Bears’ Tyson Bagent has shot at redemption in third start


CHICAGO — It was Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, the morning after Shepherd University suffered an emotional loss, and its sophomore quarterback sat quietly in the front row during the team meeting.

Tyson Bagent had set a school record with 41 completions against conference rival Kutztown, but he also threw two interceptions, and when the Rams took the field for practice that afternoon, Bagent jogged up to coach Ernie McCook with a message.

“He said, ‘Coach, I apologize for that game yesterday. I let the team down, and I will never let that happen again,'” McCook said. “He threw an interception he wished he had back.

“He set a school record for completions. He did his part to win, but if the team wasn’t successful he put it on his shoulders. He never pointed a finger, never deflected anything away from himself, he owned everything that happened. The pick was eating away at him. In his mind, he felt that it was his job to make that play and will his team to a win.”

Shepherd didn’t lose another game that season until the second round of the Division II playoffs.

Fast-forward four years, and Bagent was again putting a loss on his shoulders. This time, there was no school record to use as a silver lining. Bagent made his second start as a Chicago Bears quarterback Sunday night and struggled with three interceptions and no touchdowns in a 30-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

It was the type of performance — only three quarterbacks had a worse QBR than Bagent’s 23.0 in Week 8 — that will take some momentum out of the feel-good story about the fourth D-II quarterback in the past 20 years to start an NFL game.

That narrative gained national attention in Week 7 when Bagent helped lead the Bears to victory over the Las Vegas Raiders. Bagent will get his third start at the New Orleans Saints on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Justin Fields, who continues to recover from a dislocated right thumb, is week-to-week and will return as the starter when he’s healthy.

“I’m going to attack the week the same way I always do,” Bagent said Sunday. “Everything stays the same.”

After that loss to Kutztown, Bagent led Shepherd to eight straight wins. McCook said he was the best player on the team for four years, with a work ethic ingrained by a larger-than-life father who won 17 world arm wrestling titles. Bagent was the only D-II player invited to the Senior Bowl and one of three invited to the combine. He has faced long odds before. But maybe not quite like this.

The Bears, who have lost 16 of 18 games, need to find out what they has in Fields because if they get the No. 1 pick next spring it would mean a chance to draft USC QB Caleb Williams or North Carolina QB Drake Maye. So Bagent will play just when needed.

“This is all still new,” Bagent said Sunday. “I try to take things from every game. I took a lot from last week, I’m going to take a lot from this week. I’ll take a lot from next week and the week after that.

“Whether I’m starting or not, I’m always taking things away from every time we step on the field.”

BAGENT RECEIVED A game ball after the win over Las Vegas. He was 21-of-29 for 162 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers.

Fields proudly stood on the bench of his locker behind Bagent as players cheered and shouted for the 23-year-old undrafted rookie. Bagent said he couldn’t have done it without the support of those who prepared him for that moment.

That preparation started at Martinsburg High School, and while coach David Walker might not have known Bagent would be starting in the NFL as a rookie, he knew his quarterback was better than the lukewarm interest he received during the college recruiting process.

When Martinsburg’s starter was injured in the second game of the 2015 season, Bagent entered as a 15-year-old sophomore and became the full-time starter. Bagent led the powerhouse to back-to-back undefeated state championship seasons in 2016 and 2017. After throwing for 7,759 yards and accounting for 93 total touchdowns as a senior, he was named West Virginia’s Gatorade Player of the Year.

But what Walker heard from some college coaches was the ball didn’t “pop” out of Bagent’s hand, or his release wasn’t quick enough. Some said they were looking for a more athletic quarterback.

“I would just shake my head and say, ‘If you guys knew what I knew, you wouldn’t be questioning those things,'” Walker said.

Bagent passed on a chance to walk on at West Virginia, choosing instead to follow in the footsteps of his mother, Casey, and father, Travis, and attend Shepherd.

He won the starting job as a freshman and threw a school-record 518 yards in his first start against Notre Dame College (Ohio), the reigning champions of the Mountain East Conference.

“No one had ever heard about Tyson Bagent, especially in Ohio,” said Tyler Haines, Shepherd’s former offensive coordinator. “Everyone immediately went to that film and said ‘Who is this kid? What is going on?’ And the rest is history. An 18-year-old kid taking over this conference.”

Haines balanced coaching with serving as Shepherd’s pro liaison, the latter often taking over as his primary duty as more scouts showed up to watch Bagent.

When he saw the 6-foot-3 quarterback during a workout, Haines noticed Bagent’s tattoo of Atlas, the mythological Greek figure hoisting the Earth on his shoulders. Haines’ interpretation of that image often came up in conversations he had with scouts who came through Shepherdstown.

“When I see Tyson doing what he’s doing on the field, it made sense to me that he can handle all of it,” Haines said. “You can put it all on him, and he’ll find a way.”

In four seasons, Bagent set 27 school and NCAA passing records. As a junior in 2021, he won the Harlon Hill Award — the Division II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Against Kutztown on Sept. 24, 2022, with a Bears scout on hand, Bagent led Shepherd back from a 20-14 halftime deficit to a 42-35 win while throwing for 456 yards and accounting for four touchdowns. As the Rams’ celebration poured onto the field, Haines caught a glimpse down their sideline of scouts scribbling notes and making calls.

“You could just tell,” Haines said, “they knew what they were seeing.”

PERHAPS NO ONE was more influential in exposing Bagent to NFL representatives than Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, who came to Shepherd to hand deliver the quarterback’s invitation to the annual college all-star game.

What Nagy had seen reminded him of another small-school quarterback who went on to make it big: Eastern Illinois’ Tony Romo.

“I’m not sitting here saying I thought he would have Tony’s career … but there was just a moxie about him,” Nagy said. “He had a really good feel for the game. He could move around, really cool mobility and ability to make plays when he’s on the move. Saw the field well, really good poise, when he got moved and flushed, he didn’t get rattled. There’s a calmness to him.

“From the minute he got here, especially when we got out on the field on Tuesday for the first practice, he just looked like he belonged.”

Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy was one of the Senior Bowl coaches, which played a role in Bagent signing with Chicago. After OTAs wrapped in June, Bagent went back to West Virginia to prepare for training camp.

Every day for six weeks, Bagent worked to learn the Bears’ offense with the help of Michael McCook, his former college teammate who is currently an assistant at Shepherd.

Bagent would stand in the middle of an empty football field with a wireless earpiece, and McCook would call in plays from his cell phone.

Bagent took the call and went through the mental imagery: Getting in and out of the huddle, making sure he knew where everyone was supposed to be lined up, where the motion was coming from, the checks and adjustments he would need to make at the line of scrimmage before getting the play off on time.

When Bagent’s family took a brief vacation to the beach this summer, he made sure these practice runs continued. He studied the script for hours the night before to make sure the workouts went off without a hitch. McCook would go through the same process of calling Bagent’s phone and playing the role of offensive coordinator from afar.

“The preparation for something so small as a two-hour run-through of a script the day before in the middle of June,” McCook said, “it was something that I realized — seeing that this dude is just different.”

AS BAGENT AND his family and friends headed to a restaurant to celebrate the win over the Raiders, he FaceTimed Michael McCook.

“I’m watching a guy just win a game as a starting quarterback and I’m listening to him talk to my son on FaceTime, hearing the true excitement of what he just accomplished,” Ernie McCook, Michael’s father, said.

Bagent joked that his paycheck would look different because of all the money he used to purchase tickets for 55 family members and friends in attendance. He ended up spending $9,010.

The L.A. contingent was smaller, approximately 15-20 people, but still significant.

One person who will always be there is his father, Travis, whose arm wrestling exploits and towering personality became fixtures in stories about Tyson. But as Tyson worked his way up the ladder in Chicago, first by making the 53-man roster and then winning the backup role, Travis did fewer interviews and let his son own the moment.

But those who know the Bagents still see Travis’ influence.

“When I see Tyson score a touchdown, I see his dad,” Haines said. “When he spikes the ball, when he’s celebrating with his teammates, when he’s yelling, that bigger-than-life thing that he does.

“I saw it even when he scrambled and got a first down [against the Raiders], he’s yelling at the fans to give him more. I see some of that showmanship.”

Tyson might have been channeling a bit of his father when he was asked before the Raiders game what he would be doing if he hadn’t made it to the NFL.

“I was going to basically just CrossFit my life away,” he said. “Get as ripped and jacked as I possibly could and be a teacher at Martinsburg High School.”

Travis owns a CrossFit gym in Charleston, West Virginia. It’s where he used to train Tyson.

“[Travis is] very real with Tyson,” said Dylan Brewer, Tyson’s close friend from Martinsburg. “Travis building him up, believing he could go to the NFL, having your father say that and believe in you pushes you to do those special things that you’ve always wanted to do.”

It’s going to take more than Travis’ inspiration to push Tyson to the next level of his NFL journey. But at least for one more week, he’ll be starting on Sunday, something he probably couldn’t have imagined that Sunday four years ago in Martinsburg.

“To look where I’m at, and to look how everything has kind of fallen into place, just nothing but extreme gratitude and just feeling super blessed,” Bagent said before the Raiders game, “to be able to be that kind of motivational role to the younger people in my family, kind of be that person they can look up to.

“And just really be motivation for everybody that may be at a smaller level, and all the people back home.”

Source : ESPN