Following the University of Richmond football team’s season-ending loss to the University at Albany in the second round of the FCS playoffs back on Dec. 2, redshirt linebacker Tristan Wheeler reflected on his career with the Spiders, his decision to return this past season and what’s next for his football career.
THE COLLEGIAN: First off, you just finished your fifth season with the UR football team. Your time as a Spider was capped off with a Capital Cup victory over the College of William & Mary and a second straight trip to the FCS Playoffs. What has your time as a Spider meant to you?
TRISTAN WHEELER: I mean, it’s been everything. It’s probably the best five years of football that I could have asked for, even though the majority of the seasons while playing didn’t go the way we wanted to. But seeing how I came in as a freshman to an average to below average team and then leaving as a fifth year with a win over our rival, William & Mary, and then being champs for the conference. So, just seeing the program turn around, the relationships made and the success we had just made everything worth it.
C: You were recently named an FCS Football Central Third-Team All-American. You were also just nominated for an RVA Sports Award. What is it like to garner this recognition after five seasons with the program?
TW: It really is the icing on the cake. I mean, all this stuff, after the season, I love hearing it and seeing everything that comes in. But obviously at the end of the day, I don’t do it for myself. I do it for everyone else and the team and the coaches and everyone that puts time and effort into it. But, these accolades that come at the end of the year are icing on the cake, so it’s definitely nice to leave with some of those accolades, too.
C: The Spiders played FBS opponent the University of Virginia in their last season opener back in September 2022. And in the postgame press conference, you said: “We’re all here. We all deserve to be here. We all do the same thing. We all train the same way, put our cleats on the same way. We’re just dudes playing football.” Having attended a smaller school like UR for the past five years, can you speak to your loyalty when it comes to staying with the Spiders and what went into that decision to come back for another year in a collegiate athletics climate dominated by NIL and the transfer portal?
TW: I mean, I easily could’ve transferred and probably went somewhere big that would’ve offered me money and all the flashy things that go on nowadays with NIL and all these big schools. But, back in 2022 season, we lost to William & Mary and that would’ve been our chance to get a ring for the championship. So one, I knew there was unfinished business and I had something still to prove and still to do with the team. And then two, nothing in the FBS is guaranteed. I mean, I’ve had success at Richmond. They knew what I can do. So going there and transferring somewhere bigger, you’re not guaranteed the shot to play, or even like the team and what they’re offering. So, I mean, there’s a lot of risk involved. And then, I just couldn’t leave my coaches, my teammates that I’ve built such a close bond with. So it was hard to break away from that, but I mean, everything was just too good at Richmond to risk it.
C: The football team finished 5-7 in your first year as a Spider. COVID-19 was also something you had to navigate early in your collegiate career. Flash forward to now, you’ve been a part of two FCS playoff appearances and three Capital Cup wins during your time at UR. Can you speak to the resiliency of the program and what it means to have such success in the latter half of your time here?
TW: One of the things we really harped on this season is being battle tested. And that’s kind of what I meant earlier when I said the majority of my time here really wasn’t the success that everyone sees now. And the fact that guys kept coming back and putting in more work because they weren’t happy with where the program was at just shows how resilient everyone is. And we’ve been through the struggles and the hard seasons and all the doubt from everyone on the outside, so we’ve been backs against the wall. And to see everyone continue to grind with the same mindset and then end up winning Capital Cups and winning the championship and getting a ring and then making a little run in the playoffs, I mean, it feels great and it’s a testament to the team and coaches that keep pushing. And I think we set a new standard for the program.
C: Finally, what is next for Tristan Wheeler? What does the future look like in terms of your football career?
TW: I’m actually going down to Tampa to train for the Pro Day. So that’ll be like a 10 to 12-week process where I’m strictly training all day with a bunch of guys around the country. Then I’ll come back for the Pro Day in late March, perform in front of the scouts and then hopefully get either drafted or a free agent signing. And then from there, just prove myself over again.
Contact sports editor Jimmy James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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