The Life And Legend Of Tyler Crisps

There's more to the 100% real and actually existing quarterback prospect Tyler Crisps than Texas. But to understand him, Texas is a good place to start.
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When I get off the plane in Killeen, Texas, it isn’t hot like I expect. The locals say that this is a common misconception about Texas, that the place is too big to be classified just one way—what the weather is like in Houston isn’t going to be the weather in Dallas, and so on. Spring in Killeen is the temperate, mid-70s to low-80s that you usually hear San Diego natives rhapsodizing about. The city’s climate is not supposed to exist amid the hot sands of Texas.

“We got a lot here in Killeen that’ll surprise folks,” a local restaurant owner, Carl, tells me. “You can’t believe everything you hear.”

Weather isn’t the only thing you need to see to believe here in Killeen. Just down the road a ways from Carl, past a pleasant neighborhood and on a secluded piece of land just outside of town, there’s a young man who just might be the player who revolutionizes the NFL.

***

The NFL has a problem, and that problem is at the quarterback position. Every team needs one, and not every team can seem to find one. The vaunted parity of the league that must energize Commissioner Roger Goodell during the regular season turns into the repetition of the same QB-led playoff teams year after year. Despite the Broncos winning a Super Bowl with an over-the-hill Peyton Manning, the league doesn’t seem to be close to changing any time soon. That’s a problem.

“Every team wants an Aaron Rodgers,” one anonymous scout told me, “but Aaron Rodgers isn’t manufactured at some plant down the road.

“There just aren’t 32 great quarterbacks alive and playing at any one time.”

But what if there were 32 good ones?

***

Walk onto the campus of Killeen High School and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d walked onto a forgotten season of Friday Night Lights. The trophy case is crowded with medals and photos and big gold cups. The kids are yes-sir/no-sir Texans out of central casting. To the man who is perhaps Killeen High’s most famous graduate of the last five years, at least around town, this has all helped make him who he is.

“I never thought too much about the trophies and stuff,” Tyler Crisps says. “I mean I like the ones I got and all, but it’s like Coach said, you play for your teammates.

“I just always wanted to win for them.”

Tyler continues the tour of the school and we talk a bit about football, his life at college, his hopes for his future, whether he’ll go pro. He stops at an out of the way classroom and grabs my arm.

“You gotta see this.”

He opens the door—Killeen still won’t lock its doors, even in today’s world—and walks to the front of the room. Hanging in a place of pride is a goofy, framed picture of Toronto rap artist Drake with pink hearts and “Riding in the Six With You” written underneath. Tyler beams.

“I won this at the fair with my buddies and gave it to Mr. Carrington, my history teacher. He always made jokes about Drake. We thought he’d like it.” He stops, pensive.

“He got real choked up. Said it was the nicest thing anyone’s done for him in a long time. That guy was tough as nails, but it was always because he cared about us. Guess he didn’t know we cared about him too.

“I think about that a lot.”

I ask him if the teacher took it easy on him after that, and Tyler laughs, his eyes brightening. No, he tells me, it was the hardest class he ever took.

I’m less surprised than I expect to be when he tells me he aced it.

The Killeen High School football team is a lot like a family, a group of young men either destined for the college game or just getting some extra-curricular activity in before the end of high school. Football, as it tends to be in Texas, is serious business. But the Killeen High Kangaroos try to keep everything in perspective.

“It ain’t war,” Leonard Guarant, Tyler’s former running back tells me. “It’s just a game, y’know?”

“Yeah man,” Rock Greyt, Tyler’s left tackle and “future best man” adds, “the real heroes are out in Iraq or whatever. We just try to make ‘em proud in town.”

One answer after another it comes like this. It’s something that no author could write without being laughed out of the writer’s room. But, to these young men, it’s just life. Football in the fall, baseball in the spring, church on Sundays. Is there anything that’s not idyllic about this group?

“We had a couple beers every now and again,” Tyler confesses. “Til our girlfriends made us stop.”

Tyler’s fiancée, Lily Vaurnay, smiles from across the table. “You can celebrate plenty in life, Tyler Crisps, but I draw the line at sneaking beers into prom.”

The table laughs. I am shocked to find myself laughing with them. Killeen gets into your bones.

***

Tyler comes from football stock. His uncle, Jack Crisps, played with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe’s failed bid for international expansion. His cousin, Sam Trench, had a few years on the Buffalo Bills’ practice squad. As any football family will tell you, succeeding in the game is not easy, and any success is welcomed with pride.

But Tyler is the shining hope of this family.

A QB since he started as a squat five year old in Pop Warner, Tyler stuck with the sport through high school. Despite being drafted in the 48th round as a shortstop by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Tyler honored his football commitments. “I could hit a lick,” he said, “and I guess I could play okay in the field. But you can’t compare a grand slam to a game winning touchdown.”

“Tyler’s arm strength was never elite, but he could always place the ball,” his high school coach tells me, “and you knew he could take a hit and push for an extra yard.”

“You always take heart over a big body,” the QB coach adds from the corner.

“And you can’t measure Tyler’s heart.”

***

“I always knew the Good Lord wanted me to play football.”

In this, Tyler’s faith never wavered. Not after lukewarm college interest. Not after he only got offers for non-scholarship, non-starting positions on Division I teams. Not after he decided he’d rather skip college than not start at QB. He still believed.

“Tyler gets that from his mom,” his father Tim Crisps tells me, “I been kind of a screw-up my whole life. Did a bid for illegally shipping fireworks across state lines. Another couple years for phone fraud, although that one was some bullshit. But the day my life turned around was when I met Diane.

“She told me, ‘Tim, you get a real job, and I’ll marry you.’ And I been in Repo ever since. Tyler’s got that force in him too. He can tell the world ‘jump’ and the world’ll ask ‘how high’?”

His mother, Diane, is softer spoken. She tends to survey the room and take everything in before making her voice heard. But she does not need to be circumspect here. Diane smiles and puts her hand on her son’s leg with pride. “I worry about a lot in my life. I worry about my seven boys, my six sons and my husband, every day. But I never worried about Tyler making the right decisions in life.”

She sighs and beams. “He’s a winner.”

When Tyler finally committed to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, his family threw him a big party at the local smokehouse. Tyler tells me that the whole town turned up.

“They cooked a whole two pigs for us.” When I ask if they turned the pig skin into footballs, he laughs. “That’s just a myth, sir,” he says, ignoring my insistence that he call me Trevor. “I know my manners, Mr. Strunk. Fact is, they don’t make football out of pigs at this point.”

UW-Oshkosh offered a starting position, strong wide receiving corps, and stout defense; it was exactly what Tyler needed. He lead the team to its first playoff appearance ever, and nearly took them to the finals as well. A fluke field goal kept him from victory and Division III immortality, but Tyler won’t credit bad luck.

“I could’ve had another TD. I run the plays in my head every day. I had an opening for a run…ah, heck.” He laughs, “I could go all day about that game.”

And maybe he would have had happier memories to follow if tragedy didn’t strike. His grandmother, Fern Crisps, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013. It was still in its early stages, but Tyler wanted to be close, to be able to take quicker flights home to see his beloved grandmother. When she passed in 2015, Tyler knew he made the right choice.

“She was everything to me, man. And I’d give up more to have seen her like I got to, you know?” A tear falls down his cheek. “They don’t make ‘em like Grammy anymore.”

At the time, though, it was gut wrenching to leave his teammates in a lurch. You won’t find anyone on the 2012 UW-Oshkosh Titans who would tell you they blamed Crisps, though. “Tyler is one of my best friends,” Colton Trinkston, a fullback for the Titans graduating this year, told me. “He did what he had to do, and that’s what being a man is.

“He’s always a Titan to us.”

***

While Tyler was at UW Oshkosh, his legend grew a bit, which got him a scholarship offer at Georgia Southern, where he finished his college education. Between going to see his ailing Grammy Fern and getting a BS in Business Management Technology and Communications Services (BMTCS), Tyler put together a fairly sizable resume at the FCS Division I-AA school.

“The Eagles wouldn’t have been what they were without Tyler,” an anonymous coach told me, “he was the heart and soul of this team.” It wasn’t the first or last time I’d hear that.

The Eagles struggled at times during Tyler’s tenure, and he did not consistently start. But he helped them to their first bowl game in 2015, and threw for a touchdown in Georgia Southern’s close loss to New Mexico State in the inaugural AutoZone Grape Bowl. In just two years on campus, Crisps raised the status of the institution and its athletics. He did this by doing what he always does when he shows up somewhere new.

He did his best.

***

Now Tyler is back in Killeen, playing catch with Tim Crisps and fishing at night with his friends and old teammates after graduating in January. He hoped to get an invite to the NFL Combine or to the Senior Bowl, but had no such luck. When I ask if he’s discouraged, he laughs.

“Naw. They don’t even pay airfare to get up to those things. Just more time to practice, you know?”

He tosses a beauty of a pass, one that would cover maybe 10-12 yards on a football field, right on a dime to Tim Crisps. He smiles and adds, “I been talking to people.”

He certainly has. Teams have been calling the Crisps residence, from the NFL, from the CFL, during the draft and after. Tyler won’t talk to me on the record about it, but rumors are flying. Some say that Tyler was going to be taken in the fourth by the Philadelphia Eagles before the trade for North Dakota State University’s Carson Wentz. Others say that Tyler told teams—through his father, who is acting as his agent—that he didn’t want to be drafted in the seventh, that he’d rather play for a team who needed him.

“I’ll just say I’ve talked to a lot of people” he tells me. “It’s been a real honor.”

I ask him what he thinks will happen, what he’ll do if he doesn’t end up in the league.

“Guess I’ll just play somewhere else.”

I ask him what options he has, where he could go. Would he play in Canada? Europe? The Arena Football League?

“Heck,” he laughs, “I’d play in a local league with my friends if they’d have me. I’m a competitor, but I believe we all end up where we’re meant.

“The Good Lord’s in my corner. And if He decides it’s not for me to play pro, then I guess they might still need me down at the pipe factory.”

He stops and catches a lame duck from his dad and turns to me. “I ain’t allergic to a hard day’s work, sir. Wasn’t raised that way.”

***

Tyler Crisps might not be playing on Sunday night anytime soon. He may never be there at all. Quarterbacks fail all the time and many more don’t make it than do. But there is something about this young man. Any team that wants to win, that needs a shot in the arm, that wants hard workers and level heads in the locker room should be interested in Tyler Crisps. He may not have the flashiest arm, and he may not have elite tools, but the kid with the unmeasurable heart has grown into a man with an unstoppable will.

As I was getting ready to leave, Tyler stopped me and pointed to the river that snakes around his property, directing my attention to the horizon line where it disappeared into blue. He smiled.

“Long time ago, man ‘pparently carved this part of the land so it met the river. Before machines or diggers or all that stuff, he just used his own two hands and the metal around him to dig out the earth so his people could have water. Just a pure act of will.” He stops and stares out at the river, multitudes and volumes in his eyes.

“I’m gonna be that for football someday,” he says.

I wouldn’t bet against him.


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