Cover Story

Catch Me If You Can

UL running back Tyrell Fenroy has been shattering school and Sun Belt records all year, and on the night of his final homecoming game at UL, he charged right into the NCAA’s record books.

photo by Terri Fensel

It wasn’t a matter of if; it was a matter of when. Seven tries and a little less than 10 minutes into last Saturday’s UL-Florida International SBC showdown, we finally got an answer.

Tyrell Fenroy’s 4-yard run into the middle of the line — where he’s traditionally done so much damage to opponents — pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season and eased him into elite company as only the seventh player in college football history to rush for at least that number in each of his four years. More than 29,000 fans — the most ever to watch a Sun Belt game — rose in unison and waved their “Tyrell Towels” as the senior running back finally ended the suspense. He did so before a throng attracted not only to his quest but to a homecoming game that featured a Cajun team in giddily unfamiliar territory — tied for the conference lead and in charge of a destiny that could lead to the first school bowl appearance in almost four decades.

But destiny has its speed bumps. The Cajuns must face the league’s top two pre-season picks in the coming weeks — Florida Atlantic and Troy — before finishing at home against a dangerous Middle Tennessee State club. The trio will play UL as physically as did Florida International, which, in spite of the 49-20 final score, held Fenroy and Co. below its average offensive output.

But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so much fun, and if there’s one thing that can be said for Fenroy, his teammates, the coaching staff and especially the long-suffering Cajun Nation, they’re having fun.

Tyrell Fenroy is hardly the prototype that most of us have come to expect from a college football superstar. UL’s media guide lists the running back at 186 pounds, but he seems smaller. The special, sloping shoulder pads Fenroy wears are designed to limit neck injuries and concussions and are most certainly responsible for the perception. Since fans aren’t used to seeing the senior in civies, their first reaction is straight out of Road House, where Patrick Swayze’s rough and tumble character is usually greeted with, “Gee, I thought you’d be bigger.”

Nor has Fenroy been bitten by the celebrity bug. He chooses his words carefully and delivers them so quietly that the phrase “soft-spoken” might have been coined just for him. Terrell Owens, he’s not.

Here’s what Fenroy is: a poster child for every university brochure that trumpets its athletes as a combination of exceptional skill and outstanding character.

Sound too good to be true? Read on.

“He’s a great kid, doesn’t say much and is very quiet,” says Cajun assistant coach Gerald Broussard. “He’s not a flashy guy at all, but when he speaks, people listen. He chooses his time to speak very carefully and when he does, he commands attention.”

But sometimes the quiet approach can be disconcerting, especially to a coach hot on the recruiting trail. “I remember recruiting Tyrell and talking to him on the phone and to be honest, it was pretty much a one-sided conversation,” says assistant Tim Rebowe. “He was very respectful and polite, but he was just so soft-spoken that I wasn’t sure where I stood.”

Rebowe must be standing proudly these days. Fenroy, who scored three times against FIU, has now rushed for more touchdowns than anyone in SBC history and will certainly eclipse Brian Mitchell’s school mark in the next few weeks. He is already the career rushing leader in UL and Sun Belt Conference annals and was named the National Offensive Player of the Week by the Walter Camp Football Foundation for his record-setting 297-yard performance against Louisiana-Monroe. In 41 games, Fenroy has rushed for at least 100 yards 21 times and is a candidate for the prestigious Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation’s top college running back.

By January of 2004, Rebowe finally felt confident that Fenroy would become a Ragin’ Cajun. As a junior at St. Charles Catholic in LaPlace, Fenroy ran for almost 1,600 yards and scored 32 touchdowns. The next year, with recruiters from the University of Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi showing interest, Fenroy led St. Charles to the playoffs by rushing for 2,100 yards and scoring 44 times. Yet by January, only Ole Miss and UL were still actively seeking the running back. So what happened?

“A couple of the big name schools had dropped off him,” remembers Rebowe. “They didn’t think Tyrell could be a big-time back, but his coach in high school kept telling me over and over that the guy was a big-time player.”

“I spent two or three hours at his home, and I think TyrelI really liked his visit here,” says Cajun head coach Rickey Bustle. In fact, the story goes that when Fenroy committed to the Cajuns, he’d planned to take at least one more visit for the heck of it — until his mother told him to cancel it. After all, he’d given his word, so what was the point?

“No regrets, none at all,” says Fenroy today. “I love it here and just can’t see playing anywhere else. Being at UL is a lot like being at St. Charles. The fans, the guys I play with, they’re all good people. As for the coaching staff, they not only care about football, they care about you as a person.”

photo by Terri Fensel

Cue the violins, alert the choir, this can’t be real, right? In an age of spoiled superstars (Jimmy Clausen showed up for his signing at Notre Dame in a stretch Hummer limo and a white fur coat) and incredibly clueless decisions (See Ryan Perrilloux), it’s almost inconceivable that someone could be this pure both on and off the field.

“I started thinking about an NFL career my third game as a freshman, when I started playing regularly and getting in a routine of Division I football,” admits Fenroy. Aha, pride!

“When I do things now, like a photo shoot, the guys in the locker room start whooping and hollering when I put the pads on and give me a hard time,” he laughs. OK, never mind.

If NFL scouts are put off by Fenroy’s size (5’9”, 186 pounds), they should love his speed. Listed as a 4.5 sprinter for the 40-yard dash, the senior claims to have run a 4.38 in a workout before the season. After scoring runs of 89, 80 and 52 yards against Louisiana-Monroe three weeks ago, he may not have been kidding.

“You know, when I first got here [in the spring], I heard about him,” says Broussard, hired by Bustle to coach the Cajun defensive line. “The question I had was, just how fast is he? I’d talked with some of the other coaches and they told me Tyrell would get caught in the past on some of those long runs. But the first time I saw him in practice, he split our defense on a play, and when he came out the back side, he was moving fast, and we weren’t coming close to catching him. “I thought you guys said this kid couldn’t run,” Broussard remembers yelling at his fellow coaches. “I don’t know what he was before, but I know this: He’s fast now.”

He just doesn’t look fast, especially in that awkward neck brace/shoulder pad contraption. But looks, as 15 TDs and a 7.46 yards-per-carry average this season can attest to, are deceiving.

“He looks like Quasimodo with that thing on,” says Broussard, “I don’t know what that thing is. I think that’s what makes him look like he’s not as good a player as he is.”

Fenroy smiles when the special equipment is mentioned, but it wasn’t always a pleasant subject. For years, the 21-year old suffered from what he terms “athletic migraines,” debilitating headaches that were thought to be the result of concussions. But Fenroy says a trip to a neurologist before the season diagnosed a condition resulting primarily from dehydration and strenuous activity, which is now controlled by medication.

In the meantime, the cumbersome-looking brace, pad — whatever it is — stays. “He’s tried to take that thing off several times,” says Rebowe. “But he keeps putting it back on.”

“Every year I try to take it off,” agrees Fenroy. “I haven’t worn it for the first game for the last three years, but I always think I have to put it back on. Even the coaches say, ‘You gotta put that thing back on.’”

Of course, any running back ranked fifth in the nation in rushing and worthy of All-American consideration needs more than a funky uniform. Fenroy works behind a tireless offensive line that is as proud of his accomplishments as he is of theirs. It doesn’t hurt to have the nation’s leading rushing quarterback, Michael Desormeaux, on your side either — the senior ranks 20th nationally in rushing and 14th in total offense.

“The offensive line works so hard to make our offense and team successful,” says Fenroy. “It makes it hard on a defense to try and contain Michael and me, and actually, he makes my job a lot easier. He takes pressure off me, and all I have to do is my job because I know he’s got my flank.”

It’s good to have teammates. Usually they’ll do almost anything for you, maybe even tell you the score of the game you’re playing. “I never know what [the score] is,” Fenroy says.

Say what?

photo by Terri Fensel

“There was one game, Southern Miss, I think. I got hurt in the second half and couldn’t go back in. The doctor asked me what the score was, and I told him I didn’t know. So he thought I had a concussion and wouldn’t let me play anymore,” Fenroy laughs. “But I honestly didn’t know what the score was.

“I don’t look at the scoreboard for the score, just how much time is left. You can tell if you’re winning or losing by teammates’ body language or how the fans are reacting. I know that if we’re not doing things right on the field then chances are we’re not winning. If we’re home and it’s quiet, then something’s not right. But if it’s loud out there, we’re doing fine.”

Obviously Tyrell Fenroy has been doing fine in more ways than just football. He’s pursuing a degree in criminal justice and would like nothing better than to intern with the Lafayette Sheriff’s Department. A typical day for him in high school was class, football, church and home, and four years later, nothing’s really changed. His headaches seem to be under control and by all accounts, he’s still the quiet, soft-spoken, down-to-earth running back who chews up yards like a bulldozer. Visions of playing on Sundays may be in the back of his mind, but he’s focused enough to realize a more immediate goal: that of winning the next football game and then the one after that.

Off the field, Tyrell Fenroy seems the perfect ambassador for a sport that can always use a few more heroes. On the field, he may very well be the best running back in the country — one most of the country has never heard of.

Catch him if you can.

photo by Terri Fensel

UL By The Numbers

Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they’re a good place to start. Through nine weeks of the 2008 season, UL ranks nationally in the top 23 in four offensive categories while RB Tyrell Fenroy, QB Michael Desormeaux and WR Jason Chery are Top 25 in five individual categories.

• The Cajuns are the No. 3 rushing team in the country, averaging more than 301 yards per game.

• UL’s average output of almost 492 YPG ranks the team eighth in total offense.

• At more than 37 points per game, the Cajuns are 14th in the country in scoring.

• At 13 yards per punt return, UL ranks 23rd in the category.

• Fenroy averages more than 131 YPG on the ground, good enough for fifth in the nation.

• Both Fenroy and Chery crack the Top 25 in all-purpose yardage, and Chery’s 166 YPG ranks him 11th.

• Fenroy’s 15 touchdowns ties him for second in individual scoring.

• Desormeaux’s 107 YPG rushing ranks him 20th and at 292 YPG; he ranks 14th in total offense.

• UL has three of the Top 10 all-purpose yardage performances for a single game: Chery’s total yardage against UL-Monroe and North Texas (where he averaged more than 42 yards per touch) and Fenroy’s 297 rushing yardage against the War Hawks.

• Cajun TDs of 89 and 87 yards against ULM are the third and sixth-longest rushing plays in the country this season. In fact, UL owns four of the category’s Top 20.

• Chery’s five TDs against North Texas matches the best scoring output of the year — and he did it in one half.