When I think of Wendell Tyler, the first thing that comes to mind is the day he ate a chili dog or two before a Rams game in Los Angeles, but there were other exploits his career brought fans of Los Angeles. A near miss in Super Bowl XIV, fumbles, his trade to the arch rivals San Francisco 49ers, and his career threatening auto accident that changed his life forever.
A running back that shined while playing college ball at UCLA, and out-dueling Archie Griffin of Ohio State in the Bruins Rose Bowl win. Tyler was selected by the L.A. Rams in the third round of the 1977 NFL Draft. The demonstrative tailback stood at 5’10”, 198 pounds. He played in 10 NFL seasons, from 1977 to 1982 with L.A., before being traded by John Robinson to the 49ers in 1983, where he played until 1986.
As a Ram, Tyler unfortunately was injured every other year for the team. He finished playing 51 games for the team, six total games for the 1978 and 1980 seasons combined. He had two 1,000-yard seasons, and rushed for 3,266 yards and 33 TDs. He also caught 120 balls for 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Though I couldn’t find a mention of the Chili Dog Game, where he threw up on the field before the start of the contest, one thing Tyler did learn from that day was he performs better if he doesn’t eat chili dogs before a game. He played so well, he is a player that can call himself a Super Bowl champion. Much to the L.A. Rams fans’ dismay, it wasn’t for their team, but nonetheless he can boast that to his grandchildren.
Tyler performed for the Rams in Super Bowl XIV against the Pittsburgh Steelers, gaining 60 yards on the ground while being smothered on his sweep plays by a much faster defensive line.
He was later inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016, despite his penchant for dropping the ball at the most inopportune times. Tyler had a handle, well that’s probably bad terminology, but he was known as a fumbler, even back to his days at UCLA, where he blamed a wrist injury in his junior season for the sudden loss of grip on the football, coughing up 37 fumbles running for the Rams, and 64 in his career.
“I either gave the fans a thrill or a chill,” says Tyler in an interview with The Vault. “There was no in-between.”
He had a habit of carrying the ball by a string, or better yet a loaf of bread, instead of close to his body where it would be better protected, and this particular style invariably led to fumbles.
“Everybody wants to talk about fumbling,” Tyler said, sighing. “That’s part of my life. I accept that, like waking up in the morning,” he said in a LA Times January 1985 story.
Tyler’s only complaint is that he wants people to understand why he fumbles. “When I do fumble, I’m going for the extra yard,” he said. “I give 150 percent on the field, and that causes me to fumble.”
Tyler suffered through a life-changing episode as a Los Angeles Ram. Through no fault of his own, but that is why his event was called a “traffic accident.” Accidents happen and Tyler was a passenger in a car that careened over a hillside cliff. He suffered a broken hip as a result and the Rams were quick to come to his aid.
Owner Georgia Frontiere ordered and paid for an air flight ambulance to bring him back to Los Angeles, and it was quickly feared that his career could be finished. Yet Tyler returned later in the year to carry the ball 30 times in one of his last seasons as a Ram.
“That accident changed me,” says Tyler again to The Vault, who became a born-again Christian soon after. “I had taken my life and ability for granted. After the accident I realized there was someone higher than me.
“I never had any bad feelings about the Rams because they overwhelmingly helped me out during my career,” Tyler said. “I was sad I had to leave all my friends and my family and my hometown folks, but it was like a new birth for me.”
For me, I remember him for the Chili Dog game, but Wendell was much more than that for the Rams. He was not only the conduit to Eric Dickerson, but he was a champion of character as well.