wanted to do what was best for the team, and I viewed the season as being one play away from having to come in and lead this team. During the entire season, I would approach every game as if I was the starter, watching film with Sean, pushing each other at practice, splitting reps as practice because you never know when something may happen. Football is a crazy sport. You may go through three quarterbacks in a game. You just never know what’s going to happen. Supporting the team in whatever role they needed was my focus. Again, it wasn’t about me, it was about the team.
7220sports: Déjà vu happens -- Sean injures his knee against Nevada and is knocked out for the season. You finish that game and then start the remaining four games, going 1-3 in those four starts. A tough overtime loss at No. 22 Boise State and another tough loss to Utah State in Logan. I believe you could have easily been 3-1 vs. 1-3 those last four games. Thoughts?
TVW: Having taken that one-play-away approach really helped my approach to those last four games. When I found out Sean’s season was over, I was physically and mentally ready to take back on the role as starting quarterback. The first start, we head to Boise to take on a nationally ranked team, on the blue turf, in front of an ESPN crowd. It’s literally one of the toughest places I’ve had to play, but I was ready for it. I went in with confidence and a gunslinger mentality, knowing that I’d have to play that way in order to get a victory. Stepping back to the 2018 season, I was often nervous of making a mistake and feeling like it was the end of the world. Now fast forward to Boise and I had the approach that if I do make a mistake, so what. If I make a mistake, I’ll bounce back. Thinking back to that game -- 20-17 -- that was a game that one play makes the difference. Whether it be the 4th-and-1 on the 15 or making the field goal to push it into a second overtime, it’s just one of those games where we didn’t get the one play we needed. That was one of those games where I felt that I played good, I laid it all out there no matter what, and I felt that I was back. To take a nationally ranked team to overtime when no one had given us a chance to win. No one expected us to do that, especially with a back-up quarterback. I went in to show people that we were there to win and we weren’t backing down. While no loss is ever a good loss, I would consider that game a good loss for us.
7220sports: Utah State … talk to me about that tough loss the following week.
TVW: First memory of that game for me is the first third down when I get strip-sacked and fumble the ball. Talk about a game that you want back, this is it. I had four turnovers that game, and throw the game-ending interception -- on first down actually. I look at that game like, 'what happened?' I admit, that game is where that gunslinger mentality got the best of me. I made one too many mistakes. I think if I didn’t throw that game-ending pick, we win that game because we were driving down the field and were confident we could get in the end zone.
7220sports: You conclude the 2019 regular season with a win against Colorado State and loss to Air Force. During the game against CSU, we’re introduced to the backup quarterback from Canyon Lake, Texas, Levi Williams. Describe your relationship with Levi.
TVW: To be honest, it was kind of weird because when Levi came in I was the oldest quarterback in the locker room, yet I still had three years left to play. Here I was, the guy they were looking up to, and I had only played in 12 games. I did try to bring Levi in and take him under my wing and share what I could with him. Football is all about relationships, and in the Wyoming quarterback room, it was all about positive relationships. We all have such good ones with each other. Every guy respected each other and there was nothing toxic amongst all of us. Whoever was out on the field playing had the full support of the others, and we were always each other’s biggest fans. So Levi and I had a really good relationship. I remember during the CSU game, when he busted out that long run and breaking those six or so tackles, I was so happy for him. I remember getting on the headset and Coach Vigen yelling at me to tell Levi to 'get down' in those situations. So, afterward on the sideline, I was so hyped for him, but at the same time, I’m conveying on the coaches' concern to get down in that situation. Coach Bohl also gave him an earful in that situation, yelling at him to 'protect the ball -- it’s the fourth quarter!' As I’m then talking to him, I’m telling him to remember to play smart. He responded with something to the effect that he just wanted to score. I was like, 'I know. no doubt!'
7220sports: You entered the NCAA transfer portal on Dec. 17. What was the determining factor in that decision?
TVW: The Air Force game. Once I got knocked out of the game and Levi played well, I felt like the writing was on the wall. It was then that I realized that I had went from starter, to backup, to essentially third string. I wanted to get back to that starting role. While I was still living my dream of playing football at the collegiate level, I wasn’t happy not starting and I felt I needed to get that happiness back into my life. I wanted to go somewhere that I was playing and not relegate to a second or third-string role. So after the Air Force game, the roads to Wyoming were closed due to weather so we had to stay the night in Colorado Springs. I stayed in a hotel, by myself, and was talking to my parents that night on the phone about the situation and where I was currently at with my satisfaction of being on the team. At that time I was injured, I was lost, I wasn’t having fun and I needed a sign or something to provide direction. Being a religious man, I put my faith into God. So, I just prayed that night and ended up deciding that putting my name in the transfer portal was the best thing for me. I talked with some of my guys back home that I trained with and they agreed that I needed to do what was best for me.
7220sports: Once that decision was made, how did you approach the Wyoming coaching staff and what was their reaction to your decision?
TVW: I waited a few weeks after the bowl announcements and then went to see Coach Vigen to let him know. I sat down with him and told him that I was planning to put my name in the portal to transfer. It was very cool how he accepted what I had just told him. He told me that he totally understood my decision and that he wishes me nothing but the best. Although he would’ve like me to stay, he complimented me on being the epitome of what a team player should be in today’s society, and told me that it was rare to find that in today's generation of players.
7220sports: How did you teammates react when they found out you had entered the portal?
TVW: The support that I got was unreal. It would have been easy for some to view my decision as a selfish one; however, that was not the case. During walk through, leading up to the Arizona Bowl, I wasn’t taking reps, but my teammates were still around me talking about the bowl game and wanting to go down there and have fun, win the game and make memories one last time. Even Coach Bohl supported the decision and told me that I had to do what was best for me. To have that support from your head coach is hard to find. While it hasn’t been an easy journey, I’m glad that everything happened the way it did. No bridges were burned, the decision was respected, there were no hard feelings, and I left on good terms with everyone. I left knowing that I had given three years to Wyoming football and gave everything that I had. While it didn’t work exactly how I wanted it to work out, I’m happy in the sense knowing that I genuinely gave it my all.
7220sports: Fast forward to Tucson, Arizona, when Wyoming heads down there for the Arizona Bowl against Georgia State. There’s no release on who the starting quarterback is going to be. You had put your name in the NCAA transfer portal a few weeks before the bowl game, so there was that. What was your mindset getting on the plane for Arizona and what was your role going to be?
TVW: Once I put my name in the portal, most of the team had the idea that I wasn’t going to play. Coach Vigen even told me that since I had put my name in, it was probably best if I didn’t play in the game. I totally understood that decision and respected it 100 percent. So, I basically knew that I was going to Tucson and wouldn’t see the field. So, that whole week of bowl practice/bowl prep, I knew that I wasn’t going to play, and I think everyone internally knew, but it was kept from the media and outside world.
7220sports: Once your return from Arizona, you quickly turnaround for a visit to Idaho State University. You visited them less than a week after the Arizona Bowl. Even quicker, you committed to them on Jan. 7, a day after you visited. How did that happen so fast?
TVW: The minute that I put my name in the transfer portal schools are able to contact you. Ironically, the first school that contacted me was the University of Idaho. When I talked with Coach (Paul) Petrino, he told me they had a scholarship for me and wanted me to come play. I then talked to one of my friends from high school, Christian McFarland, who was playing at Idaho State. I grew up playing with him from my home area of Sacramento, and he let me know that coaches were asking about you and were interested in you as our quarterback. I then talked to Coach (Mike) Ferriter, the offensive coordinator, and he was just one of those guys who talked more than just football. He talked about life and what I wanted. The first time we talked we spent 45 minutes just talking life and what my goals were in life and the following 30 minutes about football. That meant a lot to me because it showed they cared as me not just as a football player but as a person first.
7220sports: In March of 2020, you released an article that revealed a lot about who you are as a person. You shared some intimate details of how external environmental factors can affect you as a football player and as a person. You even wrote about receiving death threats in the article. Why did you write that?
TVW: It had been weighing heavily on my heart. A USC volleyball player and mental health advocate came and spoke to us here and she happened to be the girlfriend of former USC quarterback Max Browne. After listening to them, I felt his story and mine were very similar. So, I realized that growing up as an athlete, you’re always told to be tough and to be strong and not to have a breaking point. But where does that breaking point end? When does it take its final toll? As a Division-I athlete, I have a platform to speak out. Even though I don’t know who needs to hear it, I felt that I needed to write something and put it out. So, I started typing one night and it took me a while to complete it because it was so raw and there was so much emotion behind it. I personally don’t like to talk about it because it’s hard to talk about, but I realize that it is something that needs to be talked about because it’s a real topic. A lot of people only care to see what you do on Saturdays. They don’t care about you any other day. They define you as a football player, not as a person. When they identify a player by the number on their jersey and not as a human being, they don’t understand the internal struggles that I go through, the mental health issues I encounter, the depression that I struggle with. During my three years at Wyoming, I struggled with depression, and I still struggle with it today. I felt writing this article would allow me to shine a light on a topic that is often avoided or overlooked. After the Washington State game, when I didn’t play that well, I received a multitude of messages via social media, one in particular that said 'You f------ suck, go kill yourself.' Reading those as a 19-year-old kid, I wondered how I was supposed to feel about this. It really eats you alive because I know I performed bad on the field, but to hear grown adults telling you to go kill yourself is mentally exhausting. So I wrote the article to talk about the realness of the situation and emphasize that words do hurt and the impact it has on young athletes. These things aren’t talked about a lot so I wanted to bring to light that this topic is real and mental heath is an aspect that should be considered at all times. The takeaway for me was to get people to think twice about what they say before they say it because they don’t know how it’s going to affect other people.
7220sports: You made a lot of fans at Wyoming. For numerous reasons, whether it be your quarterback play, your comeback win against Air Force in 2018, or your selfless attitude toward putting the team first and being the epitome of a teammate, I think I can speak for a lot of fans when we say we enjoyed your time at Wyoming and are thankful that you played there. We’ll still keep tabs on Tyler Vander Waal to see how he’s doing up at Idaho State. Anything you want to stay to those fans?
TVW: Yeah, I’d like to give a simple thank you. I really can’t thank the Wyoming fans enough for the support they gave me the last there years, through the ups and downs. I will stand by this statement that Wyoming fans are easily the best fans in the nation. You are die-hard fans who always show up in the cold, rain, snow, sleet. The support that you have shown me -- I just can never thank you enough. Even when I wasn’t playing, little kids would still come up and want to take a picture while I would wonder why they wanted a picture with me because I didn’t even play that game. Quick story, I remember when Sean scored that rushing touchdown against Missouri. After he stiff armed that guy, I was probably – aside from Sean’s parents – the most hyped up person in that stadium. I was jumping up and down, running up and down the sideline, and I was the first one to greet Sean after he came to the sidelines. I was so juiced! Later that night, someone reached out to me on Twitter and said, 'I hope one day my son is as much of a team player as Tyler is.' That has stuck with me ever since. It made me realize that even though I’m not playing, I have an impact on people, based on the role I’m in.
7220sports: Any parting comments?
TVW: Although I now wear the orange and black, I’ll always be a Cowboy -- no matter what.