Tyler Paul’s journey already was a success story.
The Meadowdale High School senior overcame challenges from autism to become fully integrated into typical classroom settings. And, refusing to let the condition interfere with his dreams, Paul has developed into a three-sport athlete for the Mavericks.
But recently, his inspirational story took a Hollywood turn.
After playing limited snaps in mop-up duty for the Meadowdale varsity football team the past two seasons, Paul was given a chance to start at nose tackle last month. The 6-foot, 235-pound defensive lineman performed well and has since earned considerable playing time, starting three of the past four games while emerging as a key force for the Mavericks.
“He’s really gone from a kid that you’re just (trying) to find a way to get him into the game … to a guy who is an extremely valuable part of our defense right now,” Meadowdale coach Matt Leonard said.
A kid who once struggled in public settings is now excelling on the gridiron under the bright Friday night lights.
“(From) the social anxiety and not being able to even go to an assembly during elementary school to running out on that field in front of hundreds of people on a Friday night and having that team behind him, it’s crazy,” said Sabrina Dies, Paul’s mother.
“He went from this scared, anxious little boy to this young man with all the confidence in the world and amazing people standing behind him.”
Checking off milestones
According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children.
Autism, a neurological and developmental disorder that begins in early childhood and lasts throughout one’s life, impacts individuals in different ways and to varying degrees. It typically affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others, as well as how one learns.
Diagnosed with autism at age 4, Paul suffered from social anxiety during childhood and had trouble managing his emotions. He spent much of his youth attending school in intensive support classrooms. The most difficult years, Dies said, were ages 6 through 9.
“He couldn’t go to an assembly without having a meltdown,” she said. Other public places, such as movie theaters and restaurants, also presented challenges.
But in third grade, Paul made significant progress and began checking off milestones.
“He went to his first assembly,” Dies said. “That was a big turning point for him. From there, he started communicating better, he wanted to go to the movie theaters (and) he wanted to go grocery shopping. … He really kind of blossomed that year.”
Over the years, Paul gradually became more integrated in school. By ninth grade, he achieved his goals of attending Meadowdale High School and becoming a fully integrated student. Last year, when his sister was a freshman, the siblings went to school together for the first time.
“He really wanted that,” Dies said. “That was his goal. … He pushed himself academically and athletically.”
‘Obsessed with the Seahawks’
Paul had never played sports prior to eighth grade, but after watching the Seattle Seahawks win the Super Bowl in 2014, his love of football was born.
“He was pretty obsessed with the Seahawks that year,” Dies said. “After they won the Super Bowl, he wanted to play. We thought it would just kind of pass, (but) when four or five months later it hadn’t, his dad and I discussed it.
“I wasn’t 100 percent on board, but his dad was like, ‘We’ve gotta try it, and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.’ And here we are five seasons later.”
Paul, known as “TP” by his teammates, began playing football in eighth grade for the Meadowdale feeder team and his middle-school team. The following year, he joined the high school program and played on the freshman team.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, Paul primarily played on the junior varsity, though he did get enough varsity time to letter. He became known for his hard work and full-speed mentality during practice.
“I’ve seen him improve drastically throughout that time period,” said Mavericks starting center Calvin Nguyen, a junior who has faced Paul in practice for the past three years. “He just goes all gas, no brakes, and just plays very hard.
“For me, personally, he’s made me work harder in practice because of how he plays. If I don’t play as hard as he does, he makes me look silly, so that’s made me a better player.”
As a reward for his hard work, Paul occasionally saw varsity action the past two seasons during the latter part of games when the outcomes had been decided.
“If we had a chance to get him in,” Leonard said, “we were obviously going to try to get that kid in the game … because he works so hard.”
An ‘extended family’
This season, however, Paul’s role greatly increased. After playing about one-quarter of the snaps at nose tackle in Meadowdale’s first two games, he received the starting nod in the Week 3 win over Lynnwood.
“We just kind of said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we let ‘TP’ go and see if he can be effective?’” Leonard said.
Paul also received the coveted honor of leading the Mavericks onto the field that night, with the team’s symbolic chain in hand. Watching proudly from the stands, it was an emotional evening for his mother.
“I was in tears,” she said.
Paul then started again the following week in a victory over Edmonds-Woodway, playing an instrumental role in slowing down Warriors standout running back Capassio Cherry as the Mavericks built a 27-0 first-half lead.
“We basically put him in there to try to disrupt their counter game and to slow Capassio down,” Leonard said. “It’s kind of weird to think about putting in a senior kid who’s started (one) game before and (wanting him) to go stop the best player in the league, (but) he was very effective in doing it for a half.
“(In) the second half, they made some adjustments, but for a half he confused them and frustrated them. Most of Capassio’s work in the second half was outside — it wasn’t inside where Tyler plays. They had to go off-tackle to really have any sort of success.”
Paul, who has been drawing frequent double-teams, also started in Meadowdale’s win over Everett last week and helped stymie the Seagulls’ rushing attack.
“If (opponents) don’t double him, he gets in the backfield on every play,” Leonard said. “When (he) demands a double-team, that means our linebackers are free-flowing. … He’s pretty vital to our defense right now.”
Paul’s greatest strength as a nose tackle, Leonard said, is how quickly he gets off the line of scrimmage after the snap.
“When you’re playing that position on the D-line, your job is to … penetrate gaps and cause havoc in the backfield,” Leonard said. “He’s as good at it as anybody.
“He just gets off the ball so hard and so fast, and he’s so physical. He never catches a block, and he’s got a tremendous motor. … He just goes hard all the time. He doesn’t know anything else but to compete and compete as hard as he can.”
Whenever Paul makes a big play during practice or in a game, his teammates’ chants of “TP” are sure to follow.
“He gets the biggest ovation all the time,” Leonard said. “The team just rallies around him.”
“You can just see that he loves (football) so much,” Dies said. “He loves the team and that atmosphere. When he makes a play and the bench goes crazy and all you can hear is the kids chanting ‘TP,’ you can just see this glow about him. … The football team became kind of an extended family for him.”
Paul said one of his favorite aspects of football is the team camaraderie.
“It (helped) me to make some good friends over the years and (to) have some good teammates and coaches that have confidence in me,” Paul said. “To be a Maverick, you feel like you’re actually a part of something for once.
“You get to hear the fans cheering you on. You get to hear the band (and) the chanting, and also (you’re) cheering on your teammates on the field and working as a team.”
‘He’s going to have a successful life’
Paul’s growth as a football player has mirrored his development as a person. During the past four years Leonard has witnessed that growth first-hand while coaching Paul in football and wrestling.
“I’ve seen him grow from a kid that you really had to kind of help do things. (I had to make) sure that he’s changed his gear out, check in with him so he knows where to be and give him lots of reminders,” Leonard said. “That’s not the case now. … Now he’s just completely self-sufficient.
“You’ve seen him grow from a kid trying to figure out life with his disability to being a fully functioning member of this team.”
Paul’s self-sufficiency has become evident on the field.
“He knows which gap to go to, and that wasn’t the case in the past,” Leonard said. “We had to be like, ‘OK, you’re going to line up here and you’re going to go there,’ and he would do it. And now, this year, he gets the call either from the sideline or the wristband and he can make the adjustment.
“That’s really (because of) his growth as a person and being able to do different things and kind of speak for himself and process by himself.”
Since taking up wrestling in eighth grade on the recommendation of a middle school football coach, Paul has made similar strides on the mat.
“Freshman year, you’re teaching him literally how to line up on the mat,” said Leonard, an assistant wrestling coach at Meadowdale. “As a junior, you’re teaching him throws and you’re teaching him moves that he’s out there (executing) and putting people on their back.”
Paul also has participated in track and field the past two years, competing in the shot put and discus. Earlier in his life, the prospect of Paul being a three-sport athlete in high school certainly wasn’t something his mother imagined was possible.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Dies said. “When you have a kid on the (autism) spectrum and you’re asking questions when they’re (younger), like, ‘Is he going to be able to do X, Y and Z?’ and the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ you kind of just go day by day and try to hope for the best.
“He’s exceeded all of my expectations 100 percent. (I’m) so very proud of him.”
Outside of his busy schedule as a three-sport athlete, Paul is a big sports fan who enjoys attending Seattle Sounders and Everett Silvertips games. He also is a movie buff whose favorite class at Meadowdale is advanced film.
“I like to make scripts, and also to learn how to make the shots right,” he said.
Considering everything he’s been able to overcome, Paul’s future certainly seems bright.
“The cool part about this is he’s attacked what life gave him, and he’s not letting (his condition) be an excuse,” Leonard said. “He’s gotten better as a student every year, he’s gotten better as a player (and) he’s gotten better as a teammate.
“He’s going to have a successful life, because he’s not going to let something hold him back.”