Everybody connected to Wyatt Tunall could see this storm coming.
Not the Chester Cyclones football storm that was brewing, the one plastered on signs -- “A storm is coming” -- all over the town as the team readied for its 3A state title game later in the week.
No, this one would try to distract the Cyclones’ dominant left tackle, Wyatt Tunall, throughout the week of the state championship game, one that would have a much bigger impact on the rest of his life than the four quarters Friday night.
Tunall’s future college coach left for a new job at the beginning of the week, leaving Tunall with a huge and sudden decision to make less than two weeks before he graduated high school a semester early and enrolled in college in January.
Complicating matters, Tunall didn’t have time to take any college visits because of state championship preparation and his participation in the Shrine Bowl the following week.
Oh, and Chester Cyclones team would try to beat Dillon at the end of the week to cap an undefeated season and win the school’s first state title since the 1960s.
“it’s just been crazy,” said Vicki Tunall, Wyatt’s mom.
Tunall, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound lineman who was The Herald’s 2017 Hawg of the Year, a 2018 Shrine Bowl selection and a finalist for Mr. Football, committed to play college football at Appalachian State in July. The Mountaineers nearly beat Penn State this fall and went on to win the Sun Belt Conference championship, earning a spot in the New Orleans Bowl. All the while, Power 5 schools across the southeast struggled, including Louisville and North Carolina. App’s coach, Scott Satterfield, was often mentioned as a possible replacement for these program’s coaches, who were ultimately doomed.
Louisville’s Bobby Petrino was fired Nov. 11. North Carolina’s Larry Fedora was fired two weeks later.
The Tar Heel administration wasted no time in bringing back Mack Brown, who had led the program to considerable success from 1988 to 1997, before taking the head job at Texas where he won a national championship in 2005.
Chester offensive line coach Chris Dodson said that Brown’s North Carolina staff continued to recruit two players that were targeted by Fedora’s coaches, including Tunall. Fedora’s staff had scheduled an in-home visit with Tunall prior to Fedora’s firing, and North Carolina’s director of player personnel, John Mark Hamilton, decided to honor that scheduled visit the week of Chester’s Upper State championship game against Union County. The visit went well, each side impressed with the other, and Hamilton extended a scholarship offer to Tunall.
Louisville’s coaching search moved more slowly. Its top pick, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm, was offered the job but declined. Satterfield, who hired one of the top agents in college football this past offseason, was mentioned as a candidate but was also juggling his team’s preparation for the Sun Belt Conference championship game, hosted in Boone on Dec. 1. Shortly after the Mountaineers dropped Louisiana-Lafayette 30-19, the Satterfield-to-Louisville rumors picked up steam.
“You can’t keep winning like that and not get a Power 5 (job) offer,” said Vicki Tunall.
Satterfield was unveiled as Louisville’s new coach on Dec. 3, just days before Chester played its football state title game. That kicked off a hectic week for Tunall.
“Wyatt started getting bombarded Tuesday with all kinds of stuff,” Dodson said.
Satterfield immediately told Tunall that his App State offer and commitment would be transferable to Satterfield’s new school, Louisville.
Appalachian State assistant coaches, including offensive line coach Shawn Clark, continued to recruit Tunall. Clark visited Chester High on Tuesday, Dec. 4 to reassure Tunall and to tell him that App’s athletic director was gauging Clark’s interest in the head job.
As word about the UNC offer spread, the torrent increased. Florida State and Syracuse began nosing around Tunall and Floyd said that Oregon and Miami (Fla.) even jumped in late with interest and potential offers.
When North Carolina’s Hamilton offered Tunall the previous week, Tunall told him he needed to meet Brown in person. Tunall had been raised to believe a man’s hand shake carried more weight than a signature. Tunall wanted to shake hands with Brown before making his commitment official.
That worked for the Tar Heels new (old) coach, and an in-home visit was scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 6, two days before the Cyclones’ big game. But encroaching winter weather prompted the South Carolina High School League to move all of its championship games to Friday, meaning Brown’s visit with the Tunalls would be the night before the state championship.
It was as if Tunall was lined up at left tackle and suddenly had pass rushers coming at him from every angle. Far from being hung out to dry by his future college coach leaving for a new job, Tunall had an opposite, and good, problem: too many options.
“Nobody wants to be the first to step out and offer as a Power 5,” said Dodson. “But as soon as somebody does, everybody wants to start offering.”
All of the recruiting craziness exploded two weeks before Tunall graduated high school. He was set to enroll at Appalachian State in January, and intended to stick with that plan wherever he ended up. Time was short to make a life-impacting decision.
First things first. There was no way Tunall could remain committed to Appalachian State, given all of the uncertainty. He sat in his family’s dining room and called Clark Wednesday to tell him personally that he was backing off his commitment to play college ball in Boone. Clark was disappointed but understood, and Tunall said that the call ended on good terms, that he had built a lifelong friendship with the Mountaineers OL coach. He tweeted the news Thursday morning.
“(Wyatt) took his commitment to App State very seriously,” said Vicki, “and he wanted to decommit in the right way. He didn’t want them to hear it from anybody else.”
Tar Heel coaches Brown, Hamilton and running backs coach Robert Gillespie showed up at Chester’s practice around 4:30 p.m Thursday ahead of the in-home visit.
Later that night, Wyatt’s dad, Mike, Vicki and other relatives chatted with Brown, who told the group about himself. Brown said he didn’t plan on leaving UNC any time soon, that his next destination would be a final retirement.
Brown and Tunall talked about Brown’s plan for the Tar Heel program, they discussed fishing, and also Tunall’s childhood love of the Texas Longhorns, a program coached by... Mack Brown.
Brown told the Tunalls he had unfinished business at North Carolina, which resonated with the family. It reminded them of Chester coach Victor Floyd, who had returned to Chester for a second stint as head coach in 2015 with the goal of winning a state title, after leaving Chester in 2008, following the Cyclones’ state final loss the previous season. That driving motivation had led the Cyclones to amazing heights, and Tunall and his family were encouraged to hear the 67-year old Brown had a similar fire in his gut.
Near the end of the night, Tunall stood up and looked Brown in the eyes and told him that he was committing to North Carolina. They shook hands and everyone clapped and cheered.
“He gained my respect by coming down here just to shake my hand, to tell me ‘I’m gonna offer you a scholarship,’” said Tunall. “That was big to me.”
‘It ain’t real yet’
Playing football almost came as a relief. The Cyclones left Chester High School around noon on Friday, Dec. 6, with potential glory awaiting them less than an hour away at Williams-Brice Stadium. Homemade signs supporting the Cyclones lined country roads all the way out to Interstate 77.
With his college decision privately out of the way, Dodson said Tunall played with a clear mind Friday. He needed all his focus for Dillon’s Shamar McCollum, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound edge rusher committed to Wake Forest, one of Chester’s primary concerns. Dodson wanted his blockers to double team McCollum and Dillon linebacker Tyquan King on the perimeter -- opposite of what most teams do, which is double-team interior defenders -- and decided to move Tunall all over the formation to help with that effort. It didn’t matter that Dillon knew the Cyclones would run the ball toward whichever side Tunall moved.
“It gave them trouble,” Dodson said. “Wyatt talked to (McCollum) at the Shrine Bowl and he said it was the fourth quarter before they figured out what we were doing to them.”
Chester’s Pha’Leak Brown ripped off a 49-yard touchdown run on the first offensive play of the game. The Cyclones’ unusual blocking scheme was effective as they built a 21-6 halftime lead against a Dillon defense that had allowed just one rushing touchdown in the regular season.
A serious complication arose in the second quarter. Tunall’s left foot, which he initially injured in the second round of the playoffs, began hurting badly and he couldn’t switch directions without intense pain. Chester shifted its run focus to straight up the gut to make life easier for Tunall.
But that made the Cyclones more predictable, and Dillon’s defensive coaches finally adjusted to Chester’s unconventional blocking schemes by moving King and McCollum to the same side of the field late in the game. Tunall’s injury and Dillon’s adjustment contributed to the Wildcats’ late comeback and they cut the Chester lead to 34-28. But the Cyclone defense got one final stop, and Chester won its first football state championship in over 50 years.
In shock -- and probably great pain -- Tunall stood on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium and shook his head.
“It ain’t real yet,” he said. “Promise it ain’t.”
Built for this
Tunall had kept all of the week’s recruiting business to himself. He didn’t want to distract his teammates, or pull any attention away from their efforts to beat Dillon and win the state title. On the bus ride home after the championship game, Tunall plopped into the front seat next to Floyd and told his coach that he had committed to North Carolina.
Tunall said this week that he owed everything to Floyd and he’s writing his college application essay about his high school head coach. Floyd said he knew that Tunall would be able to manage the draining week.
“Wyatt’s a high character guy,” said Floyd. “He’s been built for this, built to handle whatever comes along.”
Back on the bus, Floyd smiled, then stood, turned around and told the team. They went berserk.
“I felt like I got beat up,” Tunall said, smiling. “They were all jumping on me. It was crazy.”
Tunall announced his commitment to North Carolina on Twitter Saturday morning.
“I always thought Wyatt was an ACC, SEC kid,” said Floyd.
A celebratory duck hunt was in order. Just hours after winning a football state title, Tunall headed out at 3 a.m. with his cousin to their duck blind. The relief of beating Dillon, of having the college decision finalized, allowed Tunall to fully soak in the still quiet.
“I love nature,” he said. “Had to go see God’s creation, hang out with him for a little while.”
The following day, Tunall reported for the Shrine Bowl in Spartanburg. Dillon coach Jackie Hayes found the Chester contingent and told them they were the most physical team he had seen that year on both sides of the ball, and Tunall chatted with his Shrine Bowl teammates, all future college football stars.
But that was the best memory of Tunall’s Shrine Bowl. He failed the physical and was ruled out of the game. A second opinion wouldn’t matter, the Shrine Bowl’s doctor would not clear him to play. Several days later, Dec. 11, Tunall would learn that he in fact played most of the state championship game with a broken bone in his foot. On Wednesday he wore a duck boot on his right foot and a walking boot on his left.
Tunall will still get a plaque for making the Shrine Bowl team and he’ll get to roam the sidelines on Saturday during the game, but he was disappointed about not playing. After the week he just had, maybe some time off wasn’t such a bad idea.
Recap: Tunall’s college decision, solid for over five months, was suddenly thrown open by his future coach’s departure. He was bombarded by college coaches recruiting him, whether Satterfield at Louisville, assistant coaches at App, a new coaching staff at North Carolina, or coaches from big name schools all over the country that were suddenly interested. Tunall’s life-altering decision had to be made in less than two weeks because he was graduating early from high school. Oh, and he had to prepare for and play -- and win -- the biggest football game of his life. With a broken foot.
Tunall learned he has a new pain threshold and that adult decisions are difficult and rarely fun. Vicki said Wyatt told her and her husband at one point during the week, “if this is adult then I don’t want to do it!”
Vicki and Mike Tunall have a better understanding of their son now, too, after watching him juggle responsibilities and make uncomfortable decisions over the course of six days.
“You always think of your child as your child,” Vicki said. “When you put a 17-year old in a position of having to make some pretty big, adult decisions, you see how mature, and what that child is made of at that moment. And I couldn’t be prouder.”