Tevis Bartlett was standing on Vedauwoo Mountain, waiting to start his first Saturday workout with Wyoming’s wrestling team.
Located between Laramie and Cheyenne, the mountain is home to an old ski lift area called Happy Jack. The Cowboys were there to run up 200-yard hills, ones that just kept getting steeper the higher they climbed. That part — a workout similar to the stadium steps at Husky Stadium — was at least partially familiar to Bartlett.
Less familiar was the sight that greeted him when he arrived: Wyoming head coach Mark Branch and his assistant coaches, all waiting for their players on horseback. They were even wearing cowboy hats.
“The first thing I thought of,” Bartlett said, “was there’s no way in heck Coach Pete would ever do something like this.”
It started to sink in at that moment, how different all of this would be. Bartlett, a former linebacker for the Huskies, graduated from UW last season. He spent four years under the same staff, led by head coach Chris Petersen. Since Bartlett played as a true freshman and never used his redshirt year, he left the program with one season of athletic eligibility remaining.
Coming out of high school at Cheyenne East, Bartlett was recruited for both football and wrestling. After he chose football — and the Huskies — he never thought he would end up wrestling competitively again.
But Branch always hoped he would.
“I think me and his dad joked about it over the last several years,” Branch said during a phone conversation this week, “just because he played as a true freshman and we’re like, ‘You know when he’s done if he wants to come back…’ Just kind of had those funny conversations, but the reality was a long-ways off. When it happened, it happened quick.”
‘I’m not worried about it’
Bartlett went undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft and didn’t land on a roster after being invited to rookie minicamp with the New York Giants and Tennessee Titans.
He spent the summer back home in Cheyenne, training and helping his former high school football team. In July, he ran into Branch at the state baseball tournament. And after they spent some time catching up, Branch texted Bartlett and told him to stop by Wyoming if he ever felt like returning to the mat.
Branch didn’t think of that text message again until a week before school started. He realized the Cowboys were a little thin at heavyweight, so he reached out to Bartlett a second time to ask if he ever thought about a master’s degree.
Bartlett had been considering just that. He’d planned on an eventual career in education and coaching and had started looking into graduate programs he could complete online. Bartlett even reached out to the academic staff at Wyoming but wasn’t making much progress.
Branch didn’t need to hear anymore. He took over from there, and it wasn’t long before Bartlett was enrolled in Wyoming’s education curriculum and instruction graduate program. He was also added to the wrestling roster.
“It’s been kind of fun, just the differences,” Bartlett said during a phone interview on Thursday. “Not so much the schools but the sports. That’s been the fun thing to me. We had a lot of success at my time at Washington, and (Wyoming) is a program that’s had a lot of success, too. it’s been cool to see, with the different sport, what it takes to get to that point with those two programs.”
Bartlett was a four-time all-state wrestler in high school, winning the 4A state title in the 195-pound classification as a senior. He’s one of 18 wrestlers in Wyoming history to win four state titles. But he was also considered the No. 1 football player in Wyoming in his class and was a first-team 4A all-state selection at both quarterback and defensive back.
He went on to have a successful career with the Huskies, starting as a junior and a senior. He played in 52 games over his four years, finishing with 158 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, nine sacks and two interceptions.
Throughout the recruiting process, Branch knew football was Bartlett’s priority. He was a little surprised, though, that Bartlett selected a school where he couldn’t participate in both sports.
But Branch didn’t give up hope. Long before Bartlett took him up on the offer, Branch was thinking about adding him to Wyoming’s roster. As Bartlett was preparing for his final season at UW, he got a text message from Branch asking about his plans after graduation. Bartlett told him he was hoping to make an NFL roster.
“And he goes, ‘If that doesn’t work out, we’ll have a spot for you,’” Bartlett said, chuckling at the memory. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, funny. Good one.’”
Branch wasn’t kidding, but Bartlett thought he had to be. At that point, he hadn’t wrestled in four years. He helped coach junior high wrestling near Seattle and trained local wrestlers for tournaments in Wyoming, but he wasn’t participating in serious matches. He wasn’t even getting real practice.
“Are you sure?” Bartlett asked when Branch’s offer came around again this year.
“Yeah,” Branch said. “I’m not worried about it.”
‘A different environment than football’
Branch was right. Bartlett started wrestling when he was 5 years old and didn’t stop until he graduated high school. Turns out, it’s not easy to get rid of 13 years of muscle memory. There’s been some rust, skills that needed added or tweaked. But more than anything else, Bartlett is just working to get back in wrestling shape.
Which brings us back to Vedauwoo Mountain.
Bartlett didn’t have much trouble that day. While everybody was making their way down, Bartlett had a couple of minutes to take a breather. That’s all he needed. During a football game, Bartlett got that rest on the sideline.
“In a wrestling match, you don’t have timeouts, you don’t have breaks,” Branch said. “It’s pretty much seven minutes and it’s full body. … All your muscles are working together. It is actually really hard to try to recover and breathe while you’re in the middle of a fight.”
Bartlett knew that coming in, and he said he’s made noticeable progress over the past month. While he’s still getting back into the wrestling routine, his time playing college football has given him a unique perspective. It’s most noticeable in the way he leads.
Branch is sure Bartlett felt out of place when he first joined the program. But as Bartlett started to get comfortable, Branch took notice of the way he interacted with his teammates.
“He’s spoken up and been really supportive when guys are maybe struggling with something,” Bartlett said. “He’s running out to them and in their ear and telling them to keep it up, you can do it. It’s pretty cool to see that. We don’t have enough of that.
“Wrestling and football are different sports. With wrestling really largely being considered an individual sport, you don’t see a lot of supportive chatter. It’s kind of like, worry about yourself. I think he brings the team aspect. I’m sure it’s such a different environment than football. You can see he feels comfortable with his teammates, supporting them. That’s something you don’t get enough of.”
Bartlett gives the Huskies’ coaching staff much of the credit. The lessons he learned at UW — even one as simple as keeping the locker room clean — are now being passed on to a young Cowboys’ team that includes 11 true freshmen.
“(UW’s coaches) had such an impact on my life in general,” Bartlett said. “There were so many times when I was helping to coach high school football, whatever it is, and I’m like, ‘You could never do that at Washington’ and by that I mean like, I would never do that now. There’s a lot of things that I’m like, that’s not right.”
‘It just leaves such a mark’
The son of two educators, Bartlett has long understood the importance of academics. At UW, he earned his undergraduate degree in education, communities and organizations and was a two-time Academic All-Pac-12 first-team selection. Eventually, he wants to be an athletic director and a coach.
But Bartlett’s agent is still inquiring with NFL teams. Bartlett could get a call next week or never, and there’s no way for him to know.
It can be a frustrating process, especially since Bartlett felt good about his pro day performance at UW. After a Tennessee Titans coach put Bartlett and former Husky linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven through drills, he told Bartlett he knew he could play. But while Burr-Kirven was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, Bartlett was never signed. He’s gotten good feedback, but every workout has ended with a plane ticket back home.
“It’s a fickle business,” Bartlett said. “It is a business. It’s just part of it. I saw so many guys that have been out of college for a year, a year and a half, two years that were at those minicamps and I saw probably three or four of them get signed just because they knew what they were doing. They were seasoned.”
If a similar opportunity comes around for Bartlett, he’ll take it. If it doesn’t? Well, that’s why he has contingency plans. If football never pans out, he’d be interested in becoming a graduate assistant while working on another degree.
But right now, for just one more season, he’s a wrestler again.
“People that go through wrestling, it just leaves such a mark on you that it’s hard to turn your back on it completely,” Bartlett said. “Even if I was like, that was the hardest thing I never want to step foot on another mat, it means something different to you if you’ve done it.”