To watch Thomas Tyner run is to watch the Usain Bolt of high school football.
Unless you religiously follow recruiting or live in the state of Oregon, you’ve probably never heard of Tyner, at least not until this past week. But last Friday night, he did the unimaginable, carrying the ball 38 times for 643 yards and 10 touchdowns in one game. Let that sink in for a second: six hundred and 43 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was the third-greatest game in high school football history, behind John Giannantonio’s 754 yards for Netcong (N.J.) High School in 1950 and Paul McCoy’s 661 yards for Matewan (W. Va.) High School in 2006. Oh, and Tyner did this on his 18th birthday.
We live in the age of instant video on the Internet, where you can watch spliced together highlights of everyone from Barry Sanders to Greg Ostertag. You can also, thanks to The Oregonian, watch Tyner run past every defender again and again and again as he racked up 17 touchdowns and more than 1,200 yards in just three games.
Although I’ve come to loathe the intense interest in the day-to-day events of recruiting, it’s easy to be blown away by the occasional video that pops up with a high school star looking like Bo Jackson.
For various reasons, the names of guys like Noel Devine and Austin Scott and Sam McGuffie have mostly been lost to football history. But their past brilliance as runners lives on.
Devine is perhaps the best-known YouTube legend; a three-minute, 15-second highlight video of him looking like Barry Sanders has more than 837,000 views. He went on to a productive career at West Virginia but didn’t catch on in the NFL. Scott wasn’t quite a national legend, but I grew up reading breathless accounts of his performances in my local newspaper in Pennsylvania as week after week he made tacklers look silly (you’ll want to see the run starting at the 47-second mark of this video). He showed flashes of ability at Penn State but derailed his own career with off-the-field problems. And then there’s McGuffie, who’s most famous for jumping over defenders but is now playing receiver at Rice after transferring from Michigan.
Nobody puts together absurd stat lines like high school running backs, and there are few things more enjoyable to watch in sports than gifted running backs putting on a show. Unlike Scott’s ability to shed tacklers, Devine’s explosiveness and agility and McGuffie’s vertical leap, Tyner’s defining characteristic is pure straight-line speed. He’s not flashy, which is weird to say for someone who ran for 643 yards in one game; he’s just flat-out better and faster than the defense. Watch the video of his touchdowns. He has some moves, sure, but for the most part he’s five steps ahead of the defense and just flies past defenders. Want to see what Usain Bolt might look like on a high school field? Look at the run starting at the 1:24 mark. An up-the-middle run turns into a bounce outside, which turns into a full-out sprint in which defenders don’t stand a chance. By the end, Tyner pulls up and trots into the end zone like Bolt at the Beijing Olympics. Rarely does anyone get a hand on him.
Tyner’s Aloha team won 84-63, so it’s not like the opponent was a bunch of scrubs. Aloha needed everything Tyner gave to beat Lakeridge. To make it crazier still, Tyner wasn’t even the only high school running back in the state of Oregon to rush for 10 touchdowns that night. Perrydale’s Josh Hiebenthal had 334 yards and 10 touchdowns in an 82-42 win, with the worst timing ever. As an East Coaster, I won’t pretend to know what’s going on in Oregon prep football such that multiple teams are scoring over 80 points with 10-touchdown running backs.
Thomas is verbally committed to play for Chip Kelly at Oregon. That’s right -- the fastest man in high school football will join the fastest offense in college football, one that’s currently a blur with the nation’s most explosive runner, De’Anthony Thomas, teaming with Kenjon Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota. So far this season, against three weak opponents, Thomas has carried the ball 13 times for 228 yards and four touchdowns with three TD catches. Sounds familiar.
As much as some college basketball fans like to claim superiority over the NBA because the game is more team-oriented, I’m more interested in a transcendent individual performance than a team efficiently executing the Princeton offense. I could spend all day watching Bill Raftery analyze Tayshaun Prince’s five straight three-pointers to open a game against North Carolina, but will spend no time searching for the “top 10 moments of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.”
It’s the same across any sport. Sure, we’re in the age of home runs and dunks and “SportsCenter,” but I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s watching Jim Brown pulverize the NFL. Cohesive performances by teams deserve to be appreciated, but, really, we’re all waiting for another LeBron against the Pistons, Jordan against the Jazz.
Somewhere, these games are happening every week, across all sports, in the most random places. Add Thomas Tyner to the list. Who knows what he’ll do for an encore tonight in Portland against Sunset High School, but for his 18th birthday, he has already been immortalized, every young athlete’s dream.
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What’s the most memorable individual performance you’ve seen? Share yours in the comments.