Every step of the way, through spring practices, two-a-days and scrimmages, Jeff Tiffner made sure his new Wittenberg football teammates realized how much playing football meant to him.
On Sept. 5, in the locker room as Wittenberg prepared for its season opener at Capital, Tiffner repeated what he had been telling them all along.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do this,” Tiffner said.
There are many great things about NCAA Division III football. It’s unlikely a guy about to turn 23 — someone who hasn’t played football since his senior season at Kenton Ridge High School in 2010, someone who has a full-time job as a barber, someone whose only connection to college football was a dream to play it — would ever get a chance at Ohio State or even a scholarship program at a lower level.
It’s never too late to play for the Tigers, however. South graduate Jonathan Daniels returned to the program in 2010 six years after leaving to join the National Guard. Tecumseh grad Dustin Holmes picked up his college career in 2014 after leaving the program after his freshman season in 2010.
“We don’t have limitations in how many guys we have on the roster,” Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham said. “He’s not taking up a scholarship spot. You bring them out. You let them run around. Sometimes you find something. More often than not, you don’t.”
Wittenberg found an immediate contributor in Tiffner, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound freshman wide receiver. He returned a kickoff 42 yards to start the third quarter against Capital. The Tigers led 14-6 at that point. They scored in five plays after Tiffner’s return, needing to go only 45 yards. Ten minutes into the third quarter, they led 35-6.
“He was kind of the spark in the third quarter,” Fincham said.
Tiffner’s journey back to football began last December. He talked to Rob Linkhart, an assistant principal at Kenton Ridge and a former Wittenberg assistant coach, about playing again. Linkhart talked to him about Wittenberg. Then Tiffner asked his stepdad, Kenton Ridge football coach Joel Marratta, to contact Fincham.
Two days later, Tiffner visited Wittenberg. He first planned to start school this fall, but Fincham recommended he start in January so he could participate in offseason weightlifting and spring practices.
That’s how Tiffner found himself in classes last winter for the first time since graduating from Kenton Ridge in 2011.
“It was definitely an adjustment,” Tiffner said. “I was never one to put 100-percent effort into my school when I was in high school and middle school. In college, you have no choice. You have to do that.”
Tiffner visited a couple of colleges when he was a high school student but never seriously considered college. He was working at Penn Station in Springfield in 2011 when his barber, Mike Estep, suggested he go to barber school.
Later that year, Tiffner started commuting six days a week to the Ohio State College of Barber Styling in Columbus. He worked and studied sometimes as much as 50 hours a week to complete the 1,800-hour program in a year.
Tiffner got a job at Nice Cuts on Mitchell Boulevard in Springfield and still works there as he plays football and attends classes. He cuts hair three times a week during the season and estimates he has cut the hair of half of his teammates.
“I’ve got too many bills to pay to not be cutting hair,” Tiffner said. “I definitely have to pay my way through school.”
Tiffner’s teammates appreciate his skill. One saw Tiffner being interviewed Wednesday outside the HPER Center and told him to make sure he plugs the barbershop. He then pronounced himself a satisfied customer.
Tiffner’s teammates nicknamed him “Butcher.” He appreciates the business, the side benefit being he’s gotten to know his teammates better.
Tiffner had already earned their respect in the weight room. He started lifting with the team soon after enrolling in school. He kept in good shape, so it wasn’t a hard adjustment.
“I worked out all the time,” Tiffner said. “I never really ran that much when I was not in school. Playing college football was always a dream of mine. I tried to stay in the best shape I could. When I started in January, that’s when I got introduced to college football and saw how real it was and what it took to get in the best shape you need to be in.”
Tiffner plans to play for four seasons, meaning he would be 26 by the end of his career. From what he has accomplished so far, it would be unwise to doubt him in his pursuit of that goal.
“Don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something,” Tiffner wrote on Instagram last weekend. “You got a dream, you gotta protect it. … You want something, go get it. Period.”