The date was Oct. 21, 2016 at Iola, Wis., and Tyler Tenner was experiencing an epiphany that wasn’t pleasant.
The freshman running back and safety for the Racine Lutheran High School football team was trying to make something happen and he was fighting a losing battle. Iola-Scandinavia quarterback Jayden Sivertson was lofting passes right over Tenner. Worse yet, he was held to 10 rushing yards in four attempts.
And after Lutheran had lost 35-28 in that first-round WIAA Division 6 playoff game, Tenner knew that he had some work to do. He considered his performance unacceptable that day and he was going to push himself to be the best he could be.
That’s exactly what he did, to an extent that he was literally throwing up off the side of the track at UW-Parkside in Somers after running himself to exhaustion. And now Tenner is the all-time leading rusher in state history and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Small Schools Offensive Player of the Year. His latest honor came when he was unanimously voted the All-Racine County Player of the Year.
“I think of my career as a lot of good things,” said Tenner, who finished his high school career with 6,932 yards and 89 touchdowns. “There were a lot of friendships made and the most important thing about my career was my teammates.
That accomplishments I have couldn’t have happened without them doing their jobs and helping me get there.”
Any running back needs holes and an offensive line consisting of Tim Nelson, Seth Hultman, David Voss, Sully Stanke and Henry Hoeft consistently provided plenty for him. But there was something special within Tenner that elevated him to historic greatness and it goes back to that long night in October 2016.
“Things were moving real fast in that game and I realized there was a big jump from Pop Warner football, where everything was my pace and I set the tone,” Tenner said. “Everything was moving so quickly and I couldn’t catch up.
“I realized that I had to slow the game down and that’s what was going to help me take my control. I worked during that offseason going into sophomore year harder than any offseason ever.”
Overseeing Tenner’s conditioning was Eric Harris, who is still his personal trainer. Tenner only achieved meaningful results after Harris pushed him to his limit and beyond.
Which brings us to his routine torture at UW-Parkside.
“It was days of throwing up, crying and not wanting to work out that helped push me to get to the level I’m at,” Tenner said. “I remember we would get down with hill chargers and he took me over to the track at Parkside and he made me run 100 meters 10 times and I threw up.
“There were times I was completely broken down, when I was on my last little tick and he was able to push me.”
But with that pain, there would be plenty of gain. Tenner spent the next three seasons ripping off huge chunks of yardage of Lutheran, which went 33-5 during that span.
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Tenner was at his best during the Crusaders’ run in 2018 to their first appearance in the Division 6 state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. In five postseason games that year, Tenner rushed for an astounding 1,086 yards and scored 15 touchdowns.
And if Tenner had not come through with what he considers the signature game of his career, that playoff run would have stalled after one game.
Lutheran trailed Pecatonica-Argyle 13-0 at halftime in that first-round game. And then Tenner scored touchdowns on a 70-yard punt return, a 33-yard reception and a 74-yard run as the Crusaders rallied for a 20-19 victory.
“The second half, I had a complete game and I think that was the best game I ever played in my life,” he said.
Tenner’s second-best game? An argument could be made for so many.
“He is just really, really hard to get to the ground,” Greendale Martin Luther coach Rick Hoppert said. “He’s tough to tackle, he’s got a strong lower half and it’s all the yards after contact that separate him from any other back.”
There’s something else that separates Tenner: He might have been just as dominating on defense as a linebacker and safety as he was on offense.
“I believe his prowess on offense has often overshadowed his ability on the defensive side of the ball,” Catholic Central coach Tom Aldrich said. “He is an impact and disruptive defensive player.
“Offensively, he is special. He has great balance and vision to go along with his tremendous speed. He was tough to tackle one on one. We played them in week 9, so the teams we played in the playoffs both got to see our film against them. Both opposing coaches commented to me about how impressive Tyler was. They were particularly impressed with his ability to ‘cut on a dime’ and how he was a complete back.”
Tenner’s father, Cory, was a first-team AP All-State running back for Park in 1998. How does he compare himself with his son?
“He’s just bigger, stronger and faster than what I was,” said Cory, part of the first father-son duo ever to be named All-Racine County Player of the Year. “He has cutting abililty like I did, he can break tackles like I could, but he’s just a bigger back than what I was.”
Nevertheless, Tenner’s football future is in limbo at the moment.
“I don’t have any offers,” Tenner said of playing at the collegiate level. “I’m a diamond in the rough and I’m not going to be seen as much because of my division. I don’t think colleges want to take that risk and, right now, I’m just waiting for that one college to take that risk.”
Lutheran coach Scott Smith is adamant that whatever program does make a commitment to Tenner won’t be disappointed.
“I have no doubt that wherever Tyler goes, he’s going to play football,” Smith said.