Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa wideout Tyrone Tracy, Jr. carries the ball during the 2019 SDCCU Holiday Bowl between Iowa and USC in San Diego on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Trojans, 49-24. (Shivansh Ahuja/The Daily Iowan)

Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s rise from ‘Next Man In’ to Iowa football’s No. 1 wide receiver

The Hawkeye junior’s football-oriented family and competitiveness helped prepare him for becoming Iowa's top receiving option.

September 2, 2021

A bookcase stands in the front entryway of Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s childhood home in Camby, Indiana. But it’s not filled with books.

Instead, trophies rewarding Tyrone Sr. and Laverna Tracy’s sons’ athletic achievements don the shelves — recognizing accomplishments from elementary school to college athletics.

Plastic trophies from the boys’ Pop Warner flag football days stick out at the bottom, and medals from AAU basketball tournaments hang from the sides.

Sitting at the top is Tyrone Jr.’s “Next Man In” honor from Hawkeye football, which he received his freshman year. Shaped like the Heisman Trophy, the award depicts the wide receiver running toward the end zone.

Now, instead of being the next man in, Tyrone Jr. will suit up in the Hawkeyes’ starting lineup to begin the 2021 season.

Tyrone Jr. grew up outside of Indianapolis with three brothers — Charlie, Kenny, and Javon. For Laverna, Tyrone Jr.’s mother, a life rotating around sports seemed inevitable. For Tyrone Sr., his father and a lifelong sports fan, it seemed like a dream come true.

Tyrone Jr. has always relied on his family — throughout childhood, his recruitment, and when he’s five hours away from home in Iowa City. With his family by his side, Tyrone Jr. developed the versatility and competitiveness that led him from the Decatur Central Hawks to Hawkeye football.

A competitive upbringing

Growing up, Tyrone Jr. and his brothers easily developed a competitive nature — in and outside of sports.

“It was always a competitive thing,” Javon, Tyrone Jr.’s younger brother, said. “Whatever we did, it was always competitive, no matter like, if we’re going to a restaurant and we leave, we race to the cars and that sort of stuff like that. It’s always competitive around us.”

Races to cars turned into arguments about football as the Tracy children grew older. One looming question that remains in the family is who has the best football IQ.

Tyrone Sr. had to think about the question, leaning back on the family couch.

“[Tyrone Jr.’s] IQ is up there,” he mentioned, looking at his youngest son.

And the family competition still lingers.

“Mine is higher, but his is good,” Javon, with a smile on his face, quickly retorted.

The Tracy boys remember growing up being shuttled to countless games, practices, and tournaments across the country to improve their skills.

“You’re going from AAU basketball and then football. It’s just, you know, you don’t have that break,” Tyrone Sr. said. “When [Tyrone Jr.] was little, we was all into just, ‘Come on, let’s go. We got to go here, and we got to go.’ We wanted to be the best. So, in the way we were doing it, you have to play. You can’t just sit out and think you’re going to be the best sitting out.”

Every vacation the Tracy family took centered on sports. Tyrone Sr. coached his sons, Tyrone Jr. and Kenny, in AAU basketball, and the family doubled the expensive national tournaments as vacations — taking trips to Louisville, Maryland, Texas, and New York.

“I kid you not, it was like every week, every weekend we would go to a different state,” Javon said. “We’ve probably been to about 35 states that was just straight sports.”

But the constant traveling paid off as three of the Tracy boys garnered multiple Division I football offers — Tyrone Jr. is entering his junior season with the Hawkeyes, Kenny will be a redshirt freshman running back at Miami (Ohio), and Javon recently committed to Miami (Ohio) ahead of his senior season at Decatur Central High School.

For the past two years, Laverna and Tyrone Sr. have spent their weekends taking road trips to Iowa City — leaving after Javon’s high school football game Friday night and returning to Camby on Sunday morning. Throughout Tyrone Jr.’s first two years playing with the Hawkeyes, his parents never missed a home game.

But now, Laverna and Tyrone Sr. have a third football schedule to contend with — Miami (Ohio).

Tyrone Sr. sat back to contemplate the family’s schedule, trying to balance the five-hour drive to Iowa City with the two-hour drive to Oxford, Ohio. While Laverna and Tyrone Sr. may not make it to all the games at Kinnick Stadium this season, he said, they’ll make the most important ones.

But the Tracy’s oldest son, Charlie, offered to attend Tyrone Jr. or Kenny’s games if their parents couldn’t make the trip. Growing up, Charlie was not interested in a future in football, and opted to go into business instead.

“They’re spoiled,” Laverna said matter-of-factly. “We’ve been to all their games, they always have someone in the audience cheering for them.”

This May, after over 20 years of traveling to watch football, basketball, and track competitions, the Tracy family finally took their first sports-free vacation to Tennessee over Memorial Day — a Mother’s Day present for Laverna.

“We didn’t have no agenda, nobody had no games,” Laverna said. “It was amazing.”

Laverna didn’t grow up a fan of sports, instead focusing on academics. But when she met Tyrone Sr., she knew she would be hearing about sports one way or another.

Then, they had four boys just like Tyrone Sr. — athletic-minded and competitive.

Now, with three boys bound to play Division I football, Laverna has accepted sports as an integral factor in her life.

“I tell my girlfriends, I said, ‘Well, if you can’t beat them, join them,’” she said. “Because, you know, we just kept having boys and boys, and more boys.”

Early potential

Iowa wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, who grew up in a tight-knit family himself, related to the Tracy family’s closeness. Copeland came to Iowa from Northern Illinois University, where he was an assistant coach and first started recruiting Tyrone to NIU in 2015. But the wide receiver already had multiple Power 5 Division I offers, so Copeland knew he didn’t stand a chance bringing him to NIU.

But once Copeland joined the Hawkeyes in February 2016, he was back on the recruiting trail in Indiana for Tyrone Jr.

“[The Tracy family’s] values in their homes is very similar to the values that I was raised in,” Copeland said. “So, right away there was a connection with the Tracy family. I would never tell Tyrone to his face, but the Tracy family in itself, they’re one of my favorite families I’ve ever had a chance to recruit and that relationship is just blossoming.”

By the time he was a junior in high school, Tyrone Jr. received offers from multiple Power 5 schools, including Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, and Louisville.

And throughout his recruitment — even if it made him miss some offers — Tyrone Jr. stayed true to one thing: he was going to be a wide receiver.

“I love the feeling of catching a football and making people miss,” Tyrone Jr. said. “I think that was a huge thing for me, making people miss [with a juke or spin move] was something that I did in high school, I just knew I could bring it to the college level. I was watching a lot of Reggie Bush and Tavon Austin when I was in high school so that was something I was like, ‘Wow, they’re bringing all this explosiveness to the field, these electric plays to the field.’ I was like, ‘Why can’t I do that? What do I have to do to make this happen?’”

The Decatur Central Hawks football program, under the direction of head coach Kyle Enright, frequently hosted college days for NCAA football coaches around the country. Enright coached Tyrone Jr. throughout his entire high school career, first as an assistant before a promotion to head coach in 2016.

In high school, Tyrone Jr. played all three phases of football — wide receiver on offense, cornerback on defense, and punt returner on special teams.

Enright saw the potential for Tyrone Jr. to be an impact collegiate player before he even stepped into a high school class.

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. high fives a teammate during “Kid’s Day at Kinnick” inside Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 14. (Jerod Ringwald)

In the summer before Tyrone Jr.’s freshman year of high school, he was participating in summer workouts with the Decatur Central football team. Throughout workouts, Enright and the football coaching staff decided to put Tyrone Jr. in for a varsity snap.

“You don’t do that with very many guys, because I mean, they’re eighth-graders going to be freshmen and haven’t even really been in a weight program yet,” Enright said in July. “But we wanted to see what he could do. And he caught the ball and made a spin move on somebody, a varsity player. And just from that moment, it was just electric. And we knew that, you know, Tyrone was a very special player with the ball in his hands.”

Tyrone Jr. played on Decatur Central’s varsity football team for all of his high school career. On one specific college day, Notre Dame was especially impressed with Tyrone Jr.’s cornerback skills. Tyrone Jr. paid a visit to the Fighting Irish in 2015, but Notre Dame did not extend him an offer — not that it mattered, because Tyrone Jr. could not commit to playing defense.

“He probably could have gotten even more offers, had he committed to playing corner,” Enright said. “So, at a college day [at Decatur Central], Notre Dame was there. The Notre Dame coach said, ‘Hey, Coach, if he commits to playing corner in college, we’ll offer him right now.’ And I say, ‘Coach, he wants to play offense, and no disrespect. That’s awesome that you’re going to offer him that on defense. But he’s just got a special knack for making plays. And he wants to be an offensive player.’”

And Tyrone Jr. made waves on offense during his recruiting process. Former Hawks head coach and current Decatur Central athletic director Justin Dixson said he never saw Tyrone Jr. drop a ball during the recruitment process — a testament to his remarkable work ethic.

“He never had to have a coach push him to practice hard, never had to have a coach push him to come to work out, to work in the weight room, work on the field,” Dixson said in August. “It was all self-driven, self-motivated. And I think that’s pretty special because I think, you know, human nature. It’s not natural to push yourself as hard as he pushes himself.”

By the end of his career with Decatur Central football, Tyrone Jr.’s name littered the record book. He was the first-ever player to register more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season with the Hawks — 1,132 in his senior year and 2,643 in his career.

Tyrone Jr. also holds the school records with 72 career touchdowns, 444 total points, and 33 total receiving touchdowns.

To help with his versatility in football, Tyrone Jr. was a three-sport athlete. He earned four varsity letters in basketball and three in track as a long jumper and sprinter.

Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s chain is seen during Iowa football media day at Iowa football’s practice field on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

“I think a lot of sports do bring different things to my football athletic abilities,” Tyrone Jr. said. “So, I am an explosive guy, and I like to bring that to the field. So, with me playing, running track or playing basketball, you do get to move in a different way and learn different mechanics, just from playing that sport.”

Tyrone Jr. put everything he had into football — enough that he didn’t need a secondary plan.

Even though Laverna wanted him to have a plan B in case a football career would not be an option, Tyrone Jr. refused to give up on his dream of attending a Power 5 football program and having a professional career. He didn’t need a backup plan — football would work out, he thought.

One rainy night in Camby, Laverna recalls learning once and for all the dedication her son brought to the game. Despite the rain hitting the roof, Tyrone Jr. suited up and told her he was going to train on the field.

“He told me he was going to go train. It was pouring down rain,” Laverna said. “I got in my car, knowing good and well he’s not at that school training, I’m gonna go check. And I tell you not, it was pouring down rain, and he had those big tires. He was pushing them up and down the field. And I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s out there by himself doing it, in the rain.’ And here I am, thinking I’m going to catch him doing the wrong thing.”

From Camby to Iowa City

The Hawkeyes officially offered Tyrone Jr. a scholarship on Oct. 5, 2016, during his junior year of high school. With Iowa being known as ‘Tight End U,’ Tyrone Jr. was originally apprehensive about coming to Iowa City.

Tyrone Jr. also had offers from rival Big Ten schools: Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois.

But throughout his recruitment, Tyrone Jr. kept circling back to the Hawkeyes. He was drawn to the environment of Hawkeye football — its work ethic, drive, and family culture. For him, it felt like home.

The Tracy family visited the Hawkeyes multiple times, and Laverna said Tyrone Jr. only had one piece of uncertainty: with Iowa’s strong tight end legacy, how would he — a wide receiver — fit into the mix?

“There was definitely hesitation,” Tyrone Jr. said. “I had to have a talk with Coach Ferentz, Coach Copeland, and Coach Brian Ferentz, just because they didn’t throw the ball as much and I was very hesitant on committing there. But I’m happy I did. They confirmed me and basically just said that they’re going to pass the ball more in upcoming years and that has come true.”

With verification the Hawkeyes offense would start utilizing the pass game, Tyrone Jr. officially committed to Iowa on April 29, 2017. And Iowa lived up to its promise. Iowa’s number of pass attempts per game has steadily risen since Tyrone Jr. joined the program, including pass attempts to wide receivers.

Tyrone Jr. joined the Hawkeyes in the summer of 2018, going through summer workouts with the team, but with then-senior Nick Easley and sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette entrenched as the starting wide receivers, he took a redshirt year for the 2018 season.

Easley left the team after the 2018 season, but it still wasn’t Tyrone Jr.’s time — it was then- junior Brandon Smith’s.

But Smith suffered a high ankle sprain in the middle of the season, forcing him out of the starting lineup. Tyrone Jr., second on the depth chart, took over, starting eight games in 2019.

In his redshirt freshman year, Tyrone Jr. brought in 36 receptions for 589 yards and three touchdowns — including a 75-yard catch-and-run that brought Iowa within two points of Big Ten West foe Wisconsin in the closing minutes of a 24-22 loss.

In his sophomore year — one he called a “downfall” in production — Tyrone Jr. heavily relied on his family. With Smith back from injury and Smith-Marsette as the No. 1 wide receiver, Tyrone Jr. saw limited time on the field.

Throughout eight games in 2020, Tyrone Jr. only accounted for 14 catches and 154 yards.

Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. attempts to catch a ball in the end zone during a football game between Iowa and Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 16, 2019. Tracy made 6 cathes for a total of 77 yards. (Ryan Adams)

Although Tyrone Jr. was frustrated with his lack of time on the field, Tyrone Sr. said, he never gave up on the team or thought about transferring to a school that would give him more targets— a true sign of his son’s maturity.

Copeland also carries a lot of respect for how Tyrone Jr. carries himself, and how he worked through his downfall in production in 2020.

“Tyrone is the ultimate competitor,” Copeland said. “So, especially early on last year when we struggled and we lost those first two games, anybody who’s a true competitor and a true team player when you’re losing, you feel like you don’t have as much impact on the game. But like, ‘Man, if only I could do more for my team, maybe the result would be different.’ and that’s how he felt. It was not a selfish thing at all.”

And Copeland remains someone Tyrone Jr. can go to release his frustrations. Tyrone Jr. sees Copeland as a father figure in Iowa City. When Tyrone Jr. wasn’t playing as much as he wanted last season, Copeland would reassure him that his time on the field was coming.

“He helped a lot,” Tyrone Jr. said. “I would talk to him numerous times. It was, it was so tough going through the game, playing all the minutes and like, not have the season that you honestly didn’t want. So, he basically helped me get through that tough time, I can’t thank him enough.”

So, Tyrone Jr. kept working in the weight room and on the practice field, preparing for his junior year.

Now, ahead of this season, Tyrone Jr. has his chance — he’s listed as the No. 1 wide receiver on Iowa football’s preseason depth chart. And this young athlete and his family from Camby, Indiana, have high hopes for his junior season, including recording 1,000 receiving yards.

In Iowa’s season opener against Indiana Saturday, Tyrone Jr. will be playing in front of thousands of his fellow Indianans — whether it be on the Big Ten Network or at Kinnick Stadium.

With Miami (Ohio) opening its season on the road, Tyrone Jr.’s two biggest fans will be sitting at Kinnick Stadium — the perfect place for Laverna and Tyrone Sr. to cheer on their son as he kicks off his junior season in the Black and Gold.

“He adores football, passion,” Tyrone Sr. said. “I mean, he just loves that football. He’ll do anything, but it’s positive. And he, you know, he’ll work at it. It’s not just, ‘Imma say I’m gonna be the best,’ he worked so hard to be the best.”

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