Jerod Ringwald

Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum surveys the field during a football game between No. 18 Iowa and No. 17 Indiana at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. The Hawkeyes defeated the Hoosiers 34-6.

Will to win: How Iowa’s Tyler Linderbaum became the nation’s best center

Linderbaum’s unmatched competitive edge has helped him anchor Hawkeye football’s offensive line and earn national recognition.

September 16, 2021

Coaching has always come naturally to Solon’s Todd Linderbaum — with one exception.

At halftime of a Tipton High School boys’ basketball game circa 2004, Linderbaum was trying to prepare his team for second-half action, but his efforts were somewhat unfruitful.

Linderbaum was distracted by an unusually raucous halftime crowd. The noise it generated transcended the confines of the gym Tipton was playing in, penetrating the walls and doors of Linderbaum and his team’s locker room.

“It was halftime, and I kept hearing the crowd yelling and cheering,” Linderbaum said in an August interview with The Daily Iowan. “I was thinking to myself, ‘God, they must have a helluva halftime show.’”

The halftime show Linderbaum saw when he and his team returned to the court for the second half was not what he was expecting. There wasn’t a dance team, cheer squad, or band on the floor. There weren’t dogs doing fancy tricks, singers performing, or championship teams being recognized, either.

Rather, Linderbaum’s sons, Tyler and Logan, put on the halftime show for the fans that night. The brothers — neither aged older than 10 at the time — had decided to storm the court, grab a ball, and play a spirited one-on-one basketball game while their dad tried to prepare his team for the second half.

Fast forward more than 15 years, and Logan has graduated from Minnesota State University — where he wrestled for four years — and landed a pipeline maintenance job in Duluth, Minnesota.

Tyler is the third-best player in all of college football, according to a Pro Football Focus preseason list of the top 50 players in the nation. The junior center has started on the Hawkeyes’ offensive line for the last three seasons. In 2020, Tyler earned All-America and All-Big Ten honors.

Everyone that’s ever coached, worked with, or even spoken to Tyler seems to have a wild, unusual, or captivating story about him.

When the finer, grainier details of those stories are put together, Tyler’s path from Solon — a small town just outside of Iowa City that is populated by about 2,600 people — to the best center in college football becomes clearer.

The Solon water tower is seen on Wednesday Aug. 25, 2021, in Solon, Iowa. (Grace Smith)

Tyler’s family-oriented upbringing in Solon forged and sharpened his unmatched and unwavering competitive edge. The close-knit community he grew up in molded him into the Hawkeyes’ humble and kind leader. And the brawls he got into with his brother helped him become one of the toughest players to hit the gridirons of college football every Saturday.

An unmatched competitive edge

Tyler has been a competitor from the moment he could walk and throw. Even doing activities as basic as throwing a ball against a wall or up in the air and catching it, he was intensely focused on the task at hand, paying attention to every detail.

“My father used to sit at the bottom of the steps, [and he and Tyler] would just sit there and toss a ball up, come down, catch it,” Todd said. “They would do that for hours. [Tyler] would just be intense about it. I’m sure it was a little competition just to catch it and challenge himself a little bit.”

Playing catch with his grandfather when he was a toddler was one of the first times Tyler flashed his competitiveness. As he grew older and began to play more organized sports, he turned everything he did into a competition.

Whether it was running in the backyard, fishing, or wrestling his brother in the family den — a room his mother Lisa Linderbaum would eventually dub “the wrestling room” — Tyler wanted to win.

Even in games he and his friends made up, Tyler had an overwhelming desire to reign victorious.

“I remember, in [Tyler’s] sophomore year [of high school], we lost to Harlan in the state semifinals,” said Keith McSweeney, Tyler’s high school baseball coach. “We were kind of down when we got back, but we weren’t in Solon for an hour-and-a-half when they were returning bats, helmets, and some things. And the guys, including Tyler, had already started playing a game. Some made up game where they were trying to hit fungos at the foul pole. It became such an intense competition. They were there for like two-and-a-half hours.”

Even now, Tyler turns the most menial things into a competition — from golfing with his parents, friends, and girlfriend, to playing his favorite board game, Blokus.

Tyler’s parents and coaches have said his obsession with competition is not, perhaps, fueled by his desire to win, but rather by his fear of, or unwillingness, to accept losing.

“I don’t think I could take another athlete that I’ve coached that had a will to win like Tyler, or maybe I should say a refusal to lose,” Blake Williams, Tyler’s high school wrestling coach, said. “That might be better because he won a lot of wrestling matches just from refusing to lose. He hated [losing] . . . No matter what he’s doing, he’s competitive. I bet if you ask his older brother, oh boy, those two would probably have stories of playing you name it.”

Brotherly love

No figure played a more crucial role in the development of Tyler’s competitive edge than his brother Logan, who is four years older than Tyler.

A photo of Tyler Linderbaum and his brother Logan Linderbaum is displayed at the Linderbaum house in Solon, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. The Linderbaum brothers had a competitive and special relationship when they were younger. “Logan was very good to Tyler. He took him and always included him in everything, and he didn’t need to be asked to. But Tyler was a stinker. He was competitive.” (Grace Smith)

Despite the age gap, the two sparred at every opportunity. Intense games of pickup basketball in the driveway or wrestling matches in the grass would turn into backyard brawls once competitions were won and lost.

Even though Logan was a lot older than Tyler, he still never thought to take it easy on his younger brother and let him win a game here and there.

“No, it was always tough love,” Logan said. “There were maybe some things that I would let him win, but a lot of the time, not really. It was kind of fend for yourself. Me and him were just so competitive in everything that we did. He was no chump. Growing up, he was always able to fend for himself . . . I think that made him into the person he is today and his competitive drive because it definitely hasn’t gone away.”

As the Linderbaum brothers aged, their scrimmages became more hotly contested. And as Tyler began to hone his athletic abilities, it became harder for Logan to let Tyler know who was boss.

“I remember this perfect as day,” Logan said. “There was one football practice, I was a senior and he was a freshman, and he beat me off the ball. I was just mad the entire rest of the practice. Everyone who was there was giving me crap about it . . . Thinking back now, it’s pretty crazy he was able to do that.”

While Logan may not be as athletically inclined as Tyler is now, he still finds ways to make sure Tyler knows that he’s the youngest of the two brothers — especially when they’re both at home in Solon.

“Whenever we’re at home, he’ll be sitting down or standing in the kitchen or in the living room, and I’ll walk up behind him, grab him,” Logan said. “Then, we’ll start wrestling. We’ll wrestle a little bit, kind of go at it, but it’s all fun . . . Every chance we get to pick on each other, we’re gonna do it.”

Today, Logan and Tyler’s opportunities to pick on each other are lower than ever before — 422 miles separate Logan in Duluth, Minnesota, from Tyler in Iowa City.

Despite that, the two brothers have still found ways to stay connected. They talk on the phone every day.

Logan even made the near-seven-hour drive from Duluth to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City to watch Tyler play in the Hawkeyes’ season-opener against Indiana Sept. 4. Logan completed his shift with Magellan Pipeline Friday evening, and then drove to Iowa to watch his younger brother play the next day.

‘A time and place for everything’

Off the field, Tyler’s teammates, friends, and coaches characterize him as a humble, soft-spoken leader. On the field, Tyler is aptly described as a ruthless punisher who inflicts pain, misery, and suffering upon opposing defenders daring enough to challenge him or stand in his way.

Tyler carves out running lanes for Iowa’s backs by flattening defenders one level at a time. If Tyler pancakes a nose tackle, he’s not afraid to accelerate and do the same to an unsuspecting linebacker.

The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Iowan can seemingly flip an internal switch that powers down his off-field nice-guy persona and turns on his on-field mean streak.

“There’s a time and place for things,” Tyler said at Big Ten Football Media Days on July 23. “Obviously, you don’t always want to be that guy that’s always causing a ruckus and hurting people. I mean, I guess it’s good on the field. But you know, respect others and stuff like that.”

Throughout his life, Tyler has always set a good example for his teammates to follow. He’s never been one to lead vocally or give impassioned speeches.

“When you have a kid like [Tyler], number one, just his knowledge and playing experience, that bleeds off on everyone,” Iowa offensive line coach George Barnett said. “Number two, just the way he carries himself . . . For a young kid to sit on the other side of the room and watch [Tyler], watch him take notes, watch him handle his business, watch him work after practice individually on his own. If you’re a young kid, and you’re watching [Tyler] do it, now you might want to do it. You might want to start playing a little catch-up there.”

A humble Hawkeye

Tyler’s on-field play gained national attention last season. He was one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy — awarded yearly to the best center in college football. He was also named an All-American by the Associated Press, The Athletic, and the Football Writers Association of America.

Before this season began, Tyler earned multiple preseason first-team All-America honors and was named the nation’s top returning offensive linemen by Pro Football Focus.

Tyler has remained level-headed.

“He doesn’t like the spotlight at all,” Logan said. “If there’s a chance he can push it off to someone else and praise everyone else, he’s going to. That’s just the way he was raised. The way we grew up, the attention’s there, but he doesn’t really pay no mind to it because he still has a lot of work to do. He still has his goals that he’s trying to reach. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and he realizes that.”

At his parents’ home in Solon, the awards Tyler has won throughout his athletic career have piled up. Some of his most notable trophies and awards are displayed proudly, while others are in the shadows.

Plaques, certificates, and game memorabilia are stacked neatly and put away in the bedroom Tyler grew up in. According to Lisa, Tyler sometimes brings awards to Solon in stacks because he simply runs out of room for them at his home in Iowa City.

Certificates recognizing his captaincy in certain games and various parchments from the Big Ten Conference acknowledging his achievements can be found in the two loads Tyler most recently gave his parents.

When Todd and Lisa thumb through what their son brings to Solon, they’re occasionally surprised by what they discover. They’ll find awards, achievements, and recognitions that they forgot about or didn’t even know Tyler earned in the first place.

Tyler has ample opportunity to tell his parents about the awards he’s won, as he gets breakfast with Todd and Lisa at the Hy-Vee on Dodge Street in Iowa City almost every Sunday morning — though football isn’t always a prominent topic at the table, unless he’s sustained an injury that concerns Lisa.

Tyler’s parents have even begun to run out of room at their home in Solon for the things Tyler has accumulated in college and high school. Some of Tyler’s stuff has even made its way into the Linderbaum’s garage for storage.

Of everything Tyler has accomplished, his parents are most proud of the Academic All-Big Ten recognition he received in 2020.

Abnormal athleticism

The attention Tyler has received over the past two seasons can, at least in part, be attributed to the unusual amount of athleticism he possesses.

On Aug. 11, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported that Tyler ran a 1.55-second 10-yard split. New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals wide receivers Michael Thomas and A.J. Green both run the same split time as Tyler.

Tyler couples his NFL-wide-receiver-like speed with an absurd amount of brute strength too. Tyler threw a hay bale — which can weigh up to 140 pounds, according to Horse Racing Sense — over a 14-foot-tall bar at Solon’s annual Beef Days celebration.

“I’m not sure if there’s really a technique to it,” Tyler said. “Just try to get it over the bar. Sometimes you think like a high jumper. You want to get over it and let your feet come down. You don’t just want to throw the whole thing over. So, maybe that’s a little technique to it. But at the end of the day, it comes down to if you’re strong enough to get it over.”

Linderbaum’s athleticism isn’t just useful for running around cones or tossing hay bales over bars. It also enables him to do some unique things on the field.

“He’s athletic enough that he could play a variety of positions,” Kevin Miller, Tyler’s high school football coach, said. “He could play, honestly, tight end, fullback. There’s several times he served as a scout receiver [in practice at Solon] . . . If we needed an extra receiver, he’d go out and play receiver. He’s just that talented.”

Miller added that Linderbaum has quick feet that allow him to be explosive both inside and outside. On occasion, Miller has even noticed that Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz have used Linderbaum as a pull blocker — flexing him to the outside post-snap to match up with defensive ends, linebackers, and defensive backs.

While some of Linderbaum’s athletic prowess is certainly genetic, his coaches and family partly attribute his athleticism to his participation in four high school sports at Solon: football, track and field, wrestling, and baseball.

“I think being a multi-sport athlete in high school was awesome,” Logan said. “You know, it keeps you busy. It makes you a well-rounded athlete, I think . . . For [Tyler], being able to play so many sports and excel at a lot of sports is, you know, really nice and really good.”

His high school coaches say Tyler likely could’ve played whatever sport he wanted to among those four in college.

He chose to play football.

Becoming a Hawkeye

A Hawkeye welcome sign is set against a wall near the front door of the Linderbaum house in Solon, Iowa, on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. (Grace Smith/The Daily Iowan) (Grace Smith)

Linderbaum’s athleticism is what caught the eyes of college football coaches across the Midwest.

His parents said Tyler’s first collegiate offer actually came from Minnesota State at age 16 after he attended a Mavericks’ football camp in Mankato. Minnesota State head football coach Todd Hoffner told Tyler’s parents that their family likely wouldn’t entertain his offer for long, as bigger schools would eventually come knocking on Tyler’s door.

Iowa State and Minnesota both made a push for Tyler in 2017. As soon as Iowa began to pursue Tyler, however, all bets were off. He committed within two months of receiving an offer to play football for the Hawkeyes — the team he grew up rooting for.

Todd and Lisa said Tyler was gracious when he made his recruiting decision, calling Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell to inform him of his decision.

Now-retired Hawkeye defensive line coach Reese Morgan was the main recruiter of Linderbaum on Kirk Ferentz’s staff. Though Kirk did attend a few of Tyler’s football games and wrestling matches — including the wrestling match that saw Tyler down his future Hawkeye teammate and then-Mount Vernon student Tristan Wirfs ahead of the Iowa state wrestling tournament.

“Growing up, every kid’s dream around the Iowa City area is to play for the Hawkeyes,” Logan said. “[Tyler’s] living out every kid’s dream right now that grew up in the area. So, I think it’s a really cool and really special thing that he’s doing right now.”

Professional prospects

Much like they did in high school when college coaches began to recruit him, Tyler’s personality, demeanor, athleticism, and on-field performance has garnered the interest of NFL scouts.

Tyler could have gone pro after last season and forfeited his last two seasons of collegiate eligibility; he was a projected second-round pick. Had he entered his name into last year’s NFL Draft, Tyler could have been in line for a four-year, $6-7 million deal.

Tyler said he wasn’t interested in entering the draft last season, and that he just “wanted to compete with his buddies.”

Tyler never even requested feedback from the College Advisory Committee, a service that helps draft-eligible underclassmen know what NFL scouts and executives think of them.

Since then, Tyler has continued to avoid NFL Draft talk — even though he has begun to appear in some 2022 mock drafts. In one of its most recent mock drafts, Pro Football Network forecasted Tyler to be a first-round pick.

At Big Ten Football Media Days on July 23, a reporter asked Tyler which charities he’d be most apt to give to once he’s signed an NFL contract. In classic Linderbaum fashion, Tyler deflected the question, noting that he has to make an NFL roster before he can even receive a check for playing professional football — though he did give a slight nod to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital at the end of his answer to the question.

“He’s just a humble, genuine, authentic young man that doesn’t get caught up in all the notoriety,” Miller said. “I think he’s so focused on the process of developing himself that he’s not concerned with the outcome, whether that’s being a first-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, where he goes in the draft. He’s just focused on getting better every day.”

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