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Byline: Austin Meek The Register-Guard

At one point last year, a wall inside the Skybox apartment complex became Thomas Tyner's personal mural.

Tyner would come home from football practice, grab a pen or a marker and retreat to his room, where the wall was his canvas.

By the time he moved out, Tyner had filled the space with his artwork, mostly cartoon characters and graffiti. The building manager, not realizing the marketing opportunity at hand, had him paint over it.

"I don't think the people moving in wanted it there," Tyner said with a smile.

Drawing is a form of expression for Tyner, a star running back with the classic artist's temperament. Introverted by nature, he would rather paint or play the piano than navigate a room full of people. Even as one of Oregon's most celebrated recruits, he never warmed to the spotlight.

The attention has gotten easier after a year in Eugene, where Tyner enters his sophomore season as one third of a wildly anticipated backfield. A photo shoot he might have skipped as a freshman is something he now endures with patience, shifting his feet and smiling as he stares into the light.

"That's bright," he says, blinking away the glare.

The attention comes with Tyner's position as an Oregon tailback, and also as a heralded in-state recruit. Given his choice, though, Tyner still prefers solitude to small talk.

"Some would say it's a narrow emotional spectrum," said Tyner's father, John, a criminal defense attorney in Hillsboro. "No, he's just not as demonstrative.

"He feels all the things everyone else feels, thinks all the things everyone else thinks. But he doesn't present demonstratively the way other people do."

Football is a game that rewards extroverts. They're the ones who rally the team in the huddle, who deliver the stirring pregame speeches, who bridge divides in the locker room. They're the ones most likely labeled as leaders and team captains.

Tyner keeps to himself and processes his emotions internally. He's usually not the person shouting on the sideline, but he's also not the person complaining in the locker room.

"You have to take your clues externally as to how he's feeling," John Tyner said. "He doesn't emote. He's self-contained."

Last fall, John Tyner saw clues that his son was struggling with the college transition. Thomas was spending a lot of his free time at home in Aloha, a 90-minute drive from Eugene, and seemed unsure how he was fitting in with his teammates.

The corporate elements of Oregon's football operation were something Tyner never experienced in Aloha, a tight-knit, blue-collar community located within the more affluent suburb of Beaverton.

There, John Tyner said, Thomas could knock on almost any door and be invited inside for dinner. When he came home for the weekend, eight or nine friends might show up with sleeping bags, along with acquaintances from the neighborhood who wanted Tyner's autograph.

When he showed up at Oregon, Tyner was a face in the crowd, surrounded by other four- and five-star players. Struggling with the playbook and slowed by an ankle injury, his instinct was to seek the comfort of home.

"I definitely regret going home so much," he said. "It took a lot away from the bonding time with the team that I had a chance to do. It took away a lot from my college experience."

There were times, Tyner admits, when he was tempted to go home and not come back. His father doesn't recall him verbalizing that specific feeling, but then again, that's not exactly out of character.

"An expressive conversation with Thomas is, 'I don't know what I'm doing down there. I don't know if I'm making friends,'" John Tyner said.

This wasn't the first time Tyner's success had taken him to an uncomfortable place. He was a high school phenom at Aloha, known across the country for gaining 643 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns in one game. As his reputation grew, so did the demands on his time and the attention from outsiders.

One day, he showed up in the office of his coach, Chris Casey. It was clear he had something on his mind, but in typical Tyner fashion, he didn't say it right away.

Eventually, the truth came out: He needed a break from all the attention. Casey helped Tyner adjust his schedule, but he also used the moment to teach a lesson.

"You can't always pick and choose in life," Casey said. "If something's in front you, you've got to overcome it. You've got to stand up and man up.

"Yeah, it's difficult, and it wears you out, and you get tired of it. But you've got to find a way to face it and deal with it and overcome it."

Casey reminded Tyner of that conversation when the running back came to him again last fall. He'd often pushed Tyner to try things that made him uncomfortable, knowing he wasn't a risk-taker by nature. In this case, the hard choice was also the right one. Tyner stayed in school and, by midseason, had become a valuable part of the offense.

"I felt like this is where I belong," said Tyner, who finished his freshman season with 711 yards.

The thing about introverts is they never really change. Even when they're thriving, they'll always be introverts at heart.

This is something Tyner's coaches understand. They've encouraged him to become more vocal, and to an extent, he has. They also realize every personality type has its place, and not everyone is meant to have the loudest voice.

"Some guys you get to come out of that shell and speak up a little bit, and some guys, that's just not their thing," running backs coach Gary Campbell said. "That could very possibly be his case. But they can always lead by showing good work ethic, and I think that's what he's doing right now."

Tyner is listed atop Oregon's depth chart entering Saturday's season opener against South Dakota, a designation he shares with junior Byron Marshall and freshman Royce Freeman. It's not clear which back will emerge as Oregon's No. 1 option, but all three are expected to contribute.

Regardless of his role, you won't hear Tyner complain. Or celebrate. Or say much of anything, for that matter. He'll find other ways to express, whether he's painting on his wall or planting on a football field.

The turf makes a perfect canvas.

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email
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Title Annotation:Austin Meek
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Aug 29, 2014
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