FOOTBALL SENIOR FEATURE: JEREMIAH TYLER
By Craig Sachson
Jeremiah Tyler plays with joy. He plays with love for his teammates, and for a football program that he bonded with before he ever came to campus.
He will run the width of Powers Field for his own Senior Day Saturday after watching so many of his brothers do so in the past. He knows there will be emotions pouring out of him eventually, but not at that moment. Tyler will be in his happy place, with the people he cares for most, his parents and his Princeton Football family.
He’ll take the field with the same energy he has brought to two past Ivy League championship teams, with the same attitude that has helped Princeton go 32-5 in his four Tiger seasons. He’ll smile. He’ll pump up his teammates. He’ll make you smile just watching him.
Unless you’re on the opposing offense. Then you’ll curse the day Princeton football coaches ever went to scout John Tracy.
Because once that ball is snapped, Jeremiah Tyler destroys things. And that makes him even happier.
• • •
Tyler’s love for football didn’t begin at Princeton. The Detroit native was a three-sport standout in high school, a champion and captain for multiple teams, but there was never any doubt which sport had his heart.
“I have always enjoyed football,” he said. “I have always had fun playing it, and it was what I wanted to play beyond high school and pursue a career in if I could.”
He had dreams of playing for Michigan State or Notre Dame — whose colors matched those of his own Detroit Country Day High School — but his academic interests in Princeton were piqued at a school awards ceremony. One student — he didn’t even know who he was — kept winning honor after honor. He was going to Princeton, a school Tyler thought attending was beyond his wildest dreams. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.
As fate had it, it began at his biggest rival, Brother Rice High School. Princeton coaches were in attendance to scout the opposing quarterback that day, John Tracy, but it was an opposing defensive player caught their attention.
“I played one of my best games that night,” said Tyler, who had plenty of impressive games while amassing over 200 tackles in his high school career. “Two weeks later, I heard that Princeton had interest in me. I took my official visit around my birthday, and I remember going into the locker room, and it felt like I was at home. It felt like I was already on the team. That set a high bar for anywhere else I would look.”
Too high a bar, in fact. Within a year, he went from knowing very little about Princeton to making one of its biggest plays on a run to the 2016 Ivy League championship.
• • •
Tyler still laughs at the memories from Penn week in 2016, and all the ‘scoop-and-score’ work they did during those practices.
“I was thinking how crazy it would be if we scored on one of these,” said Tyler, who did actually return a blocked punt for the first touchdown in a 28-0 win that put the Tigers back in first place. “I saw Jesper block it, and I was the only person around. I couldn’t let the punter stop me. I couldn’t even breathe after I scored that one.”
Right place, right time? Sure, there’s a bit of that when it comes to a blocked punt that could go in a number of different directions. But when you are consistently in the right place at the right time, it’s not about luck anymore. It’s about the player.
“We have had some great defensive players through the years,” head coach Bob Surace said. “JT has impacted that side of the ball as much as anyone I’ve coached. In addition, his energy has raised the level of everyone around him as he’s become a tremendous leader.”
His scoop and score helped Princeton to the 2016 Ivy title. Two years later, Princeton faced Harvard in yet another Ivy championship chase. The 14-9 win over Dartmouth may now be the lasting memory from the perfect 2018 season, but it wouldn’t have meant as much if Princeton hadn’t knocked off the Crimson two weeks earlier. The Tigers built a lead in Boston that day before fending off a Harvard comeback attempt. Facing a late 4th-and-1, Crimson back Trevor Booker cut left in front of a bevy of blockers and seemed primed for an easy conversion.
Then came Tyler, like a blur, from the other side of the line.
“I bent off the edge, tried to grab something, and fortunately got him and brought him down,” Tyler said of one of the defining plays of a 29-21 Princeton win. “I’ve never been so hyped in my life. It felt like the energy changed on that play.”
It was one of six tackles Tyler made that day, and one of the 29 he made in his first of back-to-back All-Ivy seasons. He made 62 tackles the next season, including 14.5 for losses, on his way to being named a finalist for 2019 Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year honors. It seemed like a dream season for a Princeton defensive player — the team went 8-2 that fall — but Tyler left with a renewed motivation. He started his Princeton career with an Ivy title, and he had no intentions of ending it in any other way.
Of course, he had no idea how the world would interfere in his plans.
• • •
Tyler had dreams of playing in the NFL as a kid. As a Princeton standout, and somebody who had already caught the attention of several scouts, those dreams started to feel more real than ever. He was excited to dominate his 2020 season when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the sport down. Tyler had the option of leaving Princeton and trying to play somewhere else, or trying to make himself eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. He had the option, just not the interest.
“I was 110% committed to the University,” he said. “I would write any paper, any thesis, to anybody to get the chance to come back and end this the right way. Going anywhere else would have been doing myself a disservice, and doing the team a disservice. That was not how my time here was going to end.”
For a young man who thrived on the brotherhood of the sport, the COVID-mandated isolation challenged Tyler. He made his phone wallpaper a picture of the team holding the Ivy League trophy. If that motivation wasn’t enough, he would reach out to a teammate and ask for encouragement. He acknowledged the adversity was tough, but out of adversity comes tough people.
And Tyler was plenty tough before COVID.
If there was a football silver lining for Tyler, it was the extra time for weight training. NFL scouts loved his speed, but not his size. If he was going to compete on Sundays the way former Tiger teammates Jesper Horsted and Steve Carlson currently do, he needed to get bigger and stronger without losing what made him so good in the first place.
“I had to figure out what was the best weight where I could get bigger, but also stay fast,” said Tyler, who has bulked up significantly since the 2016 and 2018 Ivy championship seasons. “Quickness and speed are my game. I feel like there is a difference now. I can take on blocks better and hop off to make plays.”
Tyler has 48 tackles this season, including 12 during the memorable five-overtime win over Harvard, and he had a lead-saving stop inside the red zone against Columbia in early October. He is a leader on the field, but he knows that leadership must be everywhere this week. After all, this isn’t the first time Princeton will have faced Yale coming off a tough loss the week before.
He has a chance to be one of the few Tigers to graduate with three Ivy League titles, but to do so, he knows Princeton must be much better than it was the last time it faced a game like the one this Saturday.
• • •
When Princeton faced the Big Green in Yankee Stadium two years ago, Tyler had won his last 20 games in Orange and Black. That streak came to an end, and he knows the team didn’t handle it the right way. They held on to it. They let Dartmouth remain the opponent when Yale was next on the schedule. And they paid a championship price.
Last Friday night, Dartmouth moved into a share of first place with a home win over Princeton. Both teams, as well as Yale, enter the final two weeks with matching 4-1 Ivy records. The Tigers remain in control of their own destiny in the Ivy race, and they embraced it immediately in the locker room.
“We put it away as soon as the game ended,” Tyler said. “We only talked about Yale. We watched the film, had a great lift Sunday, and we’re attacking this week. We need to be great. We need to execute everything. I feel like the whole team is on the same page.”
Senior Day can be emotional. It can be reflective. When an Ivy title is on the line, it can be pressure-packed and nerve-racking.
For Tyler, it will be joyful. It’s a game he will play with his brothers, for a university he never imagined playing for, following a pandemic the world could never have imagined.
It’s a game. Few play it better.
Smile when you watch him.
Share his joy.