Nephi Tyler ranked in the nation's top 30 in the 1,500 meters last year.
Nov. 1, 2002
BY MICHAEL C. LEWIS, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
A guy named Nephi might not seem so unusual in Utah, where so many members of the LDS Church recognize the name from The Book of Mormon.
But what about a guy named Nephi who grew up in a sea-faring family on the East Coast and worked a treacherous summer job on a tug boat while otherwise training to run a four-minute mile?
Now, that's a little different.
And that's Nephi Tyler, the junior distance runner at Utah who will help lead the Utes into the Mountain West Conference championship cross country meet today at East Bay Golf Course in Provo.
"He's really a great kid," Utah coach Brian Appell said. "He's a unique individual who has his own way of viewing life and living life."
That's because Tyler's background and experience are atypical of those found on a Utah team that lacks the resources and the reach of its rival at Brigham Young. Tyler is one of five Utes from outside Utah, and the only one from farther east than Montana.
Chances are, none of the others knows what it's like to make a living at sea, either.
"It has been kind of like a family tradition," Tyler said.
With a father and brother who served in the Navy and other siblings -- there are eight in all, four brothers and four sisters -- who worked at sea while living in a small coastal town, Tyler perhaps inevitably was drawn to a summer job on a tug boat that towed barges often loaded with building materials between Boston and New York City.
"It's older than the Titanic," Tyler said, "and I think she's sunk more times than the Titanic, too."
The owners of his company also performed marine salvage work, and Tyler remembers his shipmates spending entire days diving to repair sunken barges so they could be raised again. Tyler did a little bit of everything on the tug, named the "Venus" -- officially, he was a deck hand -- but primarily worked ropes and cables as the crew guided barges up and down the coast.
"It was pretty dangerous," he said. "I almost got my leg taken off once."
That happened when a cable that had been caught on a snag came free and swept across the deck like a released rubber band, nearly pinning Tyler against the boat's gunnel and helping him decide that his running career was more important than a cool summer job.
"After that, I said, 'This isn't worth it.' "
A 4:20 miler in high school in Fairhaven, Mass., about 50 miles south of Boston, Tyler wanted to venture west for college simply to experience something new. He always had been a fine runner, and ran on a summer club team under Geoff Smith, the two-time Boston Marathon champion who finished second behind Rod Dixon in perhaps the most famous marathon finish ever at New York in 1983.
But the Utes knew nothing about him, until he wrote former coach Mike Jones a letter asking for a chance to run for the university.
"He believed in me," Tyler said.
The Utes offered a scholarship and Tyler joined them. He proved to be quite a talent on the track, running 3:43.3 in the 1,500 meters last spring to rank in the nation's top 30. Appell believes that with solid training and the right race, Tyler can run below 3:38, which would rank among the NCAA championship contenders.
"He has enough natural ability," Appell said.
For the moment, though, Tyler is focused on the cross country meet, where the Utes will try to beat out Colorado State and New Mexico for second place behind BYU and increase their chances of reaching the NCAA championships later this month.
The Cougars are heavy favorites in the men's and women's races, with the women's team ranking No. 1 in the nation. The women run 6 kilometers at 3:30 p.m., and the men run 8K at 4:15 p.m.
Tyler hopes he can run well to help his team, especially because top runner Kurt Michels is out with an injury. But he's looking forward even more to the rest of his Utah career and beyond, when he hopes he can make a living touring Europe as a professional runner.
Running "is just like a part of me," he said. "I can't imagine what else I would be doing."