Tyler Gillis wasn't even 3 years old when he began riding dirt bikes. It never was just a hobby. As long as he can remember, he says, he did it competitively.
From each graduation to a higher classification, his work ethic on the handle bars increased exponentially. By the time he was 13 years old he had racked up a national ranking—No. 11 in the country—after a strong showing at an event hosted by one of the best motocross riders in the world, Ricky Carmichael.
At that point it seemed Gillis was destined for X-Games glory, and the lifestyle had its perks. Gillis would get to miss Fridays at school to hop in the car with his family and take long road trips to states as far as Michigan or Texas to compete in select events. Missing school without reprimand and scenic rides weren't anything to complain about, but Gillis, who had always been thinking about his future, started using those car rides as time to think deeply about where he was going next.
He feared the prospect of having to move from public to home schooling to accommodate his schedule. He also feared that a focus on motocross might derail his chances of getting a scholarship to college. But he also knew if he stuck with biking as an amateur that he'd have to give up football.
He didn't want to do that, so right before becoming a freshman at Lambert, Gillis decided to put motocross to the side and pursue his college scholarship—as a football player.
“I remember the day I sat my parents down and told them I was done with motocross,” Gillis said. “I just told them I'm going to go focus on getting into college, and they supported me.”
Fast forward two years, and Gillis is now the starting flanker for Lambert's football team. Just three games into his junior season he leads the Longhorns in receptions with 14, has 309 receiving yards and four touchdowns. His reception average of 22.2 yards per catch is highest on the team as well.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound receiver is becoming quite a lot to handle for opposing defenses, and he thinks he's on track to accomplish his goal of earning a scholarship. This season is the biggest yet. He knows it's when college coaches will start to pay attention.
“I try to always be working,” Gillis said. “I have to. You always have to if you want to be great. If I'm not studying plays or watching film, I'm out running routes. I don't really have much of a life outside of football, but I'm okay with that.”
Certainly, while he put down the grinding schedule of being a motocross rider, he hung on to the obsession of working on his craft. What fuels Gillis through the earliest mornings and grueling workouts is the accountability that comes with being on a team, as opposed to racing.
“In motocross, it's just you. You're out there for yourself,” Gillis said. “I love football. I love having 10 other guys out there each play who have my back. The team aspect is just huge.”
Gillis has also had some receiving specialists mentor him in his growth. He's kept in close touch over the years with Tanner Hall, now a freshman receiver at Georgia Southern, since meeting on the basketball court two years ago.
“He's like a big brother to me,” Gillis said. “He's taught me so many things about being a receiver, and getting that help from a guy who is going to play D-I is huge.”
Gillis has also had some prestigious coaching help. Former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis, who held many of the franchise's receiving records before Roddy White, is now an assistant with the Lambert program.
“Everything he says I'm make sure to absorb. That's invaluable,” Gillis said.
But Gillis also knows that part of his development is becoming a leader and a mentor, like Hall was to him. He's helping the young receivers in practice and focusing on getting the Longhorns past the first round of the playoffs.
He thinks a big win over Collins Hill and a competitive but tough loss, in part due to a 26-point comeback, to Cherokee will help them once region play begins.
“I absolutely try on and off the field to lead as much as I can. The more the better. All of my teammates, my friends, really everyone. We're a hungry football team,” Gillis said.