Sporting Life

Yale running back makes mark in NFL

“The biggest difference,” says Tyler Varga ’15, “is the speed.”

Evan Frondorf ’14 is a research fellow at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Kevin Terrell/Associated Press

Kevin Terrell/Associated Press

Tyler Varga ’15 (No. 38) carries the ball for the Indianapolis Colts in a preseason game against the St. Louis Rams. View full image

Making his NFL debut with the Indianapolis Colts in the first game of the 2015 regular season, Tyler Varga ’15 capped an 18-yard reception with an athletic spin move that propelled him forward inside the 20-yard-line. Yale football fans recognized it as a classic Varga carry, but the rest of the country had just been introduced to his brand of bruising, physical football.

As 2015 graduates start their first jobs, Varga is beginning his own career in Indianapolis. And so far, it’s business as usual. “The level of play is a little bit higher” in the NFL, Varga says, managing to convey both a healthy respect for Ivy League football and a hint of sarcasm. “The biggest difference is the speed.”

After three years as one of Yale’s all-time leading running backs, Varga is now making a splash at the professional level. Where he would end up wasn’t always clear. The Canadian transfer student surprisingly went unselected in the 2015 NFL draft, but he signed with the Colts shortly afterward, battling his way through off-season practices, training camp, and preseason games to make the team’s 53-man roster as a rare undrafted free agent. “I personally had no doubt,” says former teammate Will Chism ’15, who spent seasons clearing gaps for Varga on the offensive line. “I could totally see this guy scoring a game-winning Super Bowl touchdown.”

Varga’s premiere on September 13 made him the first Yale alum to play in an NFL game since Nate Lawrie ’04 wrapped up his career in 2008. Varga had the good fortune to play his first game in front of nearly 100 friends and family: the Colts played at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium, just two hours away from Varga’s hometown in Kitchener, Ontario. “I kind of knew what to expect—I had been to so many games there before,” he says. But taking the field added a new dimension to the experience. “You couldn’t even hear yourself think.”

The noise on game day may be deafening, but Varga says he felt more pressure in college than he does in the NFL. “When you’re playing for Yale, you’re trying to uphold such a tradition,” he explains. “You don’t want to let your brothers down.”
Yale head coach Tony Reno suggests Varga’s calm is a result of mastering the mental game. “The ability to have mental toughness is huge in any corporation, but the NFL is his profession,” says Reno. “Our approach to process—one snap at a time—has allowed him to stay focused and focus on what he can control.”

And Varga is relentless about what he can control. Chism recalls Varga receiving meals from his family at designated times throughout Commencement weekend, ensuring that the festivities wouldn’t disrupt his carefully planned diet. That kind of commitment is a near requirement at the highest level of the sport, and Varga fits right in. “This is a guy who gets up at 4:30, drinks a protein shake, and goes back to bed,” Chism says. “I think [he’s] going to be in the league for as long as he’d like to be.”

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