Y-H Spissue: Four former Elis’ paths to the NFL
Since 2015, four Yale Bulldogs have gone on to the National Football League after graduation.
Courtesy of Yale Athletics
Over the last six years, several bulldogs have traded their blue and white jerseys for the many colors of NFL team gear.
For Tyler Varga ’15, 2015 was a big year. Not only did he graduate from Yale with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, but he also joined the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. Three years later, in 2018, two additional Elis joined the NFL. Foyesade Oluokun ’18 and Jaeden Graham ’18 remained teammates; Oluokun was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft, while Graham was also picked up by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent. Then, in 2020, the Chicago Browns selected Dieter Eiselen ’20 in the “eighth round” post-draft period.
“Our players go on to do some pretty amazing things,” Yale football head coach Tony Reno told the News in 2020. “All Yale students do, but to have [Oluokun and Graham] playing professionally is awesome for us. We’re really excited for them and their journeys — journeys that were both a little different.”
While they all transitioned from the Yale Bowl to the Big Stage, each Eli took a different path to the national league.
Tyler Varga originally played for University of Western Ontario before joining the Bulldogs for his sophomore year in 2012 as a tailback. As an Eli, Varga was one of the most successful rushers in Yale history. Varga put up 2,985 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns — the fourth- and third- most in program history, respectively. The Finnish-Canadian was named Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year his final season.
After graduation, Varga joined the Indianapolis Colts. Due to a severe concussion in his third game, Varga was out for the season. As a result, Varga decided to put his health first and retire from the NFL after just one season with the Colts.
At the time, Varga told the Indy Star, “Thank God I went to Yale.”
He now works as a senior investment analyst at ARC Financial Corp.
The St. Louis native was one of the highest-rated recruits in Missouri during his high school career as a linebacker at John Burroughs School. He received offers from Harvard, Yale and Penn; naturally, he chose the Blue and White.
In his first season as a Bulldog in 2013, Oluokun led the rookies in the Ivy League with 60 tackles. As an Eli, Oluokun was granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility to play football after he suffered from a pectoral tear in his chest during Week 3 of his junior season. During his red-shirt senior season in 2017, Oluokun completed nine tackles and a sack against Harvard, limiting the Crimson to just three points and securing the Bulldogs’ Ivy League title.
After Yale, the six-foot-two linebacker participated in drills at Pro Day with 20 NFL scouts. He also attended several pre-draft visits with NFL teams. The Falcons drafted him in the sixth round, as the 200th overall pick of the NFL draft.
“I viewed myself as an undrafted free agent, especially because I came out of a small school, so I wasn’t sure how much film they had watched of me,” Oluokun told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after a training camp session in August 2020. “They didn’t know I had that much grit at Yale, which was all we preached there. I was ready to do whatever it took to make the team.”
As a member of the Falcons’ defense, Oluokun became the first rookie since Keanu Neal in 2016 to record 89 tackles in a single season, the fourth-most tackles by a rookie in Falcons history. He is currently a starter for Atlanta in his fourth season with the team.
Jaeden Graham’s journey
Also on the Falcons’ roster is Jaeden Graham. As a multi-sport athlete in high school, Graham had to choose whether to pursue baseball or football at the collegiate level. He ended up favoring the pigskin and the Bulldogs.
After two lackluster seasons with the Elis, coaches switched Graham’s position from offensive linebacker to tight end. Although it took him a season to get a hold of the new position, Graham “simply redefined the position of tight end for us at Yale” during his senior season, Reno told the News in 2020.
He led all Ancient Eight tight ends that year with four receiving touchdowns, 26 receptions and 380 yards. As a result of his historic season, Graham was named First Team All-Ivy League and First Team All-ECAC.
“Jaeden has an incredible story of perseverance,” Kurt Rawlings ’20 –– quarterback for the 2017 Yale team –– said in 2020. “You certainly do not become an All-Ivy and NFL tight end in one season out of luck.”
Graham’s hard work did not end after graduation. He managed to work his way into NFL mini-camps with the Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons. Graham signed onto the practice squad with the Falcons as an undrafted free agent.
During his rookie 2019 season with the Falcons, Graham stepped in after their starting tight end, Austin Hooper, was injured. In the two weeks he started, Graham obtained five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. During his 16 games in the season of 2020, Graham contributed on offense and special teams, resulting in three receptions for 25 yards.
In his two complete seasons in the NFL, Graham played in 32 games, recording 12 receptions for 174 yards and one touchdown. Currently, Graham is on the injury reserve list for the Atlanta Falcons due to a knee injury.
Prior to Yale, the South African grew up playing rugby. After graduating from high school, he contacted a variety of preparatory schools in the United States to see if they would accept him for a 5th year so he could play football. Choate Rosemary Hall accepted him, and Eiselen helped lead the team to the 2015 NEPSAC Championship game.
In his second official year of competitive football, the six-foot-four, 300-pound Yale first-year made an impact at his position as a linebacker. In his sophomore year, Eiselen was a game-changer for the Elis, playing a vital role in running back Zane Dudek’s ’21 historic year of leading the league in every rushing and scoring category. Eiselen earned All-Ivy Honorable Mention the same year. For his success in his junior season, Eiselen was named Second Team All-Ivy League and Phil Steele First Team All-Ivy League.
Eiselen continued to thrive with the Bulldogs and helped Yale finish out his collegiate career first in total offense in the Ancient Eight. For his efforts in his final season, Eiselen made First Team All-Ivy and the AP All-American Third Team. Additionally, he was selected to play in the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl, which is a premier showcase for draft-eligible talent. During the game in January 2020, Eiselen helped the National Team squad to a 30-20 win as an offensive lineman.
The Chicago Bears recognized Eiselen’s athleticism and talent, and picked him up as an undrafted free agent shortly after the 2020 NFL draft.
“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity and ready to seize it by any means possible,” Eiselen told the News in 2020. “I cannot wait to get to work and push my mind and body beyond its limits.”
Eiselen is currently in his second season with the Bears, where he played in two games.