WATERLOO — One game into the 2016 football season, Tyrell Gordon was looking for an exit.
Losing can take a toll on even the toughest athletes, and Waterloo East’s running back and linebacker was no exception. A familiar winless season came to a premature end that year when there weren’t enough healthy bodies to field a team the final week. The Trojans’ losing streak dating back to the 2012 playoffs stood intact.
“After the first week last year I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Gordon, who went on to rush for a team-high 547 yards. “Before this season started, I still didn’t want to do it.
“My wrestling coaches were basically telling me, ‘You wouldn’t quit wrestling, so why would you quit football?’ I think it kind of made me more mentally tough, so I won’t quit whenever something gets hard.”
That perseverance finally paid off Friday night when East snapped a 37-game losing streak with a convincing, 38-0 season-opening win over Des Moines North.
Gordon rushed six times for 47 yards during the victory, including a 22-yard touchdown run that opened the second-half scoring. His first game following a move from linebacker to defensive end was a success, as well, with East holding North to 51 yards in the first half of a shutout effort.
Afterward, the scene in the locker room at Waterloo’s Memorial Stadium was one of pure elation. Seniors celebrated a victory years in the making while a group of underclassmen opened their careers 1-0.
Gordon isn’t ready to say mission accomplished just yet. He’s quick to point out North graduated plenty of senior starters from the two-win team that beat East by 35 points a year ago. A win Friday over a Newton squad that opened with a 42-7 victory at Ottumwa would prove something, he added.
Still, there’s a different vibe within this East High group.
“There was more intensity in practices,” Gordon said, addressing the preseason workouts. “Everyone there wanted to get better where last year they were kind of there to be there.”
When Xavier Leonard took over as East’s head coach prior to last season, he recalls Gordon wouldn’t say much in practice but he’d do every drill full speed.
“He’ll just do what’s asked of him,” Leonard said. “You say run through a wall, he’s going to run through the wall.
“When I first met the young man he was definitely a quiet, soft-spoken young man, well-built, great wrestler, team leader as far as what you’ve got to do on the field and in the classroom. He’s constantly in the weight room. He’s a great young man from a great family background.”
Even while his junior football season ended in disappointment, Gordon’s disciplined approach led to a breakthrough run on the wrestling mats that winter. He placed fourth at 182 pounds in his state debut, and went on to Fargo freestyle nationals over the past summer and finished fifth.
Colleges from Northern Iowa to Iowa State, Northern Illinois, Campbell and North Carolina have expressed interest in Gordon joining their wrestling programs.
He’s received added confidence from East alum and former collegiate national wrestling champion Kyven Gadson, who stopped by the weight room to work out prior to this football season.
“We met when I was in eighth grade,” Gordon said. “He’s such a good role-model and we became closer and closer friends since then. It adds a lot. ... It’s cool to know he came from the same place I do.”
On the football field, Leonard has handed Gordon a new challenge with the move from linebacker to his hand on the ground at defensive end.
“He’s able to help keep stuff contained and he runs around the field very well,” the East coach said. “He’s strong at the point of attack with his wrestling background.”
Gordon also embraces contact on offense.
“He’s a hard-nosed runner,” Leonard added. “He’ll try to run kids over, but he does have speed. He brings a physical presence.”
Realizing one win is just one step in the right direction, Gordon is eager to see how this year’s team reacts whenever its first taste of adversity arrives.
“Just seeing how we handle a loss,” Gordon responded, when asked about the keys to changing the culture of the football program. “They were super excited to win, but if we can lose a game and come back and win the next one, I think that will be huge.”
In addition to pursuing an opportunity to wrestling at the collegiate level, Gordon is eyeing a potential career in the field of criminal justice or homeland security.
“I just don’t want to sit in a desk all day,” he said. “I just want to be out doing something. I feel like that’s what I’d have the most fun at.”