A young person's adolescence is a period typically defined by learning. It's a time when our experiences shape the person we'll grow up to become. The small town of Nixa, Missouri knows this well. After all, Nixa's largest employer is its decorated school system, in which the community takes great pride. But not all learning takes place in the classroom. And, of late, Nixa's students have too often had to absorb tragic lessons.
One of those students is Florida State football signee Logan Tyler. In addition to being a nationally ranked kicking and punting specialist who will vie for those jobs at FSU, Tyler is also an apt pupil. A physics enthusiast who carries a 3.33 grade point average and has taken four dual-credit classes, he looks forward to furthering his education amid the live oaks and Spanish moss of Tallahassee, where he'll take on a pre-med curriculum in hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He'll pack up clothes, books, football gear, and whatever else he can of his life in Missouri and traverse just over 800 miles to his new home in the Florida panhandle. Yet one thing is certain: After what Tyler has learned in Nixa, he'll bring with him a lot more than what he packs.
The Nixa Eagles football program was flying high during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2014, when Tyler was a junior on the varsity squad. After all, the team was preparing to make its first appearance in the Missouri state championship game, popularly billed as the Show-Me Bowl. Most of the ebullience circulating around Nixa was quickly extinguished days before the big game, however -- and for the worst possible reason.
A day before Thanksgiving, an automobile accident claimed the life of 19-year-old former Nixa footballer Cody Uber, along with that of Nixa basketball standout Logan Middleton (19) and Landon Potts (17), a rodeo enthusiast. Lance Porterfield (19) of nearby Sparta also lost his life. A day later, the Eagles had to travel to the Edward Jones Dome, in St. Louis, for the title matchup against Columbia's Battle High School. A rally planned as a joyous sendoff for the team instead included a somber moment of silence for a town paralyzed with sadness. Tyler described the experience: "To this day, the hardest thing I've ever had to do was go and play football after that."
Nixa lost that game, dropping a narrow 25-22 decision to Battle. Needless to say, the Eagles were decimated by the missed opportunity. They've not returned to the title game since. But while losses linger, tragedies haunt; and, unfortunately for Nixa, hauntings are defined by a return, which took place a year later, and with an equally devastating result.
A new year. A fresh start. Promising young running back Vincenzo Keith, after being called up to dress for the varsity as a freshman in 2014, was motivated to play as a sophomore in 2015. In fact, he wanted to start. Morning practices against older, more experienced players were difficult for Keith, as they would be for any young man working to make a name for himself. And getting to those practices proved no different.
With both of his parents working, transportation became an issue. But while Keith was undersized, his will was not, and, typical of the small-town values Nixa espouses, neither was the assistance afforded him -- and that's where Tyler, already a varsity star, comes in. Tyler discusses going out of his way to pick up the starry-eyed Keith:
His parents both had to get up and go to work early, so he'd have to get the bus, because we had morning workouts, starting at 6:30. So, I would go and pick him up, after, I think, two times, he missed morning workouts, because he couldn't find a ride, because he had to ride the bus. I asked him, man, do you need a ride? And he was like yeah, if it's not that much trouble. I was like no, it's fine, I'll come get you.
So, from my house to the high school, it takes like ten minutes to get there. And I had to go to his house, and back to the high school, and it took about 25 or 30 [minutes]. So it wasn't really on the way, but I was happy to do it, just so that he could get the work in that he deserves. And that he needed to get ready. And so, I tried to pick him up everyday. And it kind of turned into, not just for morning workouts. I'd just try to come pick him up everyday, and then most of the time after school, we wouldn't have workouts or conditioning, or anything like that, so he'd ride the bus home, but if we did, I'd take him home after that. And just kind of get to know him as a person.
Keith was doing everything he could to earn his place with the Eagles; and Tyler was contributing everything in his power to facilitate Keith's efforts. But Keith's journey was not without its travails. He tore his ACL in his sophomore season, but, true to form, bounced back with gusto, per Tyler: "He was really working hard, and really getting recovered fast, and he was recovering a lot faster than doctors thought he would. And he was really positive about that. And he was really big into lifting weights, and anything that would help him get better on the field. And just worked really, really hard." Tyler's admiration and respect for Keith's perseverance is tangible as he speaks.
I wish I could stop typing here. Where, despite early tragedy, this is still a feel-good story that highlights everything great about sports, about our better angels, about how we hope, and aim to be, as people. But like so many of those stories, this one takes a turn. And tragically for Nixa, Tyler, and most of all Keith and his family, that turn came on a rain-slicked road, across a bridge over water, just after Thanksgiving of 2015.
Sometimes, we look for villains when there just aren't any to be found. In what's most certainly an oversimplified explanation, life just happens. And so does death. A car in which Vincenzo Keith was traveling careened over a guard rail on a bridge just outside of Nixa on Nov. 30, 2015. There were no drugs or alcohol involved, no teenage indiscretion, no lamentable foolishness. And Keith lost his life. For no good reason, the inexplicable odds that those of us fortunate enough somehow manage to best from one day to the next caught up with him. Keith was 17 years old.
When I asked Tyler about how he ultimately got wind of the accident, the severity of the situation was beyond obvious. He exhaled heavily, and collected himself, as best he could:
"I think I got a text from one of our teammates ... I think he texted me, and just said, in a real short, quick message, Vincenzo's been in an accident; keep him in your prayers. And you never expect that to happen. I was like, wait -- what? Understand that I didn't understand the gravity of the situation."
Tyler struggled, admirably, to relay the rest of the story, noticeably fighting back tears as he continued to talk about how he processed Keith's final moments:
He was in a coma, I think, for about a day. I think my mom called me into the kitchen. I think my mom called me into the kitchen, and, you could tell that she'd been crying. And she grabbed my hand and said, she said that Vincenzo had passed away. And she just gave me a big hug. And I didn't really start to understand, for a while. I didn't get much sleep that night. I just couldn't stop thinking about that little blonde-haired boy who wanted to start as a sophomore, and all the hopes and aspirations he had for his life.
Nixa, Missouri, yet again, was devastated. Another promising son gone, and far too soon. When a young man like Keith passes in this fashion, everything pauses -- and rightfully so. But sadly, the rest of the world doesn't, and it couldn't for Tyler.
Tyler tried his best to impart what wisdom he could to Keith during those early morning treks.
I think that mainly, the one thing that I really wanted him to learn from me, that I wanted to kind of pass down, is that it's not you against anybody else. It's you against you yesterday. How are you going to become better from yesterday? What are you going to learn? How are you going to improve? That's life on and off the field. That's in and out of the weight room. That's in and out of the film room. It's all aspects of life. It's you vs. yourself. It's not you vs. anybody else. He's just like my little brother. We just talked about so many other things. We had some pretty good conversations about how life was going, how life was treating him. I like to think that I had some part in how life was going, and how life was treating him. . . Just reminding him that, whatever happens, happens, as long as you gave it your all, then that was good enough. He was just a hard-working young man.
Keith's work ethic taught Tyler as much -- if not more -- than Tyler taught Keith:
Something that I learned from him, which is kind of weird, because he's younger than me, and you don't usually think of learning anything from someone who hasn't been through as much as you, but I learned that he never took anything for granted, and that he always appreciated every day with a fresh attitude and a smile. So I've tried to adopt that and tried to make that one of my goals.
That's just a positive vibe that he left behind. Part of his legacy-- he never had grudge issues or got mad at anybody. He was always just happy, and bright, and shiny, like these purple shoes he would always wear when he worked out. He just kind of had that really bright, positive, outlook on life. There was never a day that he didn't make me smile.
Like the miles he had covered with Keith, back and forth to practice on those Missouri roads, Tyler's journey had to continue. Tyler had driven Keith, who wore No. 21, so many miles in a quest for his junior to reach his goals. Keith won't have his chance; but Tyler will. And he sees a logical way of carrying forth his fallen friend's legacy at FSU, a school that proudly promulgates the motto of "Unconquered," in honor of the Seminole Tribe.
Truth in Numbers
Numbers play a big part in defining players' identities; FSU Head Coach Jimbo Fisher commonly refers to players by their numbers when addressing members of the media. Of course, it's impossible for Tyler to sport his Nixa jersey number of 17 at Florida State, as No. 17 was worn by the Seminoles' first Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, who also led the 'Noles to their first national title in 1993. The number has since been retired, despite Ward giving his blessing to future first-round pick Jalen Ramsey wearing it in 2015. Still, donning the garnet and gold No. 17 is out.
When I spoke with Tyler, he had just finished talking to his lead recruiter, FSU running backs coach and special teams coordinator Jay Graham. Graham assured Tyler that, although fellow highly touted freshman Ricky Aguayo is already on campus and kicking for the 'Noles, every specialist job is still up for grabs, be it place kicking, punting, or kicking off. That battle, per Graham's comments to Tyler, remains to be decided.
What has been settled is the number Tyler will wear at FSU, and that's how he's put Keith behind him -- but only by literally putting him on his back. On a day when he was particularly missing his friend, Tyler was browsing through Keith's Instagram page when he came across an action shot of Keith:
You could see 21 pretty clearly. And it just kind of dawned on me that it just makes sense to wear that number in honor of him. So the first thing I did, I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell my coaches. I called Coach Graham at FSU-- and asked him, like, hey: I know what number I want to wear. I want to wear number 21 for my little bro, Vincenzo. And he was like, it's yours: you got it.
When you've experienced the amount of loss that Tyler has, it's tough to move past that:
It's the number that he wore. And I don't want it to seem like I'm trying to continue his life. But I think it's more than that. I just want his legacy to continue. Just the motto of ‘keep your head down, be quiet, and just go to work and let the result speak for itself.' And actually, I just thought of this, it could be 17 plus 4: the amount of friends that I've lost.
Of course, no young person should have to factor subtraction so largely into his identity. Tyler's faith has helped him realize that. Despite how much he misses his friends, the opportunity for addition nevertheless persists in numbers. While we conversed, Tyler admitted, "The whole reason I wanted 17 in the first place is because of the Bible verse I Peter 2:17," which he cited as his favorite. It propounds four lessons, per the King James Version, "Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king." Tyler found a more hopeful connection therein: "Another reason for 21: 17 plus those 4."
Thus, Tyler, among four devastating losses, has nevertheless found four beacons of hope. And, amid intense anguish, he's also found peace: "In my mind, God has a plan for everything in life. You can wake up and think that you're going to change your life, but God already has that part of your life planned out. He already has what you're going to do next planned."
Taking 21 Forward
Ultimately, for Tyler, wearing Keith's number isn't necessarily about lamentation. It's not just about preserving his friend's memory, but bringing it along for the ride. He'll wear the garnet and gold No. 21 not just for himself. Not just for Nixa. But for Keith, and his family, as well. And Tyler emphasized to me the significance of the family atmosphere cultivated in Tallahassee:
From the first time that I actually talked to Coach Fisher, which would have been when I got my offer, he greeted me with a handshake, he greeted my dad with a handshake, and he greeted my mom with a hug. Everything that he said, everything that he did, just being completely straight forward. All the staff being completely straight forward. I know one of the things that commits talk about is that he doesn't guarantee you anything, he gives you a chance at it. . . . And you don't really see that kind of honestly, unless you're really close to someone.
Keith fought for that chance in Nixa -- on Tyler's back, he'll get it in Tallahassee. Another thing that I noticed about Tyler was how he employs pronouns: heartbreakingly yet understandably, he struggles between the present and past tense when referring to Keith. However, he readily refers to Florida State as "we," and was quite proud admitting that he's already contacted other prospective 'Noles about committing to FSU. In that way, he's already trying to grow his newest family.
Tyler has several countdowns set on his phone. One is for his high school graduation. Another is for June 18, when he's set to arrive in Tallahassee, where he hopes to room with Aguayo. Finally: Sept. 5, 2016, FSU's primetime season opener against Ole Miss in Orlando. That's the first night he'll suit up for a game wearing Vincenzo Keith's No. 21.