As he did his job nightly in high school football, with energy and often a big grin, Tanner Bivins racked up an eye-catching statistic, particularly for a 300-pound lineman.
The two-way standout played an injury-free 4,705 varsity snaps the past three seasons, including 3,575 during the 2019 and 2020 seasons as he helped Wesleyan to Class A Private runner-up and Final Four appearances, respectively.
“That is quite a bit,” Bivins said when he was informed of the number. “I didn’t really think anything of it my sophomore year. I never really have. I’ve always wanted to play. I love playing both ways and being out there the whole time is just something I like to do. Obviously, I’m not able to do that in college, but it’s something I love in high school and it benefited my team.”
The future Army Black Knights lineman played at a high level on both sides of the ball as a senior, paving the way for Wesleyan’s offense and amassing 92 tackles (62 solos, 23 for losses) and seven sacks on defense. Bivins, also one of the state’s top wrestlers in the 285-pound weight class, was selected as the Player of the Year in Region 5-A Private in 2020.
He is a mix of a power and agility, a guy who mixes it up in the trenches and does handstands in pre-game warmups. The team captain is well known around campus at Wesleyan, a school he has attended since kindergarten, and maintains a 3.8 GPA.
“Tanner’s got a lineman’s body and he’s got the heart of a wide receiver,” Wesleyan head football coach Franklin Pridgen said. “He loves to play in space and he’s really good at it. He’s deceptively fast and quick and he’s got great footwork, all of which translates onto the wrestling mat. He’s got a real competitive streak. When he puts his mind to something, there’s no stopping him until he gets what he wants. That translates into a lot of success. He’s a 290-pound kid who plays like he’s 190. That’s how nimble and agile he is.
“It’s worth mentioning and more impressive than the way he moves is he play 125 snaps a game. I’d challenge any team in Gwinnett or Georgia to have someone his size who plays 125 snaps a game, starts on offense and defense, never comes out of the game. His motor is one of the things that makes him so special. And he’s got a personality to match. He is full speed all the time.”
Bivins’ personality matches his surprising size.
“My dad was not a football player, he did run marathons,” the 6-foot-2 Bivins said. “My parents are both really small. I swear I’m not their child. My mom was really good at basketball. She held lot of records at Tucker. And my mom was a really good marathon runner. She did the Boston Marathon. She’s a big runner. They’re both small. No one’s near 200 pounds. … My mom’s 5-8 and my dad’s 5-11. They’re both really thin. So, me makes no sense at all.”
Pridgen is used to humorous comments like those from Bivins.
“Tanner is a showman,” Pridgen said. “Tanner’s favorite mouthpiece is shaped like a baby pacifier. Tanner shows up at practice under his practice jersey and shoulder pads he’s got a bright orange T-shirt. He’s got a camouflaged hoodie. Tanner has his own sense of style. Right now because of COVID, we’ve relaxed our grooming standards around here and he’s let his hair grow out a little bit. His favorite headband is covered in doughnuts. … He is No. 50 for us, that’s his jersey number. But he won’t wear No. 50 in practice. He wears No. 4. That’s all you need to know about his personality. But when I need him to bear down and be serious, he is ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’ And when I need a smile on my face, he’s there to do that, too.”
Don’t forget the pink, bedazzled unicorn backpack that Bivins carries to every road game. Some of his gear was given to him by friends. Other things he wears for luck.
“I still have that baseball superstition,” he said.
Baseball and football were his main two sports throughout childhood, and he mixed in a little basketball — “I was not really good at that. I was good at fouling,” he joked. He didn’t truly enjoy football until he got older and he parted ways with baseball in middle school, though he found a replacement sport that suited him well at the high school level.
“From the moment I met Tanner as a freshman, I knew that he could be a special wrestler,” Wesleyan head wrestling coach Brian St. James said. “He is a natural athlete. It took him a year or so to grow into his size as a heavyweight wrestler, but I was amazed when he finished as state runner-up his sophomore year (2019). Not only is he physically massive and strong, he is very quick on his feet and a smart wrestler. Playing just about every snap in football has him in great shape by the time he hits the mats. He is one of the most naturally gifted and quick learning wrestlers that I have known.”
Bivins was on the lighter end of the 285-pound class as a freshman at around 230, but he has hovered just below the 285 limit during his successful run the past three seasons. After his state runner-up finish as a sophomore, he won the Gwinnett County title last season and again finished second at the state meet.
“I wouldn’t consider myself great at (wrestling),” Bivins said. “I don’t know a lot of moves. But I win a lot of matches.”
Wesleyan’s football success prevents him from joining the wrestling team until later in the season, but the number of snaps he gets in football helps the transition.
“(Football) helps. The first match for me in wrestling is always the hardest one conditioning-wise because football conditioning and wrestling conditioning are completely different in my opinion,” Bivins said. “One is more intense than the other. … I’m more winded after one wrestling match than I feel after playing 150 snaps in football.”
The football-to-wrestling transition, in a limited sample, has gone well this season, too. He joined the wrestling team particularly late this year because of the COVID-19 impacted football schedule and the Wolves’ deep playoff run, which didn’t ended until Dec. 18 in the state semifinals.
He is 6-0 with titles in both of his tournaments, the Gwinnett County Championships and the Archer Invitational. He hopes a bigger title awaits later in the season.
“State (title) is the goal,” he said. “I think I can win unless something dramatic happens.”
His coach agreed.
“So far, no one has been very close (to Bivins this season),” St. James said. “He has dominated all competition and won his second straight Gwinnett County title. I feel very good about Tanner’s chances going forward. He came extremely close as a sophomore, was a runner-up again as a junior, and is working toward finally reaching that goal as a senior.”