Feature Story: The Magnetic Jeremiah Tyler
Originally published on GoPrincetonTigers.com
What is it about this man they all call “JT,” this quality he possesses, this quality that is both visible and invisible at the same time? It’s there, as plain as the ever-present smile on his face, as hard to miss as the white streaks in his hair, and yet impossible to quantify in any measurable way other than through the anecdotal.
For instance, it’s picture day for the Princeton football team, of which Jeremiah Tyler – the aforementioned “JT” – is a senior. There are lines everywhere. This line is for the head shot with jacket and tie. That line is for the same picture, only in a jersey. Over there is the line for video. It’s a chaotic scene, a loud scene, with more than 100 players who are trying to figure out which line they should be on now, which line they’ve already gone through, what they should be wearing. Then JT walks in. Everything stops, or more accurately slows, just a bit, just enough to be discernible. JT is in the room. Everyone’s attention shifts.
Observe him for only a few seconds, and you’ll realize what the best comparison is to describe him. JT is a magnet and his world is metal, those in it drawn to him without even considering it and probably powerless to stop themselves, even if they did consider it.
He just carries himself differently. It’s a confidence, but it’s a humble confidence. He’s tough, but yet he also seems almost gentle. He’s not a “me-first” guy. He’s very much one of the guys, only he’s the one who all the other look to first. He’s, well, a magnet.
Knowing this, you’re not really trying to figure out the what. You’re trying to figure out the why. Heck, you feel it yourself when you’re around him. When you do speak with him, finally, he tells you everything you’re wondering in the first and last things he says. For the first, he hasn’t even been asked a question yet. He’s still in the pleasantries stage, talking about his favorite NFL team, one that has started yet another season with yet another loss.
You: Rough start for the Lions.
JT: Yeah, they’re usually awful, but you know what? I think they’re going to be less awful this year.
For the last, after he has talked about himself for 30 minutes, this is what he leaves you with:
JT: I appreciate you.
And there you have it. Now you know what Jeremiah Tyler is and why he is that way. The rest is a fascinating story of someone who has taken a non-traditional role to get to Princeton in the first place and who has made a huge impact since his arrival, stamping himself as one of the dominant linebackers the program has seen and bringing with him a winning attitude that has carried over to all of those who have played with him. His story starts in Detroit, where his parents kept him busy with sports and academic pursuits and away from what he describes as “the roughness of the inner city” that swallowed up so many around him. It has continued at Princeton, where he now has his senior season to play and then possibly the NFL beyond that, or law school if a professional career isn’t in the offing.
“I’d use two words to describe him,” says James Johnson, a fellow Princeton linebacker who has also been Tyler’s roommate. “Love. And positivity. He oozes both.”
“His energy radiates,” says safety Trevor Forbes, another close friend. “His positivity radiates. He is a genuine soul, an extremely loyal soul.”
Jeremiah Tyler is the youngest of Gerald and Marjorie Tyler’s three children, with older brothers Gerald and Gaylin. Gerald, who is a Wayne State graduate and former minor league baseball player in the Detroit Tigers’ organization, is a mental health therapist who has spent a great deal of time working to confront addiction. Marjorie has been a security guard for the Detroit public schools. When Tyler says he’s from the roughness of the inner city, he means it.
“My parents were strict,” he says. “They made sure I wasn’t out on the streets, that I was doing other things. They wouldn’t let me be a statistic. They always had me doing things so that I wouldn’t have any free time to be out on the streets, involved with gangs. Having a two-parent home in the city of Detroit is huge for an African-American kid. You have a father in your life. You see the hard work they put in. That drove me, pushed me forward.”
He started out at the Cornerstone School until he moved on to Detroit Country Day School for sixth grade. That’s the same school that produced Brock Harvey, who was a quarterback for the 1995 Ivy League championship Princeton team, not to mention Chris Webber, the NBA great. It was also in sixth grade that Tyler began to play football, or at least the kind of football he could let his parents know about.
“I started out on the down low,” he says. “I played at recess and stuff, and I’d get holes in my pants from tackling. My mother thought it would be okay for me to play football, but when we got serious about it, she backed out a bit. She was scared and all. I’d low key it. I’d say I’d be doing homework or at basketball or something. Then she came and saw how I played. She was still scared, but she was okay with it.”
Tyler was at first a football, basketball and baseball player. By the time he was a high school junior, he played football and baseball. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Princeton was already on him after watching one of his games.
“I had [Steve] Verbit and [then-assistant coach Eddy] Morrissey in my office about him,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace says. “They were jumping up and down on a table about him.”
At the time, all Tyler knew about Princeton was that “a really smart kid in school who won all of these academic awards was going to there.” With his athletic and own academic strength, at the time he thought he might go to Rice and play there, but then he ended up at Princeton on an official visit and that was that.
“I felt like I was already on the team when I was there,” he says. “I loved it immediately. I loved the culture and what the team had.”
He arrived at Princeton in the fall of 2016 and made an immediate impact for the Tigers, making 14 tackles as a backup linebacker and special teams mainstay. In fact, he made one of the biggest plays of the year in the biggest game of that championship season. Needing a win over Penn in Week 8 to get a shot at a league championship, Princeton picked up a 28-0 victory that started when Tyler returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.
“It took about a week to figure out he was something special,” Surace says.
“I came in wanting to play,” he says. “I wanted to do everything I could to get onto the field. I went 100 miles an hour all the time. I was trying to be great, trying to do the little things. If you make a mistake going 100 miles an hour, you can fix it. As long as I went 100 miles a hour, I could fix the mistakes. But I’d always go 100 miles an hour. The coaches came to trust me a little more and more each week on the field.”
Beyond his on-field play, he also started to make an impact with his teammates, or soon-to-be teammates.
“I met him on my official visit,” Forbes says.
Like Tyler, Forbes is also from the city, in his case Memphis.
“He was one of the biggest reasons I was able to come here,” Forbes says. “He grew up in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in and had the experiences I had. He made me feel like I belonged. From our very first meeting, he instilled confidence in me. There’s not a lot of representation on this campus from our kinds of neighborhoods. It’s the inner city and everything that comes with it. The crime. The pressure that come with the inner city. You see a lot, and you have to overcome a lot. It forces you to mature quickly. Having someone who can relate to on that level is very, very special. He told me Princeton was an option for me, and I believed him.”
Tyler would take off the 2017 season, and he returned in 2018 to take his spot in the starting lineup. By season’s end, he was a second-team All-Ivy League selection and Princeton was 10-0, its first perfect season since 1964. For Tyler, it was now two seasons, two Ivy League championships.
Princeton then won the first seven games of the 2019 season, stretching the winning streak to 17. Even after the Tigers dropped two games of the final three, the 18 games Princeton won over the two seasons were the most for the program since 1950-51.
As for Tyler, he was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy League selection and one of two finalists for the Bushnell Cup as the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year. His year was dominant in every respect, statistically (16 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception against Harvard) and observationally.
“Playing next to him gives you confidence,” says Johnson, who was the only player on the team with more tackles than Tyler in 2019. “You know it’s just a matter of time before he will make a big-time play. I mean, the first time I ever saw him play was on my official visit, and he was making plays left and right in practice. It was extraordinary. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that in practice. He’s just incredible.”
He is at that. The football field is either the one place where he is not defined by what Johnson said – love and positivity – or where it comes out the most. Either way, he transforms from soft spoken with that smile and adds another dimension, one of ferocity.
The result is a player who is quick, strong, physically imposing and relentless. He mixes that with an unbridled joy from playing the game, something that is also obvious when viewed from afar.
“I like to play the game with some anger, some passion,” he says. “It’s a game where you allowed to hit someone. You need to be a bit crazy and a bit mad on the field. During the week, we’re preparing to play a team that wants to take what we think should be our title. Our title when we step on the field is vulnerable. We’re the Princeton Tigers. We’re brothers. The other team is trying to take something away from us, take something away from my brothers. I’m not going to let you take something away from my family. That’s how I play.”
He didn’t get to play at all a year ago, when COVID wiped out the Ivy League football season. During the year off, he worked to get bigger and stronger in a way that is difficult to do while playing a game each week.
As a result, he comes into his final Princeton season closing in on 230 pounds, with greater quickness than ever. He also brings with him all kinds of preseason honors, from Ivy League preseason Defensive Player of the Year to preseason All-American. As you might expect, none of that matters to him.
“I appreciate the honors,” he says. “I’m super glad and grateful for them all, but those are just names and titles. At the end of the day, you have to prove your worth. The best way to prove my worth is to work hard with my teammates. Go hard each day. Win games with them. That’s the only way to prove your worth. I love to work hard. I love the work. I love to have to earn things. Nothing has ever been handed to me.”
Princeton begins the season as the Ivy League favorite, though after the year away it’s really anybody’s league. Once the year is over, Tyler will look ahead to his next goal, the NFL, with the aforementioned plan to attend law school down the road as well.
“He’s been such a great part of our program,” Surace says. “He has a lot of personality, in a very good way. He’s the kind of player you want to have on your side, and not just because he’s a great player.”
“I try to be an understanding person,” Tyler says. “I try to be patient. I try to be lighthearted and funny. I want to make sure everybody feels welcome. I think I have a great sense of people. I’m pretty good with people. If someone feels out of the loop, I try to bring them along and make them feel welcome. I like to have good vibes.”
• by Jerry Price