Tylar Wiltz Doesn’t Just Smile Because He’s Happy
It was just another very early Monday morning for Mark Wiltz as he woke up on Dec. 10, 2018. But as is the case with every good father, his first thoughts were of his son.
He had to get down to his classroom at Breaux Bridge Junior High, but he made sure to wake his son Tylar up — right at six in the morning — before he left. He left pretty clear instructions before he left, too. Get your butt down to the school. Quickly.
Tylar wasn’t a student at Breaux Bridge Junior anymore, six years removed from his own time there, but he knew he needed to head down to his father’s classroom anyway. He had a decision to make, the kind that required a father’s wisdom.
Tylar, who had recently made the decision to leave Butler (Kan.) Community College in order to pursue college football at a higher level, was deciding between Missouri State and McNeese State. And he thought he had it all figured out.
McNeese State was perfect. It was close to home — truly a straight shot back to Breaux Bridge. If he hopped on I-10 and drove east for about an hour from Lake Charles, he’d arrive at Breaux Bridge Junior High. He missed home. After a couple of trying years at the Division II and junior college level, he wanted to come home.
And believe it or not, the McNeese State offer was actually a birthday present. The coaching staff extended him an offer on Nov. 18, his birthday. What better birthday present than the opportunity to come home? It meant home-cooked meals with his mother Tara and the familiarity that eluded him while he was away. “I was actually very excited because I was home,” Wiltz said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna be the one.’ I had been working to get home.” But he didn’t go home.
“In the back of my mind, I knew that if I went home, I had too many questions,” Wiltz said. “What ifs. If I went home, would I still love football as much as I did while I was in JUCO? Would I do everything possible to help me get where I’m going, where I want to be? I didn’t want to become complacent by going home where I’ve always been.”
Tylar got out of bed, got dressed and prepared himself for the drive to his dad’s classroom. He knew what was awaiting him even before he walked in. “Write down the pros and cons of each school,” Kevin told him. Tylar wasn’t going to be able to leave until he worked out exactly which school best suited his needs. They were going to figure out which school Tylar needed to choose as his new home.
“I could’ve come home or I could’ve went to Missouri State,” Wiltz said. “And it was very stressful, but he was like, ‘I’m not gonna make that decision for you. You have to make the best decision for yourself.’
“And after weighing the pros and the cons, everything I wanted was at Missouri State. Everything I needed was at Missouri State. And as we can see, it worked out.”
Mark woke up his son at six, and the decision to attend Missouri State was made by noon. The decision may have been made, but the journey was far from over.
The journey, even just to get to Missouri State, was hard. Really hard.
And he’d be lying if he said there weren’t times when he doubted whether he was doing the right thing or not. He felt isolated, all alone 10 hours from home at Butler. He didn’t even have grocery money. He wasn’t used to going hungry. The situation tested both himself and his faith. But he came out stronger because of it.
“I knew that it wasn’t gonna be easy when I first got there,” Wiltz said. “As the process went on, it got harder and harder and harder, and that’s when I knew that I actually loved football because I would still wake up every morning knowing what I had to do to get where I was going, and if I would’ve given up, then I would not be able to tell you this story, or be able to help other people to realize that it can be done.”
That strength of will, an indomitable belief in both himself and the journey itself, came from his parents. It may sound cliché, but he wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to go to college without their hard work.
It was their love — their perseverance and determination to provide anything and everything for their children — that inspired Wiltz. He shared a two-bedroom house with nine people growing up. His mother and father were split up, but they each prioritized their children over themselves.
“And seeing that each of us wanted to go to college, they always preached to us, ‘We want to give you guys more than we had.’ And they did,” Wiltz said. “Under all the circumstances. Imagine having different kids playing different sports every year and you have to wake up and make sure that all of ’em are fed, you know, being teachers and working your way up in ranks and whatnot.”
They gave Wiltz more than they had. And he wants to be able to do the same for his children one day. “But also, for me to do that, I gotta go through the toughest and hardest things, just like they did,” Wiltz said. “So, my kids will never have to worry. So, my siblings will never have to worry. So, I can give my parents back everything they gave me one hundredfold.” He learned from his parents, but he also learned from his experiences at Southern Arkansas, Butler and especially at Missouri State.
Of course, the coaching staff at Missouri State was foundational in molding Wiltz into the man he is today. He’s proud of his growth as a football player but even more so of the man he’s become. He made sure to earn his degree — a Bachelor’s in biology — before he left.
But as he learned at every stop along his journey through the ranks of college football, adversity is never hard to find. And it was no different when he arrived at Pitt.
A weaker man that Wiltz could’ve chosen to be angry with his opportunity. He left Missouri State as an All-American superstar, a leading man on and off the field, and he received just two snaps in the season opener against West Virginia. Is it hard to feel like every day is a blessing when it isn’t going your way? It wasn’t for Wiltz.
If he learned anything — and he certainly learned an awful lot — at Missouri State, it was a simple message from linebackers coach Reggie Johnson. “Be where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there, doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” It can be applied to anything you do in life.
“Good things will happen, and they did,” Wiltz said. “I did all the things that he taught me, followed that, and it got me the chance, the blessing, the opportunity to play at the University of Pittsburgh, and the opportunity to be here where I am right now.”
Wiltz trusted the coaching staff, but perhaps more importantly, he continued to trust in himself. “I knew from the jump I could do it,” Wiltz said. “The coaches saw something different, and I could have just folded. I could have been like, ‘Okay, they’re mistreating me, something’s going on.'” Instead, he worked. He listened, of course. But he worked and worked and worked until the coaching staff couldn’t justify keeping him off the field.
Pitt’s defensive playbook is vast. It’s complex and hard to learn. And as a mid-year arrival, he was expected to pick it up in a couple of months — while also adapting to life in a new city and bonding with his new teammates. It was a challenge he embraced. It provided another opportunity to learn and grow both on and off the field.
And unsurprisingly, as he picked up the defense and grew more and more comfortable, his snap counts began to rise each week — as the stakes got higher.
21 snaps against Tennessee, 17 against Western Michigan, 21 again against Rhode Island. Success. 43 snaps against Virginia Tech. 50 against North Carolina. His impact was so great that Pat Narduzzi named him as Pitt’s fourth starting linebacker, supplementing Bangally Kamara at Star. It was largely the result of Wiltz believing in himself. He believed in himself every step of the way, but his pride wasn’t vanity. No, he believed in himself and the coaching staff. And when the coaching staff gave him opportunities, he got the job done. It was impossible to take him off the field.
But as much fun as he was having on the field, he was having just as much — if not more — off the field, too. He found a home in Pittsburgh, and with his new home, came his new family. The brothers he will never forget. If you asked Wiltz to pick one favorite moment during his lone season in Pittsburgh, he wouldn’t be able to do it. He wouldn’t even be able to pick a single day.
“No matter how tired I was, no matter what we did that day before at practice, no matter how my day was with anything, being able to wake up and go sit in team meetings with Calijah Kancey, Marquis Williams, SirVocea Dennis, Bangally Kamara, the names can go on — and then sitting in the linebacker room with all those guys, it was just always a party,” Wiltz said.
“If you could go outside mad playing on the defense with the different characters that we had, the different personalities we had, you just did not love the sport. You just didn’t want to be there. There was never a day where I couldn’t smile in front of those guys. Those guys helped me become better, and I’m forever grateful.”
A smile. Wiltz prides himself on his smile, not because of the pearly-white shine but the message behind it. He knows it’s infectious. His energy, a relentless positivity in the face of any challenge, is infectious. It’s hard not to smile when you’re around him. So, he makes sure he’s always smiling.
It’s the smile of a man who takes it personally when those around him aren’t smiling.
“I love seeing people happy, and if we’re all happy, it’s always gonna be a good time,” Wiltz said. “No matter what you’re going through at home, if I can be that light in your day just by saying, ‘Hey, man, good morning.’ I kind of speak and sometimes I don’t think, you know, I don’t say things disrespectfully, but once you get to know me, I’m a very outspoken person.
“So, any day that I saw anybody upset, anybody frowning, I made it a point to let them know, to show them. I may not walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you if you need talk.’ But I’ll say something that gets your attention and get a smile outta you because I want the best for you. So, my smile is because I want other people to smile as well. It’ll take me a long way. A smile will take you — and other people — a long way.”
It almost goes without saying that Wiltz’s play last season made a lot of Pitt fans smile, too. Search Tylar Wiltz on Twitter. Most of the tweets will be either about how fans wished he had another season at Pitt or how he’s made yet another play. As he racked up 50 tackles (26 solo), four tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, three pass breakups and forced a fumble, he became a fan favorite.
It’s hard to not like what Wiltz brings to the table, the energy and passion with which he carries himself on and off the football field. It helps that he starred in Pitt’s — second — biggest win of the season, recording two tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in a win over UCLA in El Paso.
The Sun Bowl was his swan song, the triumphant conclusion to his sole season in Pittsburgh. And as he walked off the field at Sun Bowl Stadium, signing autographs and posing for pictures with the dedicated Pitt fans who made the trip to Texas, he didn’t know what the future held. He didn’t want his journey to come to an end. But he knew football didn’t define him as a man either.
It’s the sport that he loves that he’s spent his entire life chasing. He would love to make a living playing football over the next decade. But he’s Tylar Wiltz the person. The same Tylar Wiltz who just happens to love the game of football with all his heart.
“There are a lot of other things that I could have done, but I will say that football has helped me and showed me that anything can be done in life,” Wiltz said. “I’ve never been tested as much as I have through football. The connections, I’ve been put in every situation just because of football, and it’s helped me become who I am today.”
And he didn’t know it when he walked off the field at Sun Bowl Stadium, but his journey was most definitely not over. Wiltz didn’t hear his name called during the seven rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft over the weekend, but he picked up an invite from an NFL team soon after. And he won’t even need to leave Pittsburgh to attend the Steelers’ rookie minicamp later this month.
Whether it’s with the Steelers, or any team in the NFL, the XFL, the CFL, whatever, Wiltz just wants to play football. He isn’t ready to stop chasing his dream. But as he makes that transition to the next level, having played at just about every imaginable level in college football, he’s thankful the journey brought him to Pittsburgh.
“Because not many people who got to do what I’d done to be able to play at every level and then finish it playing in the ACC,” Wiltz said. “With one of the best college coaches, one of the best teams. I don’t care what the record said, this was one of the best teams I’ve ever played for. Best guys overall. I want others to experience that.
“No one thought I could do it. I’ve been told multiple times I couldn’t play anything besides Division III ball. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t big enough, fast enough, and I showed that I can do it, and I want it to be a testament to others to say like, ‘Hey if you don’t give up, it can be done.'”
The journey is still far from over. Wiltz has proved he can play at the Division II level, the JUCO level, the FCS level, the FBS level and now he’s off to prove he can do it at the NFL level. And he’ll be doing it with a smile on his face the entire way because he doesn’t know any other way.
Great story! I sincerely hope that Wiltz surprises once again by making the Steelers roster.