AUGUST 24, 1981
Seeing his 14-year-old son, Marc, fumble in a Pop Warner football game this fall brought back unpleasant memories for Wendell Tyler. In his 10-year NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, Tyler rushed for 6,387 yards and scored 50 touchdowns. But he also fumbled 64 times—more than all but eight other running backs in NFL history. "I either gave the fans a thrill or a chill," says Tyler, 47. "There was no in-between."
Overall wear and tear, including a knee injury, forced Tyler to retire in 1987, and for the next 10 years he owned a landscaping business in his hometown of Lancaster, Calif. After getting his real estate license in 1994, he bought, renovated and resold houses. Since 2000 he has worked for Century 21 Yarrow & Associates.
In his spare time he helps coach Marc's team. "I love being around the game," says Tyler, who with his wife of 23 years, Carmen, has three other children: Candace, 23, Wendell Jr., 20, and Megan, 15. "I tell the kids that you have to have confidence—even if you fumble."
Growing up in Louisiana, Tyler dreamed of playing in the NFL. He started making his case to the pros in the final game of his junior season at UCLA, the 1976 Rose Bowl, in which he rushed for 172 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown dash, in a 23-10 upset of No. 1 Ohio State. The Rams took Tyler in the third round of the '77 draft. He didn't get much playing time in his first two seasons, but he broke loose for 1,109 yards in '79 and 1,074 in '81. Three years later, as part of a potent 49ers backfield that included fullback Roger Craig, he gained 1,262 yards and then was the leading rusher (65 yards) for San Francisco in its 38-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.
But the defining moment of Tyler's life came on the night of July 4, 1980. He was in the passenger seat of his brother-in-law's car on a mountain road in West Virginia when the vehicle crashed into a concrete storm drain. Tyler suffered a dislocated hip and missed all but four games of the following season. "That accident changed me," says Tyler, 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."
He returned to form the next season, but he still had trouble holding onto the football. "I was always trying to go for extra yards," says Tyler of why he fumbled so often. "I tell my son to protect the ball. All good backs fumble."