'I have to outwork everybody': Inside Iowa running back Tyler Goodson's grueling pursuit of greatness

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On a late Friday afternoon in mid-July, it's calm at Iowa City High School's athletic complex. School is long out, and just about the only people you see on the athletic fields are the school's softball players who are preparing for the upcoming state tournament.

Tyler Goodson is there, too.

Iowa's star running back is on City High's football practice field behind the school. He planned a training session on July 16 with William Lee, a Georgia-based trainer who worked with Goodson in the past and flew to Iowa to work with him this weekend. 

Goodson had been up since 7:30 a.m. and had already completed a team workout at the facility, in addition to a light 7-on-7 throwing period.

A few hours later, he was back for more, training with Lee at City High. They focused on agility and footwork drills to prepare for game situations.

From a national perspective, Goodson has spent the past two years as a skilled but underappreciated talent in the Hawkeyes backfield. But the secret is getting out, with more analysts and draft experts pegging Goodson as one of the likely breakout stars for this fall.

Days like this are the sacrifice Goodson is willing to make for that to happen. 

"There’s always someone else working," Goodson said. "I want to be the best running back there is to ever live. In order to do that, I have to put the work in.

"I have to outwork everybody that’s standing in front of me."

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson lifts a kettlebell during a private workout session, Friday, July 16, 2021, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.

The talent has been obvious to anyone looking.

Two years ago, Goodson became the first freshman in Iowa history to lead the team in rushing yards. Last season, he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection with 763 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in a COVID-shortened season.

In Big Ten country, Goodson is known as an electrifying talent.

Nationally? The word had been slow to get out.  

That's likely to change soon.

Already, ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has Goodson ranked as the fourth-best running back prospect entering the season. That positioning usually correlates with being a second-round draft pick.  

"He could be one of the best running backs in the country, I would think," FOX Sports analyst Bruce Feldman said. "I think people probably forget about him a little bit because last year was a crazy year and sometimes backs in the Big Ten get overshadowed because you’ve had really good ones in that league.

"But I’m interested to see what he does. I think he’s so underrated."

Embracing the 'underdog' role

Goodson isn’t interested in personal accolades. He also avoids comparing himself to other players.

Even as his star rises, he's left unsatisfied.

There's more to show. There's more to accomplish.  

"Going into high school, I felt like I had something to prove," Goodson said. "That was proving myself to college coaches that I could play for any program. Now that I’m here, it’s about proving myself to the world and proving to myself that I know I can do anything that I put my mind to."

Goodson’s earliest football memories trace to Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he and his younger brother, Taylor, now a defensive back at Kennesaw State, played for the Newbirth Steelers, a team of kids aged 8-10 years old. The Steelers were coached by Brentson Buckner, a 10-year NFL veteran and current defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals.

"All he ever talked about was playing Division I football and having a chance at the NFL," Buckner said of Goodson. "'What do NFL running backs do? How did they get there?' He was always looking for that at an early age."

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson runs a drill during a private workout session with William Lee, Friday, July 16, 2021, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.

At a young age, Goodson was faster than almost every other kid. Sweeps to the outside for easy touchdowns were common. Then Buckner became his coach and taught the young boy that he had to learn how to get the tough yards, too. 

"Ever since," Goodson said, "I’ve prided myself on learning how to run outside and inside to make sure there’s no weaknesses in my game."

Buckner remembers one game in particular, when the Steelers were backed up to their own 1-yard line. He told Goodson they were giving him the ball to run up the middle until they could get some breathing room, away from their own end zone.

The next play? A 99-yard touchdown right up the gut from Goodson.

"What that told me about him was he accepted coaching," Buckner said. "If he had to step outside of his comfort zone to become better, he would. Doesn’t ask questions and is willing to chase his dreams."

From there, the path toward football greatness only continued. 

Goodson led North Gwinnett High School in Georgia to a 7A state championship in 2017 as a junior, rushing for 900 yards in the playoffs alone. As a senior, he was named Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia. He was well on his way.   

Most of his college interest came from Big Ten schools and he found a fit in Iowa. He made history before he enrolled as the first recruit to take a spring official visit at the school under new NCAA rules. 

Those close to Goodson describe him as loyal above anything. He committed to Iowa in the summer of 2018 and stayed committed when traditional blue blood football programs tried to sway him toward signing day. The most notable: Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who made an in-home pitch to Goodson just before signing day in 2019.

"I was concerned about that (visit). It was not my first choice," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Goodson taking his official to Iowa so early in the spring. "Obviously he had a good visit and committed to us, and then some other people came in afterwards and they stayed the course.

"Atlanta is not a routine place for us to recruit, but our history is if we find a good player that has an interest in us, then we’re going to try and follow up with them."

Signing with a Power 5 program was the next step in Goodson's journey. 

From there, he wanted to get to the top of Iowa's depth chart as fast as possible, reflecting a relentless work ethic described by his coaches, teammates and family members.  

Goodson worked out with multiple trainers multiple times a day every day in the months leading up to enrolling at Iowa in 2019. Even at the request of his mom to take just one day off, he persisted.

"Finally, I had to call (former Iowa running backs coach Derrick) Foster and said, 'This out of hand,'" Felecia Goodson said. "So he called (Tyler) and started trying to take heed but that’s just kind of his mentality. When it’s something he really, really wants to do, he just goes for it and nothing’s getting in his way." 

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson runs a drill during a private workout session, Friday, July 16, 2021, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.

Trust led to Big Ten breakthrough

Despite the late interest from blue blood programs, Goodson maintained an underdog mentality. He set out to prove he was the caliber of running back that should’ve been a priority for elite college programs earlier. 

The first step in that process was gaining the trust of his coaches at Iowa.

"Once you gain trust, that’s when you get the green light to make plays," Goodson said. "My mentality coming in was: Learn the playbook, study film and gain the coaches’ trust. Once I did that, my role got bigger and bigger. I began to start toward the end of the year and never looked back."

Goodson's first distinct memory from his freshman season was against Michigan in Week 5 of his freshman year. Iowa struggled on offense and lost 10-3. Goodson finished with six carries for 15 yards. 

But the game was an eye-opener. Against Michigan, he learned how different the speed of the game was compared to high school and it gave him a better sense of what was required to dominate in a league like the Big Ten. 

"You have to be smarter mentally," Goodson said. "You just have to prepare for each and every moment. From there on, everything slowed down for me. Once I looked at the film and the little things I need to correct week after week, things started going good for me. 

"It's a very physical conference. I think the Big Ten is known for big guys. … I didn't realize that until I got in the game."

About a month later, he started his first career game against then-No. 7 Minnesota. It served as Goodson's breakout game. Against the Gophers, he rushed 13 times for 94 yards and a touchdown to help Iowa to a 23-19 win over their northern rivals. 

On Iowa's opening possession, Goodson took a quick pitch on a third-and-1 for a 26-yard gain. The Hawkeyes scored the opening touchdown on that possession. 

On their next possession, he took a second-and-1 handoff between the tackles for a 21-yard gain. He concluded the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run where he stiff-armed two defenders on the outside and powered through two more at the goal line. 

"Freshmen don't do that," Ferentz recalled of the moment last month at Big Ten Media Days. 

At the game, Feldman looked on from the FOX broadcast booth above.

"You see this young running back and you say, 'Oh my God, I want to see what this guy becomes,'" Feldman said. 

Entering the 2021-22 season, Iowa running back Tyler Goodson (15) was named to the Athlon Sports preseason All-American team.

Since then, each of Goodson's starts have been a culmination of the hours put in from Charlotte recreation leagues to North Gwinnett High to the after-hour training sessions at City High. 

Through his college career, Goodson has stayed loyal to his group of Georgia-based trainers. Each one specializes in something different, from power and explosion, to agility, to all-speed track training. 

They range from Lee to former Olympic track and field champion Chris "Fireman" Freeman, Drew Johnson, John Lewis (brother of former NFL running back Jamal Lewis) and former high school coach Gerald "Boo" Mitchell. 

"If there's one word to describe it amongst the trainers, it's 'dominance,'" Tyler's father, Maurice Goodson, said. "We always try to create the (mentality) of, 'I'm trying to be better than the next man.'

"'Training for Sundays,' that's the favorite slogan. You can't work on Sundays if you're not the best because on Sundays — everyone is the best. 

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson runs a drill during a private workout session with William Lee, left, Friday, July 16, 2021, at City High School in Iowa City, Iowa.

Goodson takes on veteran leadership role

The South is a big part of Goodson's identity.

He tries to share that with his Hawkeye teammates. His nine-part "Dreams 2 Realities" docu-series, released through his YouTube channel, gives the public a glimpse of his personal life and rigorous training routine. When his trainers visit him in Iowa, Goodson invites his teammates out to the sessions to experience the workouts.

He took it a step further with teammate and fellow running back, redshirt freshman LeShon Williams. In episode six, during the Fourth of July break, Goodson invited Williams to stay with him and his family during the week in Atlanta.

There, Williams experienced the Southern-style workouts Goodson and his brother grew up with. One workout was set in the middle of a forest, with the two Hawkeyes running uphill carrying large rocks and pulling ATVs behind them. 

"It's important to learn new things," Goodson said. "I’ve tried my best to take young guys under my wing and teach them how to approach things inside and outside of the building and learning to work at your craft each day."

Goodson's father describes him as a gritty competitor and selfless teammate. He puts as much effort into pushing his teammates as he does himself. And that selflessness extends beyond the football field.

Iowa running back Tyler Goodson (15) is expected to take an even bigger leap entering his junior year after starting for two years on Iowa's offense.

In high school, Goodson volunteered with HappyFeat, an organization that focuses on children with special needs. As a senior, he decided to forgo his spring break vacation to go on a mission trip to Haiti.

When he decided to get baptized, the chapel was standing-room only with community members and the entire North Gwinnett football team in attendance to celebrate the occasion.

Now at Iowa, Goodson still has that same impact on those around him. 

"Tyler is definitely a great teammate," Hawkeye receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said. "He’s someone you want on your team. He’s not someone who’s just going to be there; when he’s there, he’s going to work. He’s going to try to outwork you, which is why I like working with him. He’s going to push you to be a better player and person."

Based on NFL Draft averages over the last five years, Iowa running back Tyler Goodson projects as a second round pick should he enter in 2022.

Living in the moment 

While the rest of the nation catches up, Goodson has had the attention of opposing coaches for a while. 

That includes Indiana coach Tom Allen, who is tasked with game-planning against Goodson in the season-opener on Sept. 4.

"He’s a stud. I’ve watched a lot of film on him," said Allen, considered one of the top defensive minds in college football. "I’ll tell you what: He’s extremely patient as a runner. I love the way he knows how to cut, when to cut. I’ve just been impressed with him. Some guys just know how to be effective and he’s also efficient as a runner."

Today, Goodson is more comfortable than ever with the growing attention and expectations. But he still feels like he has something to prove to the world. 

His team shares that same sentiment.

"Everyone feels we should’ve made the Big Ten championship (game)," Goodson said. "The team goal right now is to come in each and every day and work toward that Big Ten championship and progress ourselves not individually but as a team."

For Goodson, that means stepping his training up another notch. He also has a new mentor: Former NFL Offensive Player of the Year and lightning-fast running back Chris Johnson. The two have built a strong relationship.

This season, when he’ll have the opportunity to start a full 12-game season for the first time, Goodson hopes to show the fleet-footed similarities between them.

"I would say my play style is a slasher," Goodson said. "I can get out the backfield and catch the ball, run between the tackles. I pride myself on pretty much being a complete back. Anything out there to complete on the field, I can do."

In 2008, Iowa great Shonn Greene won the Doak Walker Award, given to the country's best running back. Several months later, he became a third-round NFL Draft pick. 

Could Goodson be next?

He's certainly put in the work.

"I'm really interested to see what he does," Feldman said. "To me, he's one of the best players in the Big Ten and should be one of the best backs in the country." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com