Get updates delivered to you daily. Free and customizable.
USA TODAY Sports Media Group
Remember Your Why: How Tyjae Spears went from small Louisiana town to top running back prospect
By Jarrett Bailey,
Three months ago, Tyjae Spears was getting ready to help Tulane put an exclamation point on one of the best seasons in school history. Today, he is one of the most talked about running backs in the 2023 NFL draft class, and he has made a name for himself in the lead-up to the 88th annual selection meeting.
When Spears is on the field, he showcases his brilliant ability as a running back, terrorizing defenses as a runner and as a pass-catcher. Off the field, though, he is a humble kid from Ponchatoula, La. – a town that holds a claim to fame that is as amusing and off the wall as a long run from the 21-year old running back.
“Ponchatoula is the strawberry capital of the world,” Spears said with a sly smile.
Knowing he had to elaborate, Spears went very in-depth on a strawberry festival his hometown hosts every April.
“It’s actually coming up in a few weeks,” Spears said. “They shut down four or five blocks, they set up rides, they have a bunch of different strawberry desserts, candied strawberries- it’s a whole big event that lasts about four days and they go all out for it.”
From his hometown, there grew a big family. Spears is one of nine brothers and sisters, and family is something that drives him to be his absolute best.
“I’m close to both of my parents,” Spears said. “I have five brothers, three sisters and we’re all close. I was the youngest for a while until my sister was born and she is 10, so I was the youngest out of all of us for a while, but we are all really close.”
Spears said in particular, his dad is someone he looks at with a lot of gratitude.
“I owe a lot to my dad,” Spears said. “My dad sacrificed a lot for me to get to where I am. He put his life on hold for the most part to help me get to where I want to be, and I’m incredibly grateful to him for that.”
Spears was an incredibly dynamic high school player during his time at Ponchatoula High School. He had a very productive senior season, accumulating over 900 yards rushing and totaling 880 receiving yards with 18 total touchdowns.
“I was nice in high school,” Spears said with a tongue-in-cheek type laugh. “You can look up my highlights right now on 24/7 sports. Throw a few of those in there for people to see.”
Despite his production, though, Spears was only labeled a three-star recruit. While several smaller schools offered Spears a scholarship, the only two major Division-I schools to offer him were Kansas State and Tulane. When making his decision, Spears said that Tulane head coach Willie Fritz was a big factor in why he chose to stay in Louisiana and join the Green Wave.
“Coach Fritz would stand on a table for me any day,” Spears said. “I had to take the ACT a bunch of times because I needed a certain score to be accepted into Tulane. Coach Fritz had enough belief in me where he had offered me the scholarship before it was known if I was going to be able to go there because of the ACT score. He showed that belief in me before I even passed the test or got a high enough score to get into school — that said a lot to me. He could have easily said ‘Okay, he isn’t going to [pass this test] and moved on to someone else at the position, but they took a chance on me.”
Fritz has been the head coach at Tulane since 2016 after coming over from Georgia Southern, where he went 18-7 in two seasons as head coach of the Eagles, including a GoDaddy Bowl Win in 2015. Now going into his eighth season with the Green Wave, Fritz couldn’t speak highly enough of his former playmaking tailback.
“I mean, you talk about a great all-around kid, that’s Tyjae Spears,” Fritz said. “He’s a guy who just loves this game and has meant so much to our program. He is everything you want in a football player, but also in a person.”
Last season, the Green Wave had their first 12-win season since 1998, and finished the season ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll, the second highest ranking in school history.
“We had a tough season [in 2021] for a load of reasons,” Fritz said. “To be able to have the year that we did, it was very gratifying, and it was great to see amazing things happen to amazing people. We aren’t in that position without Tyjae.”
When asked about his role in the historical season, Spears said he was just happy to be part of the ride.
“I’m just a piece of the puzzle,” Spears said. “I know a lot of people say ‘Tyjae is the reason Tulane did so well’ or ‘Tulane doesn’t do this without Tyjae.’ I’m just a part of the puzzle. It took every one of us to win the conference, and to win the Cotton Bowl. I’m just happy I was able to contribute.”
While Tulane capped off an incredible year with a huge upset over the heavily favored USC Trojans, Spears said that their mindset was crystal clear.
“For some of us, it was our last game ever,” Spears said. “We weren’t just going to go to Jerry World, play in an NFL stadium, and in front of a national audience, and just be happy to be there — we showed up to win the damn thing, and we knew we could.”
In an era where opting out of Bowl games has become somewhat of the norm, Fritz said the thought of asking Spears, and linebacker Dorian Williams if they wanted to sit out never crossed his mind.
“I had a few of my coaches come to me and ask me if I was going to talk to [Spears and Williams] about sitting out of the Cotton Bowl,” Fritz said. “I said ‘Unless they come to me, I’m not saying s**t.”
Spears finished the Cotton Bowl with 205 rushing yards and four touchdowns as the Green Wave defeated USC, 46-45.
Even after an incredible season that saw him win AAC Offensive Player of the Year, Fritz said he had to convince Spears to declare for the NFL draft.
“We were getting toward the end of the season,” Fritz said, “You have to declare [for the draft] to be considered for the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. I had Tyjae in my office, and he kept talking about wanting to stay.”
With a soft laugh, Fritz added that he knew it was time for Spears to move on to the next level.
“I told him that if [staying in school] was the best thing for him to do, then I would tell him to stay,” Fritz said. “But I said to him ‘You have done an unbelievable job here and you’re ready to take that next step.’ I never told him this, but I actually called his high school coach, Hank Tiereny, who is a friend of mine, and I told him we needed to get this [process] going. A few days later, we had everything all but wrapped up for him to declare for the draft, and he’s run with every opportunity he’s gotten thus far.”
Spears raised eyebrows at the Senior Bowl throughout the week. His vision in team scrimmages was evident, as was his ability as a receiving back. He had a viral play in RB-LB 1-on-1s where he had a very nice cut to separate from the linebacker and get open.
“Jim Nagy is my guy,” Spears said about the Senior Bowl executive director. “The Senior Bowl was great because in my mind, I knew I could compete against anyone, and the best of the best. That week, I proved it.”
It’s been two months since the Senior Bowl. While he is a mere month away from hearing his name called by an NFL team, Spears is still doing all he can to help Tulane.
“We’re in the midst of spring ball, and Tyjae is still here,” Fritz said. “He’s here almost every day, basically as a coach, helping the guys get better. That’s Tyjae Spears in a nutshell.”
In addition to his head coach singing his praises, Spears’ position coach, Derrick Sherman, also chimed in on the elusive back.
“The guy puts everything he has into football,” Sherman said. “Whether it be from a film standpoint, to taking care of his body, he puts everything he has into this.”
Sherman continued by discussing Spears’ work ethic.
“He works extremely hard, but he is also extremely coachable,” Sherman said. “I’d say he is the most coachable guy I’ve ever been around. When he shows up, he expects me to have something for him to get better on. You don’t see that type of maturity and openness to coaching in a ton of guys, but he lives for that.”
When asked about any advice he would give his former player, Sherman insisted that Spears keep doing what he’s always done.
“Don’t change,” Sherman said. “He has a great work ethic, he has a great personality. Teams may change, cities may change, but he’s a great dude with a lot to offer. So that would be my advice to him- don’t change.”
Throughout the entire draft process, Spears has taken that advice — he hasn’t changed. He has remained himself — humble, full of humility, and never forgetting where he came from.
“I always tell myself ‘Remember your why,’” Spears said. “Not everyone gets the types of shots I’ve been blessed to get… your ‘why’ is all the motivation you need in life. You don’t need anything else, no one else to push you — your ‘why’ is all you need. And people like my father, my mother, people who have sacrificed a lot for me, but also seeing people fall victim to the same thing in the streets or generations of people who haven’t really left Ponchatoula because of whatever their circumstances are. I figure I have a shot, I have a better swing at this than a lot of people. I’m stepping up to the plate and I’m trying to knock it out of the park.”
Comments / 0