Tyjae Spears: From humble beginnings to star running back

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

tyjae spears
Courtesy of Parker Waters

Running back Tyjae Spears is Tulane football’s priceless gem. As of Tulane’s bye week, Spears has rushed for 588 yards and nine touchdowns and has added 203 yards and one touchdown as a receiver. However, Spears has had a long journey which has included multiple devastating injuries to get to where he is today.

Spears was born 45 minutes north of New Orleans in Hammond, Louisiana but moved to neighboring Ponchatoula, Louisiana where he spent his childhood. Ponchatoula has just under 8,000 residents while Hammond has just under 20,000. Spears is the second youngest of nine total children — five brothers and three sisters.

When asked what originally got him into football, Spears responded, “Just all my brothers had played … And my dad, it was just something my dad did, just put us in sports just to get us out the street life. It was a lot of things going on in the neighborhood. So putting us in football was a way to show us something different. To show us that we ain’t got to be a part of the streets. We will make something out of ourselves.”

Spears’ first position was running back, which he immediately fell in love with. Spears said the position was “meant for [him]” and that he had good years in youth league playing in the backfield. Spears mentioned he was a hard hitting linebacker for a time and did play cornerback in junior high but ultimately was best at running back. 

Spears grew up idolizing Reggie Bush, one of the most exciting running backs to ever grace the college field who helped lead the New Orleans Saints to their lone Super Bowl title. In his three years for the Southern California Trojans between 2003 and 2005, Bush was a walking highlight reel. In his legendary 2005 season, Bush electrified the Los Angeles Coliseum as he rushed for 1740 yards and 16 touchdowns with a combination of lightning quick speed and slick cuts. 

Spears enrolled at Ponchatoula High School and would eventually star for the Ponchatoula Green Wave — yes, Tulane and Ponchatoula share a mascot. However, it was not smooth sailing for Spears. “Freshman year I got hurt, and I really didn’t know the significance of it … and my sophomore year I really didn’t play, that was when we had a really good team,” he said. 

tyjae spears
Courtesy of Tulane Athletics

His final two seasons in high school, Spears played well, but the Green Wave finished 2-8 in both campaigns. “I sacrificed so much for that [senior] season and I put in so much hard work. It was really a journey, man. It was really a grind season,” said Spears.

Spears was ranked as a three-star recruit and the 50th best player in Louisiana out of high school. Tulane, Texas State and Southern Mississippi all had offers for Spears, and it appeared that he would choose Tulane. However, a last second bid from a Power Five school nearly changed everything.

“People don’t know [I was choosing between Tulane] and Kansas State. Kansas State had came in the last two weeks and they had a new coaching staff and I was going to go over there but I just stayed true. And I trusted [Tulane head coach Willie] Fritz, and everything he was telling me … And look where I’m at now,” Spears said. 

Spears arrived at Tulane in time for the 2019 season. The Green Wave’s offensive identity at this time was built on their run game, and the team was led by the capable southpaw quarterback Justin McMillan. However in a crowded running backs room, Spears found that he had to earn his opportunity in the offense.

“I was probably last or second to last [on the depth chart] … It wasn’t a talent problem that I wouldn’t play. It’s just that those guys have had a lot of experience, and they was good at what they did. You had Darius Bradwell, Corey Dauphine, Stephon Hudderson, Cam Carroll, Amari Jones and YG Booker. All those guys are dudes. And all those dudes are legit. I just had to wait my turn.”

Despite this, Spears did shine in a limited role as he picked up 192 yards rushing on 32 attempts for the season. His best game of the season was in Tulane’s 58-6 demolition of the Missouri State Bears. He broke off a 52 yard touchdown run and had an 88 yard touchdown reception. These flashes foreshadowed that he would have a much bigger role on the team for the 2020 campaign. 

2020 changed everything, especially with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Playing in mostly empty stadiums, Tulane football had a tough start to the season, mostly due to poor quarterback play from the new starter, Keon Howard. The Green Wave barely scraped by the University of South Alabama before an embarrassing loss to Navy in a game Tulane blew a 24-point lead. In both games, Spears rushed for over 100 yards, and it looked like the rushing attack would need to carry Tulane’s offense through the season.

Week three against Southern Mississippi changed everything as Tulane routed the Golden Eagles 66-24. Tulane made a change at quarterback, putting in Michael Pratt to replace the struggling Howard in the first quarter. Spears contributed with two rushing touchdowns, however, tragedy struck on that second run. Spears tore his ACL, with his meniscus being torn as well.

Spears missed the rest of the season, and it was a long road back but Spears credits the support system around him and especially the staff in the training room. “My [usual trainer] had left me and went to a bigger school and somebody else, you know, had came in and help me. She really helped me a lot. She’s a real special person to me, like came and helped me a lot. It was like a [180] on my training,” Spears said. 

He returned for the 2021 season and quickly became one of the very few bright spots on a team that went 2-10. His first and second halves of the season, however, were very different. Through the first six games of the season, he only averaged four carries a game for 19.3 yards. In the last six games of the year, Spears averaged 17.5 carries a game for 124.5 yards per game. The last six games also saw him score seven of his nine total rushing touchdowns. 

tyjae spears
Courtesy of Parker Waters

Speaking about the season, Spears said, “There’s so many times in that season why questioning myself, questioning my coaches, question this, question that, and it just got up to a point that I just stopped questioning and just work. I had to reevaluate myself like Tyjae, are you really doing your part and I just did everything on my end to fix my situation.”

After missing a lot of spring camp with a pulled hamstring, Spears started the season healthy as Tulane’s number one running back. He’s been dynamic all year and has evolved his game to be a complete back. He rushes well, showing off his high end speed against University of South Florida. He is a factor in the pass game as shown with his game winning touchdown catch against the University of Houston. Spears can also protect his quarterback in pass protection as well.

Despite his success this season, Spears is still hard on himself when it comes to his performances. Spears said, “And so I really can’t chill but I’m starting to try to understand to chill out about myself and stop thinking so hard about things but I can’t chill man. I come from a place where people don’t really have that much. And I can be the one that have a lot, if I just stay focused and master what I’m doing right now.”

For now, Spears is not sure what his plans are after the season, but he is focused on the next game ahead of him. Tulane will continue to rely on Spears for the remainder of the season. Spears says that he is ready for whatever comes next and is willing to do whatever his team needs to keep the Green Wave rolling.

tyjae spears
Spears celebrates after his game winning touchdown against Houston. (Courtesy of Parker Waters)

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