GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Tyler Kuder didn’t know his life was about to change forever. What he knew was that he had a four-hour drive ahead of him, his tank was on E, and he and his buddies were hungry.
Five and a half years later, as he sat in the Green Bay Packers' locker room looking at his green No. 90 nearby and thinking about how nervous he was going to be the first time he met Aaron Rodgers, Kuder was asked about the long odds he faces to make the team’s 53-man roster this summer. A knowing smile crept across his face.
“I believe in miracles,” the undrafted rookie free-agent nose tackle said. “And being in the right place at the right time.”
He should, because there is no better way to explain how he’s gotten this far.
In the fall of 2010, Kuder’s football career was over before it started. After drawing attention from Oregon, Washington State, Boise State and others as a high school junior in Payette, Idaho, those schools took one look at his grade-point average and backed away. He wound up signing with Idaho, but after his ACT score was too low to qualify, that opportunity dried up, too.
So instead of playing college football, Kuder was spending a couple hard-earned days off from his construction job road-tripping to Idaho State with a few friends. Their weekend of fun over, they stopped just before the Interstate 15 North on-ramp at the Maverik gas station on East Center Street in Pocatello. Maverik, a Salt Lake City-based chain of roughly 270 gas stations and convenience stores in the western United States, bills itself as Adventure’s First Stop.
For Kuder, that’s exactly what it was on his odyssey to the NFL.
At the same Maverik station was Nick Whitworth, a former Idaho State assistant who’d recruited Kuder in high school before the bigger schools got involved. Whitworth, who’d moved on to Montana Western, an NAIA school of only 1,400 students, recognized him immediately.
“I’m on the road recruiting, and I see him standing there. [I said], ‘Kuder, what are you doing?’ He says, ‘Nothing.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, nothing?’” Whitworth recalled Tuesday. “To be real honest, I don’t even know if he was intending to play football ever again. But we got to talking, and finally I said, ‘Do you still want to play?’ And it took off from there.”
After a year playing on the offensive line at Montana Western, another coach from Kuder’s past -- Idaho State recruiting coordinator Matt Troxel, who’d been a graduate assistant at Idaho when the Vandals signed him -- reached out to him. Troxel’s offer came with no guarantees -- Kuder would be a walk-on, have to sit out the 2012 season under NCAA transfer rules and have to impress Bengals head coach Mike Kramer and his staff, since Troxel was the only one who knew him -- but Kuder quickly accepted.
He quickly impressed.
“Matt told me, ‘We’re really going to like this kid.’ I was more wait-and-see,” Kramer said Tuesday night in-between recruiting visits in northern Idaho. “Then he practiced, and it was, ‘Oh. My. God.’ It was easy to see the kid was going to make a lot of plays for us. What all those [big] schools had seen in him, he was going to be all of that and more for us. He spent the 2012 season as a walk-on, and he was just dominant [on the scout team]. We knew he was going to be a great player for us at our [FCS] level.”
Even though Kramer, who played offensive and defensive line at Idaho in the 1970s, believed the 6-foot-3, 307-pound Kuder was athletic enough to play “all five offensive line positions and all four defensive line positions,” Kuder settled in at nose tackle, where he registered 92 tackles (including 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks) as a senior last season.
“He’s still relatively young in terms of learning the position,” said Kramer, who is entering his sixth season at Idaho State after head coaching stops at Eastern Washington (1994-99) and Montana State (2000-06). “Hey, I’ve been coaching since 1977. He’s the most physically gifted player I’ve coached, the best athlete I’ve coached since the NCAA went to drug testing in 1985. He can do things with his body naturally that guys used to spend lots of money on hypodermically to make them that athletic.”
Although Green Bay showed little interest in him during the draft process -- Baltimore and Houston showed the most, Kuder said -- the Packers were the first team to call with a free-agent offer. Kuder jumped at it, knowing their history of having undrafted players make the team and believing the NFL’s smallest market was a perfect fit.
“That’s what I love about Green Bay,” Kuder said. “The only difference is you can’t see the mountains.”
While the Packers took UCLA nose tackle Kenny Clark with their first-round pick, the position isn’t especially deep. The opportunity is there.
“Knowing Tyler as long as I have, you just knew he was such a good kid and capable of a lot of good things,” Whitworth said. “To see him do well and have an opportunity to advance himself with the Packers. I’m just so excited for him.”
After all, stranger things have happened.
“He’s humble enough to do whatever it takes to be an NFL player. He’s obsessed with it in a very quiet, understated way,” Kramer said. “Every coaching staff, I don’t care what level you coach at, whether it’s the NFL or college or Pop Warner, you’re always going to want a certain core of your team to just shut up and get the job done. He’s going to be in that group.”