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When one imagines a running back with a bodybuilder’s physique storming down the gridiron with the balance and agility of a downhill skier, one can get a sense of the nightmare Ivy League defenses have dealt with in preparing for running back Tyler Varga ’15 the past three seasons.
The Ecology & Evolutionary Biology major certainly has genetics on his side. Varga’s parents, John and Hannele, are athletic specimens in their own right. His mother is a skillful alpine skier; his father, meanwhile, was once Mr. Eastern Canada thanks to his bodybuilding efforts.
Varga’s stats speak for themselves. Thus far in his senior campaign for Yale, the tailback who grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, after being born in Sweden, has racked up 1,296 yards on the ground and 23 total touchdowns in nine games.
Those 23 touchdowns match the total from running back Mike McLeod’s ’09 spectacular 2007 season. With three touchdowns on the ground against Harvard, Varga would equal McLeod’s all-time Yale record for most rushing touchdowns in a season.
“Records are made to be broken,” McLeod said. “I broke a lot, but I left a lot in place. [Varga’s] really had a tremendous year.”
In a Yale career abbreviated by his transfer from the University of Western Ontario following his freshman year and an injury-riddled season a year ago, Varga has nonetheless produced whenever he has suited up.
A typical Yale football player has the opportunity to play 40 games over the course of his career. Varga has only played in 23, yet his 2,858 rushing yards — good for a spectacular 124.3 per game — are fifth-best in Yale’s storied history. 157 rushing yards on Saturday would catapult Varga to third, passing Yale legends Dick Jauron ’73 and Rashad Bartholomew ’01.
The man who helped guide the careers of McLeod and Bartholomew, two pillars of the pantheon of great backs Yale has produced, is Yale running backs coach Larry Ciotti.
“[Varga] is a great pass catcher, tremendous blocker, and his running style is best described as a skilled runner that hits defenders like the deployment of a nuclear warhead,” Ciotti said. “Any [National Football League] team would like to have a running back with those attributes.”
Varga’s eye-popping numbers, along with his unique brand of athleticism, has turned him into a top professional prospect. He is ranked the No. 2 prospect for next year’s Canadian Football League draft, an avenue he might pursue should an opportunity in the NFL not present itself.
But the prospect of playing on Saturdays, let alone Sundays, all appeared to be in jeopardy not that long ago.
The most devastating of athletic injuries often cause the victims to lose the ability to ever play that sport again. In Varga’s case, he nearly lost a foot.
In his final high school game, with colleges across Canada, as well as a few in America paying close attention, Varga tore his peroneal tendon, a muscle connecting the calf to the foot. Doctors soon began to worry his foot might be in jeopardy, as compartment syndrome dangerously restricted the blood flow in his lower leg.
Undeterred, Varga plowed through the injury. At Western Ontario, Varga earned Rookie of the Year honors. When he reached out to Yale head coach Tony Reno in the offseason, the Bulldogs’ newly hired leader was waiting with open arms.
Since coming to the Bulldogs, he has consistently won over his teammates, even if they were at first caught off guard by the sheer size of their tailback.
“The first day of fall camp my freshman year, he came in and was one of the largest running backs I’d ever seen in my life,” offensive guard Mason Friedline ’17 said. “He looked like he could wrestle a bear or something — he was jacked out of his mind. But he was the friendliest guy in the world and immediately introduced himself to the freshmen.”
Varga’s transfer started out seamlessly, and the Elis had appeared to struck Canadian gold. In 2012, Varga led the nation in all-purpose yardage per game, doing it all for the Bulldogs as a rusher, a kick returner and, when injury knocked out all four of Yale’s quarterbacks for that year’s Columbia game, a quarterback as well. Remarkably, Varga set a record that day as well, compiling the most yards on the ground for a quarterback in Yale history with 220 yards on 25 carries.
The senior finished the season with 935 rushing yards in eight games, never dipping below 91 yards in any contest that season.
Last year’s campaign saw Varga limited by injuries, missing four games entirely and carrying the ball just five times in the season finale against Harvard.
“Obviously being healthy for the full season is the number one goal,” Varga said regarding his preparation for this season. “Either you’re out or your performance is limited, so you want to be as close to 100 percent as possible … that’s the main focus every week.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Reno echoed Ciotti, albeit with fewer words, when asked if he expects to see Varga continuing his career in the NFL next year.
“Yes,” Reno said.