Sitting in a room in Laramie, Wyoming, Tyler Vander Waal had just finalized one of the biggest decisions of his life when the phone rang.
Just minutes after officially putting his name in the transfer portal, the soon-to-be-ex Wyoming Cowboys quarterback heard Idaho State offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter on the other end of the line.
Ten minutes later, Ferriter and ISU head coach Rob Phenicie had offered Vander Waal a scholarship.
"He was a quality player from an FBS school that had a lot of playing time," Ferriter said. "His film spoke for itself, but we do our research with anybody that we bring in. Talking to coaches at Wyoming, talking to high school coaches that he's had, he just passed every test with flying colors as far as who he is as a person, what football means to him, what his goals are, what his ambitions are. Everything added up for us."
That was on Dec. 18, 2019. On Jan. 6, Vander Waal was in Pocatello to visit ISU. The next day, he committed to the Bengals.
That rapid-fire courtship — and Vander Waal's pedigree, along with the sheer prestige of being the assumed starting quarterback — has made Vander Waal an object of fascination for ISU fans, who, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, have been waiting to see the new face of their team take the field for over a year.
The mystery will begin to be solved Saturday, when the Bengals host Weber State at Holt Arena at 4:05 p.m. in the opener of a six-game spring season born of necessity.
After 14 months of speculation and guessing, hoping and waiting and dreaming on the new guy, the pressure on Vander Waal is very real.
ISU's coaches have been adamant that inconsistent quarterback play from Matt Struck was the defining reason behind a 2019 slip to 3-9 after two years of progress under head coach Rob Phenicie.
Vander Waal was brought in specifically to fix that problem. The difference is, while Struck had an experienced team around him at almost every position in 2019, the Bengals have just two offensive starters back for the 2021 season — wide receiver Tanner Conner and left tackle Jacob Angel. So Vander Waal is being asked to do more with less. He's coming in to be the missing piece and to carry the team.
Quarterbacks have a relationship to pressure — in every sense of the word — that might be unique in sports. On the field, it's a mortal enemy in the form of opposing blitzers, something to "manage" and "escape" and "stay calm under," a menace that constantly threatens your simple ability to do your job.
But doing the job is never enough for the quarterback. At the most mythic position in American sports, there are constant pressures off the field too — pressure to be the team leader, pressure to live up to the ideals of the legends, pressure to be Joe Montana or Tom Brady, do everything right, and never, ever show weakness.
Tyler Vander Waal knows this as well as anyone. He's seen the pressure heaped on quarterbacks and, heck, he's put plenty on himself, too.
He also knows that he hasn't always handled it as well as he could have. In a way, it was the pressure — the weight of expectations, the inability to stop thinking about everything that everybody wanted him to be — that drove Vander Waal from Wyoming and brought him to Idaho State.
But Vander Waal wasn't running from the pressure when he accepted Ferriter's offer. He was moving past it. If you want a football metaphor, coming to ISU was like stepping up in the pocket, taking his eyes off the blitzers — the pressure in his face — and looking downfield, towards the future.
"Knowing that there is a pressure to perform, but knowing that these guys trusted me with their offense, they kind of gave me the keys to the car, I'm just excited to prove them right," Vander Waal said. "You know, not to really prove anybody wrong, but to prove them right. ... So I'm just excited to show them what I can do. They took a chance on me and I kind of want to make it pay off."
In one of Vander Waal's first flag football games as a kid — he was a quarterback from the first time he stepped on the field — he launched a deep ball up the sideline. The ref, likely a high schooler or college kid looking to earn a couple bucks on the weekend, turned to him and said, "You have a hell of an arm," leaving the 5-year-old Vander Waal, who hadn't encountered curse words yet, bewildered.
"I was like, I don't know what that means," Vander Waal said. "But ever since then I kind of knew like, yeah, I have a strong arm. Starting in like sixth grade, I kind of knew I had a knack for the sport, that I was pretty talented. So that's when I really started training. And that's kind of where all my mechanics came from — my form, accuracy, leadership."
Vander Waal trained under former Eastern Washington offensive coordinator and current Sac State head coach Troy Taylor aas well as longtime Sacramento-area quarterback guru Andrew Bettencourt.
Those guys noticed early on that Vander Waal had a cannon. What came later was the realization that he had everything else, too. He was accurate. He had the lanky frame — 6-foot-1 in eighth grade, growing into his current 6-foot-4 frame with broad shoulders — that screams "this kid is either going to be a quarterback or an ace pitcher."
There were less visible gifts as well, ones that weren't clear just from looking at him or watching him throw.
"There's something that I always tell people makes a really good quarterback, excuse my language — they do QB s**t, right? And that means when you walk into a room, people look at you and talk to you, listen to you," Bettencourt said. "When Tyler walks into a room, people listen to him. Whether he's whispering, or he's talking loud, they listen. And that's something that he's had since he was in high school. And then when he says he's going to do something, he's going to do something."
That's the kind of quote — coupled with obvious physical gifts like Vander Waal's — that drives mythologizing about players. When a player, especially a quarterback, has everything like Vander Waal does — the height, the arm, the skills, the leadership, the charisma — it's often easier to see them as a paragon of perfection than as an actual person.
Everybody dreams about being the Big Man On Campus. Only a few are blessed with the gifts to actually do it.
But being the golden boy doesn't always mean that everything will go smoothly.
Cody Tucker still remembers a throw — an incompletion, even — that Vander Waal made against Nevada, calling it one of the best throws he's ever seen. Tucker runs 7220Sports.com, which covers Wyoming sports, and he had a front-row seat to Vander Waal's Cowboys career.
"We would talk amongst ourselves, the other reporters and I, and just say, this guy has got all the tools," Tucker said. "He's got all the tools in the world. He's a big, strong kid, he's got a really good arm. ... He just needs to put it all together."
The tale of what happened to Vander Waal at Wyoming can be complicated. The backup to a legend when he first arrived in Laramie, he won the starting job, lost it, won it again then lost it again.
When Vander Waal came in, Josh Allen was heading into his senior season for the Cowboys. The future No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft, Allen was then in the middle of leading Wyoming to two bowl games and one Mountain West title in his two years as the starter.
It's difficult to describe Allen's fame in Laramie, a town of just over 30,000 with a top-10 NFL Draft pick in its midst. He was Jordan in Chicago or Jeter in New York — only if those towns' main attractions were a smallish state university and the old Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.
"Everyone was talking about (Allen). Everyone," Tucker said. "People who knew nothing about football were talking about him. It was huge. I don't really know how to describe it."
When Vander Waal won the starting job as a redshirt freshman the year after Allen's departure, it brought the pressure down on him hard. He was replacing the most famous person in his university's history, a normal person stepping into Shaq's size 23 shoes.
The departed superstar was a fiery, in-your-face trash talker. Vander Waal was quieter, more reluctant to be the obvious leader of the team — a role that Allen relished.
"It's a natural leading position, and people think leaders have to be overly vocal and be in the public," Bettencourt said. "Tyler is the quiet one. Tyler is, I'm going to talk to you silently, I'm going do it like that. And part of that is, sometimes people will look at it as a negative trait. But that's not all quarterbacks. Not everybody's going to be running around like Tom Brady yelling in people's faces."
"I saw Josh Allen be a natural leader, you know, he was kind of the guy that everyone rallied around," Vander Waal added. "So I was I saw that and I was like, OK, that's what a real leader looks like. And then when I got my chance to shine, I wouldn't say I was a big vocal leader, but I never really developed those relationships with those guys, on and off the field. So I would say, when I was at Wyoming, I was more so lacking in the leadership department."
Vander Waal led the Cowboys to a 29-7 win over New Mexico State in his debut. In the next six games, Wyoming went 1-5, with the only victory a 17-14 win over FCS Wofford, and didn't score more than 19 points in any of those games.
In Wyoming's run-based offense, Vander Waal found it hard to get into a rhythm throwing the ball. Then, when he did get to drop back, he started feeling the pressure, desperate to do something positive in what might be one of his only chances that game to air it out.
Against Utah State, Vander Waal was benched for freshman Sean Chambers, who ran for 100 yards and led multiple scoring drives in what turned into a 24-16 loss. Coming back in for the final drive, Vander Waal threw four-straight incompletions to end the game.
Chambers then won three straight starts. By the end of the season, it was clear that the starting job no longer belonged to Vander Waal.
The same pattern nearly repeated itself the year after. Vander Waal got another crack at the job after Chambers got hurt eight games into the season. He led the Cowboys to close losses against Boise State, which was ranked at the time, and Utah State, but another freshman, Levi Williams, started to take his reps.
Facing the prospect of falling to third on the depth chart with Chambers and Williams both returning in 2020, Vander Waal saw the writing on the wall and decided to enter the transfer portal.
In the end, Tucker said, "he would listen too much. Listen to the fans too much, get in his own head a little bit, because of who he was trying to replace. ... He was kind of his own worst enemy in his head."
Twice beaten out for the starting job, Vander Waal's time at Wyoming wasn't easy. Scrolling social media, he saw the hate coming from fans who were supposed to be in his corner, even some death threats. He never gave up on the team (even when Chambers or Williams scored, Tucker remembered, Vander Waal was the first one sprinting down the sideline for helmet slaps and high-fives) but he saw people giving up on him.
Football had once been his escape, the thing he could turn to when other things weren't going well. Now it became something he dreaded. He started drinking more to try to replace the fun that was no longer there on the gridiron.
The pressure — of replacing Josh Allen, of feeling the need to play perfectly — had won.
"The game that I got pulled, the Utah State game in 2018, you know, I didn't have a good game, and I was down on myself," Vander Waal said. "And that's something that I always struggle with, just letting one play affect the next play. So I throw a bad pass, you know, and then I'm in my head knowing that, OK, now I don't know if I can make the next pass, and that would kind of lead me down the rabbit hole."
Jeff Bugher knew what the Vander Waals were going through.
As he texted Tiffani and Jeff Vander Waal, Tyler's parents, the group couldn't help but laugh about their tragedies.
"We always joke about it, like, if it weren't for bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all," Bugher said. "We always talk about it, when it rains, it pours."
Bugher is a Wyoming fan in his 30s who struck up a conversation with the Vander Waals as they watched Allen warm up before a game in Tyler's redshirt year. Tiffani and Jeff have barely missed a game since Tyler was in the sixth grade, and they struck up a friendship with Bugher over the rest of the season.
Bugher's brother, Chris, was just 38 years old when he died in 2018. Before the next game, Tyler caught Bugher in the crowd during the Cowboy Walk, Wyoming's pregame entrance to the stadium.
He pulled him aside, offered his condolences, told him that he'd be there for whatever he needed. Tyler wasn't expected to play that day against Nevada. Tiffani and Jeff didn't even make it over to Laramie for the game, but Tyler was forced into the game by an injury and threw a late touchdown in a 31-3 win.
That night, he took Bugher to dinner, hoping to take his mind off his brother.
"He's the kind of person that represents what it means to be a DI athlete," Bugher said. "He always takes time to hang out with the kids after the game. ... When he got benched, he was still dedicated, he didn't give up. He could have never played again, but he stuck through it."
In sad irony, it was Bugher offering sympathy and support to his friends in 2020. First, Tyler's grandfather died in early spring. In August, Tyler was sitting at home in Pocatello when his dad called on his mother's phone.
His brother, Ryan, four years older, had been found unresponsive in his room.
"I started screaming, I didn't really know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I was alone at the time," Tyler said through tears. "That's just something you know, it didn't seem real at the time."
Tyler and Ryan had grown up playing football against each other in the Vander Waal's yard with Jeff as all-time quarterback.
At Tyler's Little League and youth football games, Ryan, not the athlete that his brother was, would critique his sibling's play, drag him into the backyard to fix his swing was he was in a slump.
"Our relationship was rocky at times, but at the end of the day, you know, that's your brother. He was my only brother," Tyler said. "We kind of grew distant as time grew apart because we had different interests. But growing up, you know, from the moment I was born to probably about when I was 12 years old, we had the best relationship in the world."
After Ryan's death, Tiffani sent some of his artwork to Tyler. A three-part sign particularly caught his interest. On the top, it says "Keep Staying Positive." On the bottom, a Bible verse, Hebrews 13:8 — "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever."
And in the middle, a simple four letters, written plain in black against the white background.
It's the message that Tyler now has tattooed on his wrist in memory of his brother.
"2020 has been hard and put me in a pretty rough spot. Mentally, you know, I've never had to go to therapy before," Tyler said. "But it's taught me to, you know, tell people that I care about that I love you a lot more, because I didn't have the best relationship with my brother. But there's no going back. You always wish, oh, I wish I could have told him I love you a lot more."
The footage is a little grainy — not because of the video quality, but because of the blizzard snow falling from the skies in Laramie.
In the SportsCenter clip, Scott Van Pelt and Stanford Steve trade dry barbs in the popular Bad Beats segment.
On the screen, the number of the quarterback in the brown and yellow of the Wyoming Cowboys is barely legible through the snow — No. 18, whipping the ball around, scrambling for a score, leading a 13-point comeback against Air Force with four minutes to go.
This is the last view of Tyler Vander Waal free, unencumbered by the pressure, safe from any expectations.
"This is one of my favorite things to watch if I want to get, like, a quick jones of my football," Tiffani Vander Waal said. "Right after Tyler had lost his starting job midway through his redshirt freshman year, the kid that started broke his leg. Tyler comes in, off the bench, and it ended up being on Bad Beats."
When he was benched midway through that redshirt freshman year, Tyler vowed to putting so much pressure on himself.
And when he got that opportunity against Air Force, the weight on his shoulders was gone. On one fourth-down play, he scrambled for five seconds before finding a receiver to keep the game alive.
He ran in one touchdown on an option, ripped in the go-ahead score to Austin Conway between three defenders.
"He was running around in the snow like a kid again, making plays with his feet and arm," Tucker wrote on 7220 Sports.
Unlike the snow, the freedom didn't stick. The story took another turn for the worse, and Vander Waal couldn't make it make it work at Wyoming.
But that glimpse is what Idaho State fans will be hoping for, and Vander Waal wants to get there again.
Playing in Idaho State's wide-open, pass-heavy offense as opposed to Wyoming's run-first, run-last scheme — death on quarterbacks who like to throw and can't consistently pick up yards with their legs — will help, but so will Vander Waal's growth.
He's recognizing his responsibilities, fixing his flaws. The kid who felt he let his team down as a leader at Wyoming stood up in his first team meeting, felt the spotlight and introduced himself. He invited the whole offense to a barbecue at his house.
He knows that the pressure will never go away. That's what you get when you're 6-foot-4, cannon-armed, the starting quarterback, the Big Man On Campus.
But Tyler Vander Waal, after failure and tragedy, isn't running from the pressure any more.
"I want to be perfect, but it's easier knowing that, once I built those relationships, that these guys were gonna accept me no matter what," Vander Waal said.
"I'm not going to be perfect. I'm gonna try as hard as I can to be, but knowing that even when I come up short, those guys are gonna, you know, respect me and pick me up whenever I need it."