The Collegian
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

From PA to VA: How a Freshman Football Player Made His Mark

<p>First year linebacker Tristan Wheeler on the field. <em>Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics</em></p>

First year linebacker Tristan Wheeler on the field. Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics

Tristan Wheeler, a first-year linebacker, received many accolades for his first season playing with the UR men's football team.

Wheeler is from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a small town just an hour north of Philadelphia. Wheeler's hometown is part of a greater locality recognized as the Lehigh Valley, which comprises Bethlehem, Easton, Allentown an­d the Slate Belt. He attended Freedom High School, one of the two public high schools in Bethlehem, where he participated in varsity football. 

The Patriots, Freedom's mascot, competes in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference South, which includes almost all Lehigh Valley schools, including the former high school of widely renowned NFL Giants player Saquon Barkley. Barkley attended and played football at Whitehall High School, just 20 minutes southwest of Bethlehem, and went on to play at Pennsylvania State University, later becoming a top pick for the NFL draft. 

The Lehigh Valley is home to a lot of talent when it comes to football, and there is often friendly competition among athletes in the area. Wheeler mentioned the impact of working out with different athletes and implementing new strategies into workouts that he does on his own.

“I love looking up to people like Jahan Dotson and Saquon Barkley," Wheeler said. "With them being from the [Lehigh] Valley and achieving the things they are, it really gives someone like me hope that I can do the same if I dedicate myself to those goals.”

Wheeler played in all 12 games this past season, including nine starts. He was named the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Rookie of the Year  as well as Third Team All-CAA, according to Richmond Spiders. Among other statistics, he led the NCAA FCS in tackles by a freshman with 104, becoming the first FCS freshman to reach the 100-tackle mark since 2017.

Wheeler had many football inspirations growing up but most notable was Rutgers alum Andres Morales. Morales was born and raised in Lehigh Valley and attended Liberty High School, the other Bethlehem public school and rival to Freedom. Morales now owns a gym called Mettle Movements, where many college-bound athletes seek his weightlifting and fitness expertise, Wheeler said. 

Morales trained Wheeler beginning in eighth grade and showed him what it takes to be able to play at the division one level. 

“Tristan is one of the handful of athletes who I have never had to ask to work his hardest," Morales said. "He’s always understood that he was competing against everyone that’s ever played and will play this sport.”

Wheeler also credits Morales with helping Wheeler's personal development. 

“[Morales] showed me not only how to succeed on the field but off the field as a student and a man," Wheeler said. "He taught me many values outside of the game of football and is one of the reasons that I have the work ethic that I have today. I am very grateful to have someone like Andres in my life.”

One of Wheeler's most recognizable achievements is being a top 20 finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, an award given to the overall best freshman in the NCAA FCS. The award is chosen by a panel of media and college sports information directors. But although Wheeler received many other awards, his greatest achievement was not handed out at a podium, he said. 

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“Although I won a handful of great awards, I was most proud of the way I took every day head-on and adapted to college football," Wheeler said. "While getting thrown into a brand-new defense and having to play as a true freshman, I never backed down or gave up. I was very proud of the way I pushed through all the challenges and adversity and it all paid off.” 

Wheeler attributes his hard work and dedication to a couple of players on the team to whom he looks up to, seniors and captains Daniel Jones and Maurice Jackson. 

“Tristan is the type of kid that can bring up a mood in any room he walks into," Jackson said. "He’s always trying to get the best out of his peers.” 

Jones said, “Tristan is the perfect combination of when skills, hard work and dedication collide.” 

Wheeler said that Jackson’s and Jones' passion for football, work ethic and leadership skills were unmatched and that both players had guided Wheeler as mentors during his freshman year. Wheeler hopes he can emulate the same type of leadership shown to him by Jackson and Jones, as he believes that leadership is the key to winning a national championship, Wheeler said. 

Wheeler’s football success and work ethic in high school granted him the opportunity to accept invites to visit more than 20 schools seeking his athletic ability, but Wheeler said he knew the University of Richmond was special. 

"With an Ivy-like education, the best conference of FCS football one could play in and connections like no other, it was an easy decision to go with this great school," Wheeler said. "After a great official visit and a deep connection with my [now] teammates and coaches, it finalized the recruiting process and I decided to sign with the Richmond Spiders.” 

Wheeler said he will declare a biology major his sophomore year. Because being a student comes before being an athlete, one of his academic goals is to maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA during his time at Richmond while he takes difficult classes and excels in them, Wheeler said. 

Wheeler thanks his parents, Glenn and Kerri Wheeler, for being his ultimate supporters. 

“With the very demanding sport of football as a passion, I am so thankful that they have stuck with me along the way and supported my love for this great sport," Wheeler said. "They were always there when times were tough, and I needed that extra boost of motivation [that] helped me get to where I am today.”

Contact sports editor Grace Mittl at grace.mittl@richmond.edu.

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