Yale students and fans watched Tyler Varga ’15 dominate the gridiron as Yale’s star All-Ivy running back for three seasons. Less than two weeks ago, however, Varga was not on the football field, but on the bobsleigh track, where he pushed a sled for a two-man team at the Canadian national championships just five days after he had first started training for the sport.
The 2014 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year retired from professional football in July after spending a year with the National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts. Less than three months later, in October, Varga — originally from Kitchener, Ontario — was asked to return to professional sports, this time to train with the Canadian national bobsleigh team in Calgary. After going through training and learning how to push a sled, Varga did his first test run at the Canadian Championships on Oct. 29, pitting himself against seasoned professionals. Though he performed well enough to meet the team’s standards and was even given the opportunity join the Olympic team headed to Pyeongchang in 2018, Varga declined the spot, cutting his eventful career in bobsleigh short.
“I’m an athlete — I like to compete, and my competitive spirit is still there so I said I’d give [the test run] a shot,” Varga said. “But [bobsleigh] ultimately didn’t fit into my current plans so it’s on the back burner right now, but I can revisit it down the road.”
Varga credits his path to starting his short-lived sledding career to Jesse Lumsden, another Canadian professional football player-turned-bobsledder. Lumsden, a member of the Canadian national team, contacted Varga and asked him if he wanted the chance to train with the rest of the team.
The former running back accepted the offer and landed at the Canada Olympic Park in Calgary on Oct. 24. Initially, he was expected to do a run through the track two days later, but the date was repeatedly delayed until he was forced to do a full test run for the very first time at the national championship. He was paired with a fellow rookie pilot and did several runs while wearing borrowed equipment, managing to outperform some other teams with more experienced sledders.
“He’s pretty psyched,” Yale head coach Tony Reno said. “The adrenaline of pushing a sled down an ice trail — he said it’s one heck of a rush. I’m excited for him. I can’t imagine a guy more physically ready to push a sled.”
Before sledding, Varga joined the Bulldog football team in 2012 as a transfer from the University of Western Ontario. He averaged 142 rushing yards per game in his senior campaign and finished his Yale career as the fourth-most prolific running back.
While earning a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, he also picked up three All-Ivy honors and scored 26 total touchdowns in his senior season — a Yale record.
“I’d say I worked as hard to get my Yale degree as I did to get to the NFL,” Varga said. “Being at Yale and being around some of the great influences there — I believe I’m more well-rounded because of that.”
After finishing his collegiate career ranked fourth in school history in career yards and second in yards per carry, Varga entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He signed with the Colts in May 2015 and made the 53-man roster, playing in three games. He suffered a season-ending concussion in his third game against the Tennessee Titans that prevented him from returning for the remainder of the year and would be a primary factor in his decision to retire.
Varga’s time in the NFL introduced him to the world of professional sports, giving him the opportunity to play alongside other players who he had admired growing up. At the same time, it also served to humanize them in his eyes, allowing him to view them as peers and get a glimpse of their good sides and their bad, he explained.
“Matt Hasselbeck — I grew up watching him play and he became a teammate of mine. I have him on Snapchat right now, which is pretty cool,” Varga said. “But you also get to see players from a more human perspective. They’re superheroes growing up. There are a lot of players in the league that I looked around at and, in my interpretation, shouldn’t be as glorified as they are.”
Following his two retirements — from football and bobsleigh, respectively — Varga is now starting his own company, Varga Athletics, which will mentor young athletes, starting in the Toronto-Ontario area, to help them take advantage of athletic and educational opportunities.
Varga rushed for a total of 2,985 yards in his Yale career.