The redemption of Richland Springs legend Tyler Ethridge – Standard-Times

Posted: October 12, 2019 at 10:44 am

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Richland Springs' Tyler Ethridge leaps over Eden defenders for a touchdown in a game Nov. 2, 2007.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

If Tyler Ethridge's life was a sports movie, it would almost be too good to believe.

In the small town of Richland Springs, Texas playing a brand of football most people have never seen Ethridge threw more touchdown passes than any player in the history of high school football.

He lost only one game in his high school career, compiling a 56-1 record with three state titles.

And he did it all in a frame that measured a modest 5-foot-9, 182 pounds his senior year.

Tyler Ethridge waves to those in attendance at Shotwell Stadium in Abilene after he broke the national all-time passing touchdown record against Vernon Northside on Sept. 23, 2007.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

When Ethridge drove out of Richland Springs after graduating in 2008 to realize his dream of playing college football an opportunity afforded few six-man football players it would have been a good moment for the film credits to start rolling.

Because in real life, there wasn't a feel-good ending waiting at the end of the highway.

For everything that went right during Ethridge's high school football career, just as much seemed to go wrong in the years following it.

He didn't make it as a college football player at Sul Ross State University in Alpine and quit the team during his freshman year.

For someone who built his identity through football, things quickly fell apart for Ethridge without it.

He bounced around Texas to one school after another, but never found what he was looking for.

Ethridge said he began abusing substances, slipped into depression and even had suicidal thoughts.

At his lowest point, he found himself sleeping under a bridge.

Ethridge had to hit rock bottom before he could find redemption.

When it comes to football, Ethridge is synonymous with winning.

Yet it was losing that brought him to Richland Springs.

Tyler Ethridge led Richland Springs to its first three state titles in football, helping build a dynasty. The Coyotes now have eight state titles, tied for the most in Texas at any level.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

His father, Harley Ethridge, was the head coach at another six-man school, Hermleigh, and went 1-18 in two years there.

With the school struggling to even field a team, he decided to search for a new job.

While in his hometown of Brownwood, he noticed an advertisement in the local paper for an assistant coaching position in the nearby town of Richland Springs.

It would prove to be alife-changing move for the Ethridge family.

Tyler arrived before his seventh-grade year and was a part of two undefeated junior-high teams with the Coyotes.

He then stepped right onto the varsity as a freshman and took over as the team's starting spread back (essentially the equivalent to a quarterback in 11-man).

With his father calling the plays as his offensive coordinator, Ethridgeled Richland Springs to a 15-0 record and its first state title.

Tyler Ethridge prepares to throw a pass during a Richland Springs football practice.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

That was just the start.

Ethridge guided Richland Springs to two more state titles, with the only loss of his high school career coming in a 72-58 setback against Throckmorton in the 2005 state semifinals.

His career passing yards (10,681) are a state six-man record, while his passing touchdowns (230) are a national record across all classifications, though it's not officially recognized since it occurred at the six-man level.

It's easy to forget that Ethridge also averaged more than 1,100 rushing yards per season, and he was a full-time starter on defense, recording 365 career tackles and 24 interceptions.

Among the many trophies in the Richland Springs High School "War Room" are eight state championships since 2004.(Photo: Sean Pokorny, USA TODAY Sports)

His head coach, Jerry Burkhart, called Ethridge a "century player," meaning that's how often one like him comes along.

Even so, Ethridge was still an undersized six-man player, so college recruiters weren't knocking down his door.

He had a couple of options with Division III schools, however, at nearby Howard Payne in Brownwood and Sul Ross in the far West Texas town of Alpine.

Looking back, Ethridge says he made the wrong decision.

Tyler Ethridge poses outside the Richland Springs field house before the 2006 season.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

Why did Ethridge choose to attend Sul Ross?

Eleven years later, even he's not 100 percent sure.

Tyler Ethridge accounted for 15,217 yards of total offense during his four-year career at Richland Springs. It still stands as the six-man state record.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

"First of all, it wasn't a good decision," Ethridge said. "My dad thought I should go to Howard Payne, so I'd be close. And looking back in retrospect, I should have. I kind of see that time as a haze. There was a veil over my heart and eyes. I couldn't see clearly. And my good friend, Mark Williams (who caught 70 TD passes from Ethridge), I think he was kind of the one that wanted to move to Sul Ross. He was sold on it. Burkhart had taken us up there on a visit, and I didn't know what was going on. I was just kind of a follower after this. I had no opinion, no guidance.

"And this is what really frustrates me about football in general. When you get up beyond six-man, coaches do a better job of helping student-athletes get to that next step. But that just wasn't the case for me at Richland Springs. ... I spent my whole high school career just playing football, not looking toward the next step in life."

Along with beingcritical of the non-football guidance he received at Richland Springs, Ethridge said a "falling out" occurred between his family and the school's administration leading up to his graduation.

"It was over me not attending a fundraiser for our third state ring," Ethridge said. "I had attended it the first two years, but there was a concert I wanted to go to every year that fell on the same week. I finally went my senior year, but people got offended that Tyler Ethridge, the stud who motivates people to give money for rings, wasn't there. And that was the final straw. I think it was something that had been brewing for three years."

Though he left Richland Springson bad terms, Ethridge was looking forward to a fresh start in Alpine.

But things went south quickly at Sul Ross.

After only two practices, he said, the coaching staff decided to pull the plug on him as a quarterback and moved him to defense.

Suddenly, he was out of position, far from home, and playing for a struggling team that would win only three games that season all while trying to learn 11-man football.

Tyler Ethridge tries to break a tackle during the 2004 state final between Richland Springs and Valley.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

"And while I'm going through all this, I'm actually in this unhealthy relationship with this girl eight hours away," Ethridge said. "So I'm juggling that and trying to find my identity. I'm in this new world in 11-man, and I'm in college and I have freedom and no one telling me what to do.

"The Bible says that he who faints in the day of adversity, his strength is weak. Well, that was exposed. I was very weak. I had no foundation to walk on, and that's when it began to roll downhill. ... I faded within that first semester. I didn't even finish the season. I think I played three games."

Off the field, Ethridge said he basically "spent six months doing nothing."

"I was exposed to marijuana at a greater measure at Sul Ross. The college world is just party, party, party," Ethridge said. "But I actually didn't party that much. I kind of locked myself in my room because I was depressed about the relationship thing ... I'd go to class, but I wouldn't study. I'd go back to my room and just do nothing, really. I was just kind of wandering."

Ethridge left Alpine at the end of the semester, and "that's where chaos happened."

Over the next couple of years, Ethridge struggled to find an identity without football.

He searched all over Texas for it.

Tyler Ethridge is shown with two of his state championship rings before the 2007 season, when he won a third ring.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

Over a period of about three years, which Ethridge referred to as "the wilderness," he transferred to Cisco Junior College, then to Navarro College in Corsicana, and then to Howard College in San Angelo, where he briefly reunited with an old girlfriend.

"I got real big into art and photography. I was kind of like a skater dude. I was just trying to find my identity," Ethridge said. "It was no longer football, so maybe I'll find it in Cisco. Nope, it's not there. Maybe I'll find it in Corsicana where my dad's at. Nope. Maybe I'll find it at Howard. No, it's not here with her.

"Then I get the stupid idea that I'll go to the Art Institute of Dallas. So my mom helps me get into it ... and I lasted like four months there.

"That's when I really came to the end of myself. I stopped trying to find my identity and accomplish things. That's where I probably got the darkest. I became suicidal and got real big into smoking weed."

Ethridge moved to Brownwood with his mother, Pamela, and took a job at a movie theater. He said he would drive to San Angelo on weekends and hang out with some old friends.

After a fight with his mother, he moved in with his friends in San Angelo.

"I just did nothing for a month but smoke weed and blitz my mind. At the end of that month, I was so done with it," he said.

"And this is what my family really can't understand, and I don't even understand it. I got in my truck. I think all I had was my backpack and my books in it. I tied up my blanket with a shoestring and put it in the backseat, and I drove west until I ran out of gas."

Ethridge nearly made it to El Paso before his truck finally sputtered to a stop on the side of the highway.

"I slept that night in the backseat of my truck. I got up the next morning and hitchhiked into El Paso," Ethridge said. "I got picked up by an 18-wheeler, and the guy cleaned his truck out and gave me about $10. I wandered around El Paso all day and slept under a bridge."

Ethridge was now wandering farther than he ever had before both physically and mentally and he was in danger of drifting too far.

"That night, I climbed on top of an abandoned building to sleep. I had shorts on, and as I laid down some fiberglass dug into my thigh and my calf, and I screamed out, 'God, where are you?' and I mean I screamed it. And for the first time and the only time ever, I heard the audible voice of God. People are going to think I'm crazy, but I don't care.

"He said, 'Why are you running?' And when God speaks to you, it's like rivers of water running through every facet of you, and I knew what He meant. Here I was thinking I'd been running from marijuana or heartache or depression or suicidal thoughts, but I was actually running from God. ... I realized I'd been running from God my whole life."

Ethridge climbed down from the roof, walked to the closest hotel and called his mother, who bought him a room for the night.

"And that's when my life started changing," Ethridge said.

Tyler Ethridge (second from right) is shown with the football coaching staff at Victory Life Academy in Brownwood in 2013.(Photo: Brownwood Bulletin)

Ethridge's mother suggested that if he was now serious about his faith, he should consider trying to coach at Victory Life Academy in Brownwood.

Though Brownwood is a city of nearly 20,000 people, Victory Life is a small Christian school so small that it plays six-man football.

Ethridge was reluctant to return to football, but it proved to be the lifeline he needed.

After a month of serving as a volunteer coach, he was offered a maintenance position and a job as an assistant coach.

"At the end of that school year, leading into the summer, good ol' Jerry Burkhart, I guess he'd been watching me," Ethridge said. "He saw I fell off the wagon three years ago and how my life had started to become redeemed. He saw that I was changing and willing to serve people. He said, 'Why don't you come back to Richland Springs and coach?'

"There was a youth program he was wanting to start, but my main focus was wanting to do ministry. Barry Fikes is the Baptist preacher there in Richland Springs, and he was simultaneously talking to me about that. But the only way I could help the football program is if I worked for the school district."

The only job that was open was for the cafeteria manager.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that wasn't exactly what I wanted to do,'" Ethridge said. "So I said, 'Alright, Lord, if this is the door you're opening up, I'll take it.'"

The home stands of Richland Springs High School.(Photo: Sean Pokorny, USA TODAY Sports)

Ethridge moved back to the small town where he became a high school football legend, and he took the less-than-glamorous job of running the school cafeteria.

"I was doing the paperwork, and handling the inventory, and cleaning the dishes right in front of these kids who just several years prior saw me winning state championships," Ethridge said. "Then on Wednesdays and Sundays, they saw me ministering to them. It was an awesome way to witness, not just by preaching but by serving. It was very humbling. It was a very hard time, but it was rewarding.

"At the end of that year, that's when I realized I needed to be trained in the scriptures."

Ethridge eventually settled on Charis Bible College in Woodland Park, Colorado, and decided to attend a conference at the campus.

"As I drove up there, all I was asking for was a job and a place to live," Ethridge recalled. "I said, 'God, if you can confirm that, I'll do it. I'll leave everything.'"

On the last day of the conference, Ethridge said he met a man who offered him a job building fences and he even had a camper on his ranch Ethridge could stay in.

"I said, 'That's it. That's all I need.' ... So I start going through the process of selling everything I own and giving everything away. I actually gave my truck to my sister because she needed it for work," Ethridge said. "My mom drove me to Abilene to the Greyhound bus station. I had everything I owned in a blue Richland Springs gym bag, and I started my journey to Colorado."

Tyler Ethridge and his wife, Danielle, at Charis Bible College in Woodland Park, Colorado.(Photo: Contributed photo)

As sure as Ethridge is that he made the wrong decision with his first college choice, he knows he got it right with this one.

Petra is the 18-month-old daughter of Danielle and Tyler Ethridge.(Photo: Contributed photo)

He found what he was looking for in Colorado and graduated from school there in 2017.

He also met his wife, Danielle, and the two now have an 18-month-old daughter, Petra.

"After I graduated, I was just working security for the college, and we moved down from Woodland Park to Colorado Springs," Ethridge said. "I did some ministry stuff here and there, and we did some missionary work. I've gone to Russia and Turkey, and I'm trying to go to Haiti. I like to go to the hard places, where people are afraid to go, you know?"

Colorado was good to Ethridge, but he said it never felt like home.

This past summer, he decided to come back to Texas.

Tyler Ethridge poses in front of the Richland Springs field house before the 2006 season.(Photo: Standard-Times file photo)

Ethridge's father, Harley, also did a bit of bouncing around after he left Richland Springs following the 2007 season.

He became the head coach in Follett where he guided the Panthers to an appearance in the 2012 state final, which they lost to Richland Springs and also had stops in Oglesby and Moran.

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The redemption of Richland Springs legend Tyler Ethridge - Standard-Times

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October 12th, 2019 at 10:44 am

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