Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill returns to Texas for NFL debut

Ryan Tannehill’s unlikely journey began in Texas, where he returns to start his NFL career as the rookie savior of the Dolphins.

09/09/2012 12:01 AM

09/08/2014 6:03 PM

Tim Holt was not particularly impressed the first time he sized up Ryan Tannehill.

Holt had just taken over as the varsity high school coach at Big Spring, a small West Texas oil town, and didn’t think anyone on his roster was particularly gifted — Tannehill, a rising junior, included.

“Ryan kind of looked like a stiff, white kid,” Holt said.

All it took was one plyometric workout session — exercises designed to produce fast and powerful movements — to show Holt just how wrong he was.

Holt had his players “bound” — think of it as cross between jogging and skipping — and when Tannehill took his turn, he seemed to defy gravity.

“He could bound like a deer,” Holt said. “He just hung in the air. The more that you watch him do, the more impressive he is.”

Seven years later, that athletically freakish, often underestimated kid is about to take his biggest leap yet. Tannehill, the eighth overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, is set to become the first rookie quarterback to start a season opener in Dolphins history Sunday when Miami visits the Texans.

Eight hours of highway driving separate Houston’s NFL coliseum and Big Spring’s Memorial Stadium, where Tannehill once starred and his younger brother Tobyn now plays under the Friday night lights.

The cross-state trek tracks his unlikely journey, which began as the quarterback at a middle-of-nowhere high school running an offense out of the 1950s. The path continues through Central Texas’ hills past Texas A&M, where his collegiate coronation (not to mention gratification) was delayed. And it arrives Sunday in Houston, where the curtain rises on his NFL career, with Tannehill as the leading man. His role: franchise savior.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Tannehill said this week. “Kind of nonstop. I’m really excited by the position and the opportunity that I have, but now it’s just about taking advantage of it.

“This is not the end of the road.”

Home, sweet home

Surely not. But we know where that road began — Big Spring, a town of roughly 25,000 people around 40 miles east of Midland. The boom-or-bust energy town surrounded by ranchland has a replica Statue of Liberty outside its municipal auditorium. The similarities to New York — or any other major city, for that matter — end there.

Not much grows on the area’s arid soil, but the terrain is fertile ground for football talent. Kicker Tony Franklin — a one-time Dolphin — is among the town’s more famous folks. Former longtime Packers tight end Bubba Franks is another.

Tannehill’s father, Tim, played for Texas Tech in the mid-1980s. His mother, Cheryl, is a Tech alumnus, as well. They chose to raise a family in Big Spring, where Dad eventually became a middle school principal, and Mom a teacher.

Big Spring football was pretty awful Tannehill’s first two years of high school. But that began to change when Holt took over, and Tannehill emerged as a unique talent.

Today, Tannehill’s high school exploits are the stuff of Big Spring folklore. He played quarterback, safety and special teams — once uncorking an 84-yard punt. He also lettered in basketball, baseball, golf and track — running hurdles, appropriately enough.

Tannehill’s modest prep passing statistics, stunted by a paucity of weapons, belied his true ability. Still, college scouts were mostly as skeptical of Tannehill’s ability as Holt first was. Even his father’s alma mater passed on offering him a scholarship. Finally, Holt convinced an assistant at Texas A&M to give Tannehill a shot — as a safety.

Early on in camp, Tannehill bugged his new coaches to let him take a few snaps at quarterback. His days as a defensive player ended soon thereafter. Though promising, Tannehill was buried on the depth chart. He redshirted his freshman year before moving — now famously — to wide receiver the following fall.

Jeff Fuller, a teammate at A&M and now a member of the Dolphins’ practice squad, remembers Tannehill wasn’t particularly happy with the switch, but played well regardless. Tannehill caught 112 passes, 10 for touchdowns, over the next three seasons.

“All those confusing routes that the slot [receiver] runs, when they have to read the safeties, stuff like that, he picked them up faster than anybody,” Fuller said.

Still, Tannehill believed he was best suited at quarterback, and midway through his junior year, he finally got a chance to prove it. In his first start under center, he threw four touchdown passes and set a school record with 449 passing yards in a win over, fittingly enough, Texas Tech.

Tannehill started every game as a senior, earning national acclaim for his skill and smarts.

But when it came time to go pro, the doubters returned. Some knocked his accuracy. Others his experience. Many questioned his durability after he broke his foot. Few thought him worthy of a top-10 pick.

Yet Tannehill had fans in Miami. Joe Philbin had hired Mike Sherman, who was Tannehill’s coach at A&M from 2008 through 2011, as the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. The team visited with Tannehill — now 6-4 and 222 pounds — first at the NFL Scouting Combine, and then again more extensively the following month at Texas A&M.

‘I was convinced’

During the trip to College Station, Texas, Philbin, general manager Jeff Ireland and other Dolphins coaches and scouts took Tannehill out for dinner, an enlightening meal that went a long way in convincing Philbin that he had his guy.

“We didn’t talk a lot about football; mostly family and growing up,” Philbin said. “I was convinced he would be a guy who could come to Miami, who would be serious about his profession, would be a good man in the locker room, would give you an honest day’s work on the practice field, and would be a student of the game.”

Tannehill has turned out to be all that — and more. After a short contract holdout, he entered camp third on the depth chart, but will start Sunday thanks to talent, poise and a bit of chance.

Sure, David Garrard’s knee injury helped clear the way, but Tannehill also played well enough to earn the job.

“There’s that old saying, ‘You can make the right decision or you can make the decision right,’ ” Philbin said. “At the end of the day, this was the decision that we thought was in the best interests of everybody involved. We kind of feel good about it.”

And so, Tannehill’s remarkable story comes full circle Sunday. Back in his native Texas, Tannehill faces a dangerous team and a hostile crowd, his family excluded. They’ve made the trip to root him on.

They will likewise be cheering back in Big Spring, where he has become a celebrity. The local Wal-Mart can’t keep No. 17 Tannehill jerseys on the racks, said Phillip Ritchey, Big Spring High’s athletic director. Draft day was huge in Big Spring, Ritchey added, and Sunday will be even bigger.

Holt, sadly, can’t watch it live. He is now the coach at George West, a high school 80 miles south of San Antonio, and has a scheduling conflict.

But he is recording the game, and will watch with pride — and anticipation of what’s next.

“I think he’s so far from what he’s capable of, it’s unbelievable,” Holt said. “If Ryan Tannehill ever reaches his potential and ever really figures it all out, mentally, physically, emotionally, he could be as good as anybody.”

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