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Former Centennial standout Dodson returns home, prepares for NFL Draft

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There’s a loose blade on the front grill of the rugged air conditioning unit in Siegel High School’s weight room. It rattles as it pushes cool air through the rows of weight benches in the single-floor building near the main campus of the Murfreesboro high school.

This isn’t home for Tyrel Dodson, but it feels like it. There’s no chalk to help protect his hands or a trainer ready to assist when needed. Dodson has flourished in his time at Texas A&M as an all-Southeastern Conference linebacker, but this back-to-his-roots style workout makes him smile.

Former Centennial assistant and current Siegel head football coach Michael Copley worked with Dodson and others exclusively to establish a weight program in Dodson’s high school days. This workout and the ones over the last week are no different. Copley creatively finds new methods to push Dodson’s now 6-foot, 240-pound frame.

“It’s old school here,” Dodson said. “Hey coach, I’ll do up-downs if you ask.”

The workout brings back all the memories from the 4:30 a.m. starts at Centennial. Those workouts helped Dodson establish himself as one of the top players in Middle Tennessee and lead the Cougars to the 2015 Class 5A state semifinals as a senior – the school’s deepest playoff run. He went on to be named a Tennessee Titan Mr. Football Award winner and after three season’s at Texas A&M, Dodson now sits on the doorstep of the NFL.

Copley pushes Dodson, just like those early days, but the two trade memories in the pauses during the nearly 90-minute workout.

“Oh, come on, you used to do more even in high school,” Copley jabs as Dodson squats.

The two stack on all the 45-pound plates available at the bench. It still wasn’t close to the 675 pounds Dodson squatted after his sophomore season in a viral video, which collected some 150,000 views on Twitter alone, but it was enough to impress.

“He makes this look easy compared to any of my guys,” Copley admits aloud moments later.

Dodson, like a handful of others locals, including former Cougar teammate Emanuel Hall, will be waiting for a life-changing phone call this week during the NFL Draft in Nashville, the official kick-off event to the NFL’s 100th season.

Dodson said he’s ready for football’s biggest stage.

“I’m ready to take on this next chapter in my life,” Dodson said. “I just want to play football at the next level … I know I'm mentally and physically ready to be elite in the NFL.”

NFL ready

In Dodson’s final game with the Aggies on Dec. 31 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, he matched a season-high with nine tackles and returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown in a 52-13 win over N.C. State.

He finished with 70 tackles as junior with seven going for loss, down from his 104 tackles his sophomore season. College and pro football analyst Mike Detillier noted the head coaching change from Kevin Sumlin to Jimbo Fisher as well as a shift in defensive coordinator at Texas A&M as huge factors in Dodson’s production.

Detillier said he's a big fan of Dodson's abilities and expects him to be a fifth round selection. The NFL Draft guru said one of Dodson’s best attributes is his ability to cover and read the field.

“I love his motor, man it runs hots,” Detillier said. “He's a really good open field tackler and that's a plus for him. Also his reading and react skills to get around heavy traffic is where I think he excels because he isn't the biggest linebacker around, but you can be big but sometimes your reaction skills are a little slow. That for him is not the case.

“I think he can make a very quick impact in the NFL on special teams.”

Dodson has met with Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Miami and Chicago among others leading up to the draft. The return to Nissan Stadium was a flashback to when he was named that 2015 Mr. Football winner as a high school senior. 

“That was pretty cool to be a part of their top 30 day," Dodson said. "This is definitely kind of a nerve-racking time, but you know it’s exciting, too.

"I know that once I get the chance with a team, I can just ball out and just be me and show my worth on and off the field.”

High School Memories

Brian Rector remembers thinking Dodson was going to be a special player leading up to his junior season in high school. Rector, who now heads the Father Ryan football team in Nashville, was the head coach for the Cougars throughout Dodson’s career.

“You could tell he was going to be really something special,” the former Centennial coach said. “By the time he graduated, he just had this massive impact he made on and off the field and still does. 

"Everybody knows him around here and he's a bit of a star. And I think that's awesome because there's no-one more positive or effective as a role model than him in my mind." 

Rector credited Copley for helping transform his players in the weight room, developing routines that turned his team into a physical force in Williamson County. He said Dodson was one of his more dedicated players to committing to the process.

The Cougars went on to beat rival Ravenwood in the regular season in 2015, handing the Raptors their only loss on a season that ended with a Class 6A championship. They defeated a tough Henry County team twice, just like Brentwood, but one game that really stands out to Rector is the first round of the playoffs against Southwind – a 20-14 comeback Cougar win.

“That was a real nip-and-tuck game. It was dirty. It was nasty,” he said. “They had a lot of speed and played really solid defense. … In the end, we didn’t lean on Tyrel, we all jumped directly on his back.”

Dodson said when people don’t believe he played offense, he turns to that game as well. It’s good proof, he said.

Dodson scored all three touchdowns for the Cougars in the muddy playoff battle and bulldozed his way into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter to rally Centennial to victory. He broke loose for a 44-yard run to spark a game-winning drive late in the fourth and was a wrecking ball for the tough yards late.

“I mean there were a couple of runs where he was able to get first downs as a running back that I mean, they had us dead and he just refused to go down,” Rector said.

Centennial missed playing for the school’s first championship by falling to another rival in Independence later in he playoffs. The Eagles produced the school’s first undefeated championship season and clipped Dodson’s Cougars twice breaking several state records along the way.

Dodson, who didn't garner the same attention leading up to his senior year in the recruiting race, signed with Texas A&M in the spring of his senior year. He finished with 111 tackles in his final season with Centennial with 32 for loss. He also scored 16 touchdowns on offense.

“We didn't end up winning state but you know, we had a great season and the best seasons the high school has ever had, so that was special to be a part of,” Dodson said.

Coming home

No trip home is complete without mom’s cooking and visits with longtime friend William Gawlas. Dodson has enjoyed both the last two weeks as he prepares for the draft, which is being hosted in Nashville for the first time. Dodson’s mom, Angela Sparkman, has been prepping 15-20 meals a week for her son, who has been spending his time staying active, reading and enjoying catching up with old friends.

“My mom, she’s been my No. 1 supporter and my biggest critic, but I know she’s always behind me and that’s just the biggest blessing to have her in my corner,” Dodson said.

Last week, Dodson also returned to Centennial and the Cougar football field, but it was to support Gawlas and cheer on his high school buddy during the Williamson County Special Olympics. The pair met in high school when Dodson joined the Best Buddies program, which creates opportunities for one-on-one friendships for volunteers and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. That friendship only grew after high school as the two stayed in contact during Dodson’s time in College Station with frequent phone calls and texts.

Watching the two interact was special for former Centennial principal Leigh Webb, now the Williamson County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools. She also attended the event at her former school.

“Watching (Dodson) with his buddy at Special Olympics brought back so many memories last week,” Webb said. “He's the same Tyrel. It's the same big heart, same love of friendships, same love of competition, and the same character you would want to see from your own son.”

Webb remembers Dodson and Gawlas always hanging out at Centennial. She says Dodson has an “electric personality” that will win over NFL teams, fan bases and entire cities.

“He's the kind of person you cheer for in life,” she said.

Last week was the premier event where Dodson and Gawlas switch competitor and cheering roles. Dodson also puts on his coaching hat.

“Will, I want to see the wind up here,” Dodson said as Gawlas prepared for the softball throw. “Just like we practiced. Wind up and let it fly. C’mon boy … let’s do this!”

Gawlas walked away the softball throw winner in his division as well as runner-up in a the 100-meter dash. Gawlas was disappointed in the second-place finish, but Dodson quickly reminded him to be supportive of the winner and be proud of his accomplishment.

“You did great my friend. You did great,” he said, hugging Gawlas. It was a day of smiles, hugs and high-fives. 

“It makes me emotional, because it means so much to me to have William as my best buddy,” Dodson said afterward. “He’s my brother. He’s always watching me and cheering for me, so it was special to be here and see him shine today.

“He might have different circumstances than me, but he’s still in the same life. He’s still as happy as me and that’s what makes me wake up every morning and be grateful for my life.”

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