Tyler Sash died sometime Sunday or Monday. He was just 27 years old. According to reports, a family member found Sash while coming to his house to take his dog for a walk. An autopsy is being performed Wednesday to determine what caused it, but for those who had watched him over the last decade, it is sort of irrelevant. As Mike Hlas wrote Tuesday, "Whatever it was, it wasn't good and nothing can undo it now."
Sash came to Iowa City from Oskaloosa, where he had been a multiple-sport star; not only did he receive scholarship offers from Iowa and Iowa State to play football, but a handful of low-major basketball programs wanted him as a guard. He rolled up more tha 1,800 rushing and receiving yards in each of his final two seasons at Oskaloosa, but Iowa moved him to defensive back almost immediately.
Sash, of course, was a key member of the last great Iowa football teams in 2008 and 2009. With Sash at strong safety, Iowa set a school record for most consecutive victories, going more than a calendar year without a loss. Other great players from that team are known for their production or their personalities, but there is no player better associated with individual moments of brilliance on the football field than Tyler Sash. Nearly everything he did was of massive consequence. It was Sash's interception of Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark that set the whole 13-game undefeated run in motion.
That play, as gigantic as any defensive play in recent Iowa football history, set up a game-winning drive that knocked off then-No. 3 Penn State and launched Iowa into the stratosphere. For his part, Sash was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week (he also had eight tackles that night) and a freshman All-American.
The Hawkeyes started the 2009 season with eight consecutive wins and rose to fourth in the nation, but started lethargically against Indiana on Halloween weekend. With eight minutes left in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes were down 21-7 and defending Indiana on 3rd & Goal from their own three yard line. And then Tyler Sash happened.
Sash's pinball interception, caught after bouncing off the appendages of at least four other players, triggered yet another Iowa comeback. 23 minutes later, Iowa had not just beaten Indiana but left enough room for some early trick-or-treating. "Coach called it a miracle," he later said.
In 2010, an early loss to Wisconsin threatened to take Iowa out of a Big Ten title race that it expected to win. The anger and frustration from that loss were imposed on then-undefeated Michigan State. And Tyler Sash somehow did something more miraculous than he had against Indiana.
He had the sense to realize that Hyde could do more than he with the ball, tossed it to him despite a Michigan State wide receiver standing in between them, then threw a block on Kirk Cousins for good measure. If you ask me, that's the Tyler Sash I'm going to remember: Spinning, screaming, covered in eye black, having just made one of the most brilliant, insane and selfless plays I've ever seen.
That's hardly all that Tyler Sash did in an Iowa uniform. If he had lived to 72 instead of 27, if he had the good fortune of living a long life, we could talk about the irony of Sash passing away during Iowa State week. After all, he's lived in the nightmares of Iowa State fans since 2009, when he picked off Austen Arnaud three times in a 35-3 beatdown of Ames in Jack Trice Stadium. One of those interceptions gave us an iconic photograph, which in turn gave us a meme.
"Tyler Motherfucking Sash" caught fire, at least as much as something in the 2009 version of college football blogging could catch fire, and we soon received word from the man himself: He was aware of it and appreciated it, but wasn't a big fan of the profanity. And "Tyler Jimmer-Jamming Sash" was born.
To focus on the spectacular misses the steady brilliance of Sash's play with Iowa, though; he racked up 217 tackles in just three seasons, and had he kept that pace for his senior season instead of going pro, he'd have finished 19th all time in tackles for the Hawkeyes. The only other defensive backs in the Top 20: Damien Robinson and Bob Sanders. He is fifth in program history with 13 interceptions. He intercepted two passes in the 2009 Outback Bowl, a blowout that signaled Iowa's return to prominence.
He finished his Iowa career high on the short list of Iowa safeties. Bob Sanders and Merton Hanks had better pro careers and at least as much impact while on campus, but there is little argument for any other modern-era safety above him. Despite the fact that he played strong safety and hit like one, nobody played center field like him; he feasted on overthrows and floating deep passes, sprinting out of nowhere, making up giant chunks of ground while the football hung in the air, flying in from out of nowhere to steal it from a would-be receiver while everyone else asked what had happened. And as much as any other player -- more than any Iowa-raised player, for that matter -- he embodied the mentality of that group. He was tough. He was fearless. He was eccentric. And, above all, he was selfless.
When Sash announced he was leaving school one year early for the NFL, it made sense. He was always going to be part of that 2009-2010 defense, and with all the principals from that defense going or gone, it felt like the right time for Sash to exit. He, and they, had done everything but win a Big Ten title, and the unfinished business would fall to another group.
Sash was taken in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the New York Giants and, within one year, found himself as the fifth defensive back on a Super Bowl champion. He was seen courtside at Knicks games. His career looked set to take off. He started using Twitter and dropping a new catch phrase: Get Better, Not Bitter. His tweets were almost universally hashtagged #GBNB -- he eventually trademarked the acronym -- and he eventually started a company to sell apparel with the phrase on behalf of his foundation.
The first warning sign came when Sash was suspended for the beginning of the 2012 season for using Adderall, He told reporters he had been prescribed the medication for an anxiety problem, but the suspension cut into his playing time. By the beginning of the 2013 season, he had been cut by the Giants. He said it was because of an injury and vowed to return.
He never played again.
The life that came along with being a football player in New York City left Sash when he lost his roster spot. In the summer of 2013, he was attending the ESPN NFL Draft party and hosting a celebrity golf tournament that reportedly sold out in 45 minutes. After he was cut, he announced a second celebrity tournament, but no celebrities were listed on the flyer and there's nary a word of it on Sash's personal or business Facebook pages. There was no 2015 tournament, as best as I can tell. Sash had always marketed himself -- he sold Tyler Sash wristwatches after the Super Bowl win -- but he began selling seasoned salt, playing off a celebrity status that was quickly fading.
Sash had an increasingly rocky relationship with a subset of fans, especially on Twitter. Some fans—most of whom don't come around BHGP, but some of whom do—delighted in the shortcomings of Sash's life after his time in the black and gold. There's no way to tell whether that contributed to this tragedy, but Sash left this earth without a clean balance sheet on that front, and that's a stain on Hawkeye fandom, especially considering how many more fans and writers didn't lift much of a finger to slow the vitriol.
He was arrested in May 2014 for eluding Oskaloosa police on a scooter, eventually getting Tazered while hiding behind a tree. He eventually pled to public intoxication and paid a small fine, but the warning flags that things weren't right were already there:
Look: this arrest is potentially really, really funny. We already made a "dash of sash" joke in the title, after all. It's also potentially unsettling if it's indicative of bigger problems, and you can't exactly rule that out. Sash may be a doofus at times, but he's our doofus, and we would prefer that this be just an isolated incident, a bump in the road to dominating the seasoned salt and spice market for decades to come. C'mon, buddy. Let's stop hiding behind trees and get it together.
Those words are eerily prophetic today, now that we know how it ended.
I don't know Tyler Sash at all. I've never met him. All I know is what I've learned from those who have talked to him or knew him. But there's one thing I know from those people: He had a big heart. Last year, there was a billboard along the route where I ride my bike of Tyler Sash and a small child. The billboard advertised Best Buddies Iowa, one of the many charities that Sash supported after he had returned from the NFL, but Best Buddies wasn't the star of the sign. Two years removed from the end of his playing career, Tyler Sash was captioned as "Pro Football Player Tyler Sash." It was an eye-rolling example of how Sash's brief NFL career hung over everything he did after it, often obscuring the good he was trying to do.
Proceeds from A Dash of Sash are now going to go to Best Buddies, the charity from the billboard. Sash's effort to help remained, even as the mechanism for doing so -- NFL money, contacts and celebrity -- left.
I hope he didn't die heartbroken over his career, or lost as to what to do after football. I hope he didn't die feeling like he had failed, because he clearly had not. He simply had the career that most every football player has, and might not have adjusted well to life after it was over. I hope he remembered the player we all loved, jumping and screaming after flattening Kirk Cousins in 2010. I hope he didn't die sad.
To quote Sash's old teammate Pat Angerer, rest easy, Tyler Sash.