The Pittsburgh Maulers may have only won one game last year, but the energy in the team’s locker room filled with passion as the league created an opportunity for many to play the game they love again. Maulers Safety Tre Tarpley, 26, a Pittsburgh native, opens up about how the USFL has changed his life, what new Head Coach Ray Horton has brought into the locker room, and what fans can expect from the Pittsburgh Maulers on their redemption tour.
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NBC Sports: You didn’t play varsity football until your senior year. You were listening to [motivational speaker] Eric Thomas one day and then made it a personal goal to play D1 football. Tell me about that day.
Tre Tarpley: It was my junior year going into my senior year. I heard a lot of Eric Thomas’ speeches. I was driving in the car and my cousin was coming in town to visit. I forget the month it was… maybe February. I was wearing a red hoodie. I don’t know why I remember this so vividly, but nonetheless, I was driving through the Liberty Tunnels because I’m from Pittsburgh, PA. I just remember… it was just very surreal. It was the first time I had heard something and I actually believed in myself in a different way.
It wasn’t the “how bad do you want to breathe” speech that everybody knows. I forget which one it was, but [Thomas] was really just talking about if you’re not where you want to be, you need to look in the mirror, and you need to make a decision. I’ll never forget, I picked my cousin up and I told him “I’m going to be a D1 athlete. I’m going to make this happen. ”
That was the first time I understood the power of the mind and how the things that you say to yourself, whenever God designs for it to come to fruition, it will. You just have to be diligent in that process. Everything else from there, snowballed and propelled me into my senior year.
Were you a Steelers fan growing up? What was your NFL team?
Tarpley: I didn’t really grow up with Steelers fan. I had favorite players. When I was younger I played running back so I really like Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. They were probably my two favorite players and then as I got older and got to high school, I started paying more attention to Darrelle Revis. He’s from Aliquippa–not the same exact area that I’m from but the Western Pennsylvania area.
Fast forward to your college days. You did end up going to a D1 school. Vanderbilt was put on your radar via Facebook Messenger. What led to your decision to ultimately go there?
Tarpley: Coach Rod Chance is a good friend of mine and a great mentor that came into my life. He reached out to me about two or three weeks before signing day. I had very few offers. I talked to a few schools and they reached out. I didn’t even know what Vanderbilt was. I had looked it up after he messaged me and saw that [Vanderbilt Football] played Ole Miss. I remember my senior year [of high school] after our first game, I had watched that game thinking, “I don’t know who Vanderbilt is but they were balling.”
You’ve said in the past your junior year was one of the most difficult years of your life and career? What happened?
Tarpley: My sophomore going into junior year I actually tore my pectoral muscle. It was kind of a freak accident. I wasn’t out long, probably only for about two months or whatever. But during that time, I didn’t play in spring ball. When I came back, there was a big transition with the coaches because I had started the year before playing nickelback underneath Coach Mason, and when I came back, they were like, “We realize you have a high football IQ, you’re intelligent and athletic, we’d like to try you at some different places and safety.”
In high school, I really just played predominantly strong safety. I played nickel, which is more closely related to strong safety. They wanted to try me out at free safety. I went to play free safety and I didn’t do well.
Shout out to all of my teammates, they helped me [eventually] grow into the position as well as my coaches. But I started out the year getting benched which was very different for me. Freshman year I played a little bit. As a sophomore I started the whole year, so I went in thinking junior year was going to be my year, and then senior year, I can go to NFL. Everything was kind of planned out and then everything really took a major shift.
At that point I had to reposition myself. I really found my faith for myself and started following Christ and that was like my biggest moment in my life because I felt like up until that point I was being what people call “pseudo-Christian” and not to offend anybody but I’m just being honest from my end–I really wasn’t living out my relationship with the Lord. So I quickly got corrected and had to figure that out.
Congruent with that, my strength coach James Dobson pulled me to the side and was like, “Hey man, I watched you last year and I know you can play.” Going back to what we said about the Eric Thomas thing. He told me I was in my own head. He said “I need you to stop worrying about the NFL and those other things and just take this thing day by day.” He really reset me. The spiritual part got my perspective on life together but that [conversation] really got my perspective of football back and I really appreciate Coach Dobson. 2016 was a rough year, for sure.
The following year, you injured your knee during your last practice before your very last game. Take me back to that moment.
Tarpley: It was the last practice of the year. There were a few NFL teams that came out to practice to watch us and my teammates and I were excited. Obviously, we didn’t have the season that we wanted, but after four years we were ready to get our chance to do pro day in front of some NFL teams and see what God has in store.
We’re doing a regular one-on-one drill, I’m covering one of my friends and I go to jump for the ball and my cleat gets stuck in his shoelace and I tore my ACL. The doctor told me he’d been working for 22 years and had never seen anything like that — it was a crazy accident. He didn’t know whether to call it a contact or non-contact injury because it was just so freaky. You and I could go out there 50 times and something like that would never happen.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your injury an that season of life?
Tarpley: I think that you have to keep perspective and I think [that lesson] is what’s moving me for this year, which I’m excited about. Even last season, my first year in the USFL, I still feel like I was learning that lesson.
You have to keep your perspective on what’s really important. I feel like a lot of times, even for me, in that moment, I got so caught up in the NFL and all these other goals that we have that we don’t realize what’s happening right now and the grand scheme of what you want your life to look like 10 to 20 years from now. Is this one moment that you’re stressed or upset about going to really benefit you 15-20 years from now?
I’ve been focusing on the monumental things like, did you get to the end result? It doesn’t really matter when you got there. When you’re 60, nobody’s going to remember whether or not you got there when you were 22. It’s not about getting there in a certain time period. [The injury] gave me perspective on the timeline of life and understanding.
You’ve had a few different opportunities in minor league and professional football. You even had an opportunity with the Steelers – but what was your initial reaction when the USFL opportunity came up?
Tarpley: I was honestly super, super excited. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of like the play and how everything was going to be structured, but I was excited because I felt like for the longest I needed a platform, since college. The other leagues I played in didn’t last. I played in the Alliance of American Football (AAF), they got shut down. Spring League was like 3 games. I didn’t get a chance to play in the XFL. Then the USFL came up so I was just super excited. It was an opportunity for me to go out, show my skills, and put everything on display.
Obviously, teams go into the season with the intention of winning as many games as they can but in terms of your own personal expectations, did last season go the way you thought it would?
Tarpley: No. I ended up getting injured, I think during the seventh game and I missed the last three games. It was a hip strain. It wasn’t that big of a deal but I couldn’t go back out and play. That was kind of frustrating, but I would say up until then it went really well for me individually. There are some things that I’ve worked on this offseason to improve, but if I got to play the last few games I probably would have had a different answer for you.
What are some of those things that you worked on in the off season?
Tarpley: Probably my biggest one is just tackling. I think that I had a lot of opportunities getting to the ball and I think I did have some good plays in terms of tackling, but just getting to the ball and finishing.
The other thing I would say is landmark assignments. Making sure that I’m in the right position when I need to be. I think I understand football really, really well, but sometimes I get myself out of position just by moving. So [I worked on] not taking any false steps.
You’ve talked in the past about wanting to take more calculated risks during the game. Do you think you did that this season?
Tarpley: Yes, for sure. I think there were probably a few more I could have taken, but I think that I did a good job taking the calculated risks that presented themselves.
Give me one word to describe the season
Tarpley: It was exciting. I had a lot of fun!
What did you learn about your team and what did you learn about yourself?
Tarpley: About my team, it showed me how me how much people really love football. I feel like when you’re not at the highest level like the NFL, everything’s not perfect. It’s a new league. There’s going to be things that everybody’s figuring out and it’s nobody’s fault. But I think in football, when you have people coming from so many different places — from college, some people were first round draft picks — just so many different levels that are coming in and we all have to come together. I think it just shows how much people love the sport. We’re all getting paid the same thing. You can’t really be a prima donna. It’s cool.
How would you describe the Pittsburgh Maulers in one word?
Tarpley: Passionate. Everybody on the team was passionate. We didn’t get as many wins as we wanted to. Not even close. But I think that everybody showed their passion for the game and how much they wanted to win.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to find out about the Pittsburgh Maulers?
Tarpley: We have a lot of of jokesters. I feel like people talk about their team and they’re like, “Yeah, we’ve got funny dudes.” But this year, for sure I feel like we have a lot of jokesters and to be transparent with you, I think we really are coming together as a family. I’m super excited for the season. This year we’ve got new players, everyone’s just collectively coming together and every day in the locker room we have fun. We laugh. Everybody has that love and camaraderie. It reminds me of college and high school because it is a second season and people are trying to progress. It’s pretty cool to see.
You mentioned new players on the team. What can fans expect from the Maulers this season and how will your team be different?
Tarpley: I think there’s going to be a lot of big plays on both sides of the ball. Just be ready for big plays, that’s really all I’ve got to say. I don’t want to say too much. Last year, I think defensively we were really fundamentally sound, but I don’t think we got nearly as many turnovers as we wanted to. I think our offense last year had a lot of weapons. We didn’t always capitalize on those opportunities that we had, but when we did, they were super explosive. I just think it’s about being more consistent but I’m excited to see the big plays that we we present this year.
You played under your current Defensive Coordinator Jarren Horton during your time at Vanderbilt– what’s your relationship with him like?
Tarpley: Me and Coach Horton, are real cool. [At Vanderbilt], I would always go in there and converse with him and all of the other coaches about the game plan and stuff like that. When I found out he was a coach [in the USFL] I was like whoa, that’s crazy. I hadn’t talked to him in so many years. We weren’t super close [since Vanderbilt] but we have a great relationship. I trust him as a coach. He trusts me and we have a really good relationship.
Now his dad, Ray Horton, is the new head coach. What is your relationship with him like so far?
Tarpley: He’s great. His first day in the locker room, me and Bryce [Torneden], our other safety walked in, and he was quizzing us already which was super, super cool. He’s a DB. He played in the NFL for countless years. He coached DBs in the NFL. He’s just a high caliber guy. He understands the game and is just a great human all around. He wants to do his best for the players. I would consider him a players coach through and through. Just like [Coach Jarren], he has high expectations for everybody on the team and makes sure we’re all held to that.
What are some of those expectations?
Tarpley: I think the biggest one is if it’s going to help the team win, then we should do it. That holds everybody accountable. Whether it’s off the field, taking care of your body, watching film, remaining consistent in your craft when you’re on the field, taking care of your teammates–it really puts a bigger picture on the most important thing which is winning games.
He understands that also requires you to do things right off of the field, not just an “Xs and Os guy” that only cares about football and could care less about the men in the room. He’s really big on that. In our team meetings he’s very detailed with how he explains things to us. He’s a coach, but more of a mentor the way he talks about the game. He’s offered us a lot of different perspectives since he’s come in.
What was your reaction to finding out about Kirby Wilson’s resignation and what’s the biggest lesson you learned from him last season?
Tarpley: Coach Wilson and I have a really good relationship. That’s my guy for sure. I was shocked [when he resigned]. I didn’t know. I texted him immediately to make sure everything was good and he said it was fine. He just had to make the best decision for him and his family. I totally respect it.
As far as what I learned from him, he really explained to me what it’s like to be a professional. He would always talk to the team about being a pro and with his experience coaching for so many years in the NFL, he’s seen it all. He’s just a great person. I talked to him multiple times throughout the offseason, so me and him are super cool.
You’ve talked about some of the work that you put into the offseason. You talked about the expectations that court Coach Horton has for you guys. What’s your personal goal for this upcoming season?
Tarpley: A personal goal is just to go out, put good film out, be consistent and just make sure that I’m putting my my team in position to win. Whatever that looks like at the end of season, whether I’m become a first team USFL All-Star or I don’t, as long as I’m putting good film out, being consistent and having fun with my teammates, I think everything else will align.
I know for you it’s not about the location. You just want to play good football. But what do you think of Canton, Ohio being the new home for the Pittsburgh Maulers?
Tarpley: I’m not going to lie, I’m kind of excited. There are no teams here–aside from us and the Generals–but I think it’s pretty dope. They love football here. It’s a football state and city specifically too. So I’m excited. I think a lot more fans are going to come out then we as players expect.
You’re not playing in the city of Pittsburgh, but you’re from Pittsburgh, playing for Pittsburgh – how much pride do you have in representing your city?
Tarpley: A lot! It’s definitely cool. I got a lot of text messages and people reaching out, especially now that we’re up here in Canton. Last year it was cool, but we were in Birmingham. Now that we’re like 2 hours away, a lot of my homeboys growing up are going to come to some games. My family is going to be able to make it to almost every home game so that’s super exciting. When you’re from Pittsburgh, you definitely have a lot of pride in terms of being from the city and wanting to represent it well. I don’t want to let anybody down either, so I’ve got make sure I put it on for the city.
How do you feel about the Maulers changing the colors of their uniforms to the Pittsburgh black and gold?
Tarpley: It’s definitely exciting. I’m happy. The purple was cool, but I like black and gold, though.
Is there a game you’re most excited for this season?
Tarpley: Not really. We only won one game last season so really everybody can get it. That’s how I’m looking at it. We’ve got a whole redemption tour and we need to get some more wins for sure so not really anybody in particular. All the teams are really good so we’ll just take it one game at a time. The New Orleans Breakers are first.
Switching gears – you used to be very superstitious on game day in college but you’re not anymore. How did your mind set shift?
Tarpley: Beforehand I had to wear this tape and listen to this specific song and do all this other stuff. I think as I’ve matured, most importantly spiritually, I just understood that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really determine the outcome. I read a book called “Getting to Neutral” by Trevor Moawad and it changed my life. He talked about the power of neutral thinking and your routine and that it’s not supposed to be like this ritualistic thing. You need to pay attention to your behaviors which fuel everything in life. The more I understood that, I realized it doesn’t really matter what I wear but it’s about how I think and prepare for what I’m about to do. It’s all about your thoughts on a play-to-play process. I think I’ve simplified the game and the people that make the game the most simple, always perform the best.
How has life changed for you since playing in the USFL?
Tarpley: It’s changed a lot. Football wise, it’s afforded me the opportunity to come back and play. I’ve got a lot of friends who would love to be in my position so I don’t take it for granted. We now have a second season so it made me look forward to something in the offseason, which was beautiful because in other years, when leagues got cancelled, you’re just training and watching other people play and waiting around for a call that may or may not even come. You get sad. I’m just thankful.
You have a YouTube Series called “Trust the Seed” where you’ve been documenting your journey. Can you talk about the foresight and vision behind it?
Tarpley: I made my grandma a promise after she passed away. She never got to see me make it to the NFL. She didn’t even get to see me play D1 football. I went to her grave site before I drove back to Nashville to start my junior season and I told her I was going make it to to the NFL, somehow, someway. When I got hurt, like I told you I had a decision I had to make. What’s crazy is even before then, I was recording these videos. I would just pull my phone out when stuff would happen–good or bad–and just record.
I would always say it was me checking in for the future Tre. I was going to wait till I got to the NFL to drop all of them but then I realized there are people that need this encouragement now and that motivated me to post it. It was scary because I don’t even know if I’m going to get that [NFL] call, but I’m telling all of these people that it’s going to happen… we’re just on a journey right now.
Do you ever go back and watch some of those earlier videos that you’ve posted, and if so, how would you say that you have grown personally on the on the journey?
Tarpley: Oh, I’ve grown so much! People always talk about reaping and sewing no matter whatever you believe, people always use that analogy. What you put into the ground, you water it and over time it’ll grow into something. But as a believer, when you understand that God puts you in certain situations where you are covered and you are a seed, you don’t know what you are. God is watering you everyday and you never know when you’ll actually spurt out of the ground. Some will be vegetables, some fruit, others just different plants that take months, even years, sometimes just to grow a little bit, and then they blossom and grow really big.
That’s just a matter of you and your life. Whatever situation you’re going through, understand that God has you in some position and you will grow eventually. You just don’t know what type of seed you are but you will grow over time. I look back at the videos and see that I’ve come a long way. I’ve changed so, so much. These episodes are progressive.
Tell me about your family – your dad is a podiatrist and your mom is a former Pittsburgh TV news anchor. What was growing up with those professions in your household like?
Tarpley: It was good. It was a lot of lessons. A lot of conversation. My mom taught me how to converse with people from a young, young age. I learned how to speak and build relationships. I’m an only child and didn’t grow up with brothers and sisters so I was forced to learn how to communicate with people. I had no kids to play with so it helped me make friends.
As far as my father, he’s my best friend. He’s always been there for me, educating me and helping me grow up as a man. Both of [my parents] have poured into me so much to allow me to become the person I am, and I’m super grateful for them and all the lessons that they’ve taught me thus far. They’re still teaching me, so I’m still learning stuff.
Your family is expanding! You proposed to your girlfriend, now fiancée, last September, congratulations! How is wedding planning going?
Tarpley: It’s going well. She’s in medical school, so we are trying to figure some things out around her schedule. Obviously, we’re making sure that’s a priority so we’re just taking it one day at a time.
When you’re not playing football you’re running a digital marketing business – tell me about that.
Tarpley: We help business owners get leads. Leads are just people who are looking for your business or your service and they just want to buy it. We do that for any business, no matter what you are. Primarily most of our people that we work with are life insurance agents because I used to be a life insurance agent myself.
You’ve talked a lot about your faith. What does it mean to you?
Tarpley: It’s the most important thing in the entire world to me. I think the thing that I’ve learned is that your foundation is really based on what you believe. Everybody believes something and for me, I think that foundation is everything. It’s what I root myself in when things go wrong. It’s absolutely everything from how I honor my fiancée, how I honor the game, how I treat and greet people. I truly believe that is based on my faith and me understanding that I’m blessed enough to be here.
What are you passionate about outside of football, faith, and your business?
Tarpley: I haven’t told too many people this but for whatever reason God put on my heart this longing for people that are homeless. I had an assignment when I was at Vanderbilt in one of my communication classes where we had to pick a topic to write a 25-page paper on. I chose homelessness. Ever since I was a kid, every time I was saw a homeless person, something just didn’t sit right in me. I don’t know how they got there but the fact that they’re there, I feel for them. I have some ambitious goals that will get accomplished eventually that tie in with why I do have this perspective about playing football and also having a business. Financially there are some goals that I need to get to, to fulfill my purpose and calling to help serve those individuals who are homeless.
I’m also passionate about mentorship. Because I didn’t have a little brother, I’ve always wanted somebody that I could help out and pour into. I think there’s a gap in the African American community between fathers and sons and whether they’re present or not and I feel like it’s put a lot of stress on Black women in America. They have to be that mother and father figure. From my perspective, a big brother or uncle could be that mediator and I feel very called to do that.
Wow! Thank you for sharing that! Switching gears – it’s time for a speed round. Finish this sentence. I’m not ready for game day without…
Tarpley: Fruit. Apples. Berries. Bananas. As many as I can get my hands on.
Do you have a game day hype song?
Tarpley: Worship music. I know it’s not what a lot of people like but it just calms me down.
Would you rather be trapped in a romantic comedy with your teammates or trapped in a horror movie with your teammates?
Tarpley: Romantic comedy? No. Please put me in horror. I couldn’t take them seriously.
Who from your team is most likely to survive a horror movie?
Tarpley: Malcolm Elmore. That dude is smart. I feel like he’s strategic enough to make sure that he’s going to get himself out of the situation. He’s going to think through about four or five different scenarios in all situations. So I think he’ll be good.
You’re singing karaoke for your life. What song are you picking?
Tarpley: “Confessions” by Usher.