The son of mom-and-dad bodybuilders, Kitchener’s Tyler Varga
enter’s the NFL scouting combine this week in Indianapolis
as the No. 2-ranked fullback. (My photos from Senior Bowl week)
MOBILE, Ala. — Most NFLers are products of robust athletic bloodlines. Dad, Mom or both mastered some popular sport. Aspiring NFLer Tyler Varga boasts a similar lineage — with a unique twist.
His parents were accomplished athletes, but in less-mainstream pursuits: rugby, downhill skiing and, most of all, in competitive bodybuilding.
And that’s just Varga’s mother. His father was an accomplished amateur bodybuilder too.
“He was Mr. Eastern Canada. He was a pretty big dude in his time,” Varga said of his dad, in an interview during Senior Bowl week. “And Mom was Miss International.”
The 21-year-old Varga is a native of Kitchener, Ont. — one of four Canadians invited to take part in the NFL’s scouting combine for the top 300-plus draft prospects.
He’s a running back at heart, but the NFL so far sees Varga as a fullback prospect, and at this still-early stage of the draft process he seems to be the consensus No. 2 at that position.
The combine kicks off Tuesday in Indianapolis and runs through the following Monday.
Both of Varga’s parents were immigrants. His dad, John Varga, came to Canada from Croatia when he was about 10, and his mom, Hannele Sundberg, emigrated from Finland after the couple met and fell in love.
“I was born in Sweden, so I guess we’re all European,” said Varga, a lone child.
“Mom and dad just went over to Sweden so I could be born there. So I was only in Sweden for like a month, then we came back.”
You can’t get far into a discussion with Varga about his athletic exploits before he proudly points out he has “genetics going my way.”
That he does. Before his parents met, each came to love competitive bodybuilding after excelling at other sports.
“Dad was a quarterback in high school, at (Kitchener’s) Eastwood Collegiate,” Varga said. “He had an opportunity to play in college but he never pursued it. He just decided to go to school. Then he did track.”
And then bodybuilding. By the late 1980s and into the ’90s John Varga became one of the world’s foremost amateur bodybuilders. At one time he ranked among the top six internationally, and won the ‘Mr. Ontario’ competition in 1988.
In a phone interview from Kitchener this week, John Varga stressed two things about his bodybuilding past: (1) that the sport in his day can’t compare to where it is now (“Arnold Schwarzenegger at his best could not win even a mid-level contest today”), and (2) his wife Hannele was the better bodybuilder.
“She was exceptional,” John said. “She could have been a Miss Olympia, but she didn’t pursue it further.”
Before that, Sundberg was a winger on the Swedish national women’s rugby team. Today she still competes as an elite athlete.
“She’s a Master’s ski racer,” Tyler said. “She competes in basically all the events: slalom, GS, Super-G and downhill. She’s pretty good.”
Just a week ago, in fact, Sundberg won a silver medal in the slalom in her age bracket (50-54) at the Winter World Masters Games in Quebec City.
As for Tyler, he is John and Hannele’s only child. His apple not only didn’t fall far from their tree, the skin got clawed by the trunk on the way down. Especially in body sculpting, even though John refused to let Tyler begin serious weightlifting until five years ago.
Varga strutted his ripped, muscle-popping physique at the Senior Bowl weigh-in three weeks ago, in front of hundreds of the NFL’s top talent evaluators and a wave of reporters and photographers. The sight created quite a stir, both in the room and on social media. Varga’s phone lit up all day and night.
“‘Destroyer of Worlds’ is what he looked like,” said Josh Norris, a former draft consultant for the St. Louis Rams and current NFL Draft Analyst for NBC Sports’ Rotoworld.
Indeed on first glance, you’d conclude Varga could not possibly pack any more muscle onto this 5-foot-10¼ frame. He weighs 227 pounds. Veins pop from his Popeye arms.
And yet Varga is anything but muscle-bound in an athletic sense. In addition to his obvious power, he is surprisingly fleet of foot, and his feet are excellent: he can cut sharply. Otherwise Varga could not have starred at halfback in Yale’s spread read-option attack.
“Everybody always automatically tags me as a slower back because I’m big,” Varga said. “Am I like a 4.4 or 4.3(-second guy in the 40-yard dash)? Probably not. But I’m really good within a 10-yard box.
“My feet are pretty good, especially for someone my size. I make decisive cuts, and NFL coaches like one-cut guys. And I’ve got acceleration that can keep up with most guys. Even the 4.3 and 4.4 guys.”
How a kid from Kitchener wound up playing football in the Ivy League is its own story. Although youth football is not popular in Canada, Varga is one of the few Canadian NFLers who took up the sport as a child — in addition to competing in gymnastics, judo (he’s a blue belt), alpine skiing and baseball.
“I started playing (football) catch with my dad in the front yard when I was about five or six. Then when I was eight, he was like, ‘Why don’t you try flag football for a while, then if you still like that we’ll try tackle.’
“So I played flag for three seasons, then I went on to play tackle … I was a nose tackle and a fourth-down running back, because we didn’t punt back then, ’cuz we were so little. So when it became fourth down, I’d go run.”
By the time Varga entered high school (Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute) he’d been playing football for six years. He played five positions and was a superstar, scoring 100 touchdowns and earning team MVP honours all four years — while playing club football on the side.
After Varga’s Grade 12 season he was named Canada’s top high school football player.
Although Harvard and other Ivy League schools recruited Varga, none of the top-tier U.S. colleges did. Varga originally chose to play close to home at a traditional Canadian power, the University of Western Ontario in London, about an hour’s drive southwest of Kitchener.
Even though he was named Canadian university football’s freshman of the year in 2011 (London Free Press photo, above), and led the nation in scoring, things didn’t work out at Western for reasons Varga prefers not to discuss.
The assistant coach in the States who’d recruited him hardest, Tony Reno at Harvard, by then had become head coach at Yale.
“He gave me a call, and said, ‘Hey, I heard you might want to transfer. And I said, ‘I’ll check you guys out for sure.’”
Varga liked the vibe in New Haven, Conn., and transferred to Yale. His on-field transition to the NCAA’s second-tier (Football Championship Subdivision) proved seamless.
Playing both running back and quarterback in 2012, Varga led the FCS with 194.2 all-purpose yards per game, 117 on the ground. Against Columbia he set a Yale single-game rushing record for QBs with 220 yards.
Purely a running back thereafter, Varga missed half of his junior season with injury but still finished fourth in the Ivy League with 641 yards rushing. And his 236 against Colgate was the third-best single-game rushing performance in Yale history.
Last fall Varga led the FCS in touchdowns scored, with 26, a Yale record. He scored five of them against Army, a top-tier NCAA team, and by season’s end he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 142 per game.
In all, Varga rushed for 100-plus yards 17 times in his Yale career, ranks third in rushing in school history, and made the all-Ivy team all three years.
But how much of those accomplishments translate to the NFL? Star college halfbacks are a dime a dozen. It’s often hard to know how a top-tier back will do in the NFL, let alone an FCS back.
Varga might well prove he has the abilities to make it in the NFL as a halfback. But an athletic, elusive, strong fullback with big, soft hands who can pass protect? That really stands out, and surely is why the NFL is slotting him as a fullback.
“Varga is interesting, because he comes from an offence where they really liked to spread it out,” said Rotoworld’s Norris. “He was able to be a running back in these sets. But even more impressive is his comfort in space, because not only would that allow him to be a runner in some situations in the NFL, but as a receiving threat.
“You see a lot of these fullbacks whose primary duty is to block, but once the ball is thrown to them they panic. They freak out, they aren’t comfortable in the open field. I think Varga absolutely is comfortable.”
And Norris said Varga is a rarity in that if he’s not already a good pass-protector, he has the skills to quickly become one — whereas “95%” of rookie backs prove unreliable in that role.
In Mobile, Varga already was warming to the idea of becoming a fullback as a pro.
“It’s a little bit of a transition,” Varga said. “That’s the biggest thing for me — trying to get comfortable playing a position I haven’t really played before. Being in the three-point stance, and having a different vantage point.
“But playing fullback gives me a chance to show I’m versatile. Everybody’s seen me play tailback on tape. Getting a few (Senior Bowl) reps at tailback, too, gives me the chance to show that I can play both positions. That’s valuable, because the more things you can do, the more ways you can help a team. That helps your draft stock.”
Varga impressed at Senior Bowl practices, then was one of the stars of the game. He ran four times for 31 yards and scored on a pair of nifty, shifty runs. He added three receptions for 39 yards as his North team defeated the South, 34-13.
A month earlier, the CFL Scouting Bureau rated Varga as the No. 4 overall prospect for the three-down league’s draft in May, after first rating him No. 2 in September. But as long as he’s not a liability on special teams, Varga seems destined to land a job south of the border.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper and CBS’ NFLDraftscout.com both rank Varga as the No. 2 fullback prospect in this year’s NFL draft, which goes April 30 to May 2 in Chicago. Jalston Fowler of Alabama is the consensus top fullback prospect.
Fullback is a low-priority position at the draft, so Varga is unlikely to be selected until the third and final day — when Rounds 4-7 are held.
“I think a team can use him,” Norris said. “Somewhere on the third day, maybe sixth or seventh round, or maybe he goes undrafted. But I think he can absolutely make an NFL team.”
That’s a credit to Varga’s outstanding body of work.
Dad John Varga, Tyler and mom Hannele Sundberg at Yale. (A Varga family photo, as are the bodybuilding photos, above, circa 1980s.)
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‘Schoolwork 1st, sports 2nd’ paid off for Varga
MOBILE, Ala. — To play sports, Tyler Varga first had to make the grades. His parents in Kitchener, Ont., insisted that his schoolwork always took precedence.
The lesson took.
To transfer into Yale from Western Ontario University in 2012, Varga had to have at least a 93% freshman average — and did.
Last October, during his last season as a star halfback at Yale, Varga received a rare honour. He was named a National Football Foundation scholar-athlete award winner.
Only 16 others among the tens of thousands of young men who played college football last season, at all levels of the NCAA and NAIA, received the same honour for academic success.
“I’m by no means a super genius, or anything like that,” Varga said in an interview last month. “I work hard, and that’s why I think I’ve been given the opportunities that I have.”
Immediately after the Senior Bowl on Jan. 24, Varga flew back up to New Haven, Conn., to finish up his degree this semester at Yale. Few draft prospects continue their college studies while prepping for the pros.
Varga wants to graduate from Yale his spring, however. He is four credits short. His major?
“Evolutionary biology,” Varga said. “It’s like a pre-med stream. I’ve met all the pre-med requirements.”
Another marker of Varga’s intelligence is that his dad says he won more awards and trophies in chess than he did in any of the many sports he played competitively.
Varga, who was born in Sweden and whose mom was born and raised in Finland, also speaks three languages.
“I went to the Kitchener-Waterloo bilingual school, so I speak French,” Varga said. “I don’t speak any Finnish, but I do speak Swedish.”
If you needed any higher testament as to Varga’s character, there’s this.
Last May he was awarded the prestigious F. Wilder Bellamy Jr. Memorial Prize by Yale’s Council of Masters, as the student who best exemplifies “the qualities for which the alumnus is remembered, including personal integrity, loyalty to friends and high-spiritedness in athletics, academics and social life.”
Varga hoping to run 4.5 in 40 at the combine
MOBILE, Ala. — Tyler Varga is hoping to run a good time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine next Saturday.
“I’m shooting for 4.5 seconds. I’ve done that before, so I’d just be looking to do something I’ve already accomplished,” the running back from Yale University said in an interview last month at the Senior Bowl.
“I’m not slow. I want everyone to know that.”
Before Senior Bowl week (Jan 19-24), Varga trained in Bradenton, Fla., at the Athletic Edge facility under Mike Gough, a Canadian and a former Toronto Raptors strength & conditioning coach.
Until the draft, Varga said he will work out at Yale University, while he completes his degree.
“We don’t really have an indoor facility up there,” he said. “There’s a bubble we work out in. So I’m going to do some stuff with my (former) teammates, hopefully — see if they can help me out a bit, see if our quarterbacks can throw me some balls and stuff.”
3 other Canadians at NFL combine, including a QB
Three other born-and-raised Canadians have been invited to the NFL’s scouting combine. They’ll be grilled, inspected and (if healthy) worked out this coming week in Indianapolis. The trio:
** OT Brett Boyko (UNLV) from Saskatoon, the CFL Scouting Bureau’s top overall prospect. CBS’ NFLDraftScout.com has him as the No. 22 offensive tackle for the NFL draft; 19 were drafted last year. Boyko had to turn down an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl because of a lingering elbow injury.
** QB Brandon Bridge (University of South Alabama) from Mississauga. He transferred from Alcorn State. Bridge is the 12th-ranked quarterback according to NFLDraftScout.com. Fourteen quarterbacks were selected last year.
** DL Christian Covington (Rice University) from Vancouver. The son of CFL Hall of Fame defensive end Grover Covington (a Hamilton Tiger-Cat), he suffered dislocated a knee cap in November. He is not expected to work out at the combine. NFLDraftScout.com rates Covington as the No. 13 defensive tackle; 14 D-linemen were drafted a year ago.