While Tyler Vander Waal is new to Natchitoches, he’s not new to college football, and his story goes deeper than the sport he plays.
“If I were to tell you this is the most important season of my life I think that would be an understatement,” said Vander Waal.
Vander Waal’s career started as the heir apparent to Josh Allen at Wyoming. In Vander Waal’s mind, he was three years away from starting his NFL career.
“I was naïve I was 18 (years old), I’m three years into the league, I’m the next Josh Allen,” said Vander Waal.
He was named the starter for the Cowboys after Allen left for the Buffalo Bills, but struggled during his redshirt freshman season and Wyoming fans outwardly showed their displeasure after an early-season interception.
“As a 19-year-old, your own fans that come out and support you every Saturday are now, not necessarily turning their back on you but they’re booing you,” Vander Waal said. “You come out here to support your team and I’m getting booed by my own fans, it was tough.”
The boos cast doubt into his mind.
“My parents were at that game and I just went up to and I just cried,” Vander Waal said. “I was like, I don’t want to play football anymore, I think that was the lowest point in my life.”
Vander Waal’s mental health began to spiral, and he turned to alcohol to cope.
“At the end of the day I wasn’t happy,” Vander Waal said. “I was chasing those dopamine levels, I was chasing that happiness to fill that void that I was missing.”
After losing his starting job, and spending the 2019 season as the 3rd string quarterback, Vander Waal knew he needed a change of scenery. He entered the transfer portal and landed at Idaho State. This time a different barricade was placed in his path to success, the Covid-19 Pandemic. His first season with the Bengals was over before it even started.
“I just felt lost and again started doing things I shouldn’t be doing,” Vander Waal said. “I didn’t have anything to do, you’re not playing football, you can’t do anything, the world is shut down.”
As if Vander Waal hadn’t been through enough, tragedy struck again.
“I’m sitting at home one day and I get this phone call, it’s from my mom and it’s my dad on the other side of the phone, so instantly I think something happened to my mom,” Vander Waal said. “He just tells me, we came home and we found your brother and he’s not going to make it.”
Tyler was all alone, 700 miles away from his family, and now mourning the loss of his brother Ryan.
“Here I am back in this depression. I’m 21 years old and I have to bury my brother now,” Vander Waal said. “My life came to a halt right then and there.”
Football has always been Vander Waal’s way to escape, but then, with the would shut down that door was temporarily closed.
“That’s where I go to shut my problems off from the world and I can’t do that anymore. I’m kind of forced to cope with all of this,” Vander Waal said.
Without football to turn to, those same feelings and emotions he experienced at Wyoming were beginning to resurface.
“My mental health was terrible. As a man, you’re in the spotlight, you can’t really show that emotion, you can’t show that weakness,” Vander Waal said. “It was tough for me because I had all this emotion, but I didn’t want to show it. I always had to force myself to put a smile on my face. It was tough, it took such an emotional toll on me.”
That emotional toll eventually broke Tyler, and finally, after years of tragedy and adversity, he reached out for help.
“I start going to therapy, I start talking to a counselor and just start getting stuff off my chest, vocalizing my thoughts, vocalizing how I feel. I feel like that helped a lot,” Vander Waal said. “It was an outlet for me to go, this is what’s going on, this is how I feel.”
The therapy helped, and things on the field began to turn around. Vander Waal and Idaho State played a spring season in 2021. Tyler was named the Big Sky Conference newcomer of the year, but the upswing was short lived. Just as Tyler was taking positive steps on and off the field, another devastating blow.
“I played in three games the prior season before my shoulder surgery, played in two games and then broke my collarbone, so I played 5 games in a total of two seasons with two season ending injuries and it was tough,” Vander Waal said.
Once again Tyler turned to greener pastures and a fresh start, enter Brad Laird and the Northwestern State Demons.
“He brings a lot of experience and you saw that right away. He came in and had that presence , some people call it the “it factor”, said Demons’ head coach Brad Laird. “He had that presence to him and our guys gravitated to that early on.”
After seven years as a college athlete, and overcoming countless adversities, Vander Waal has amassed quite a bit of wisdom. The advice he gives to other athletes who are struggling with their mental health, know that you’re not alone.
“I wish someone would have told me that sooner,” Vander Waal said. “I wish I could tell 19-20 year old Tyler, go talk to somebody. It’s ok to reach out to your support system, people care about you.”