Thug for Christ
Bridgeport Tusler, Bethel’s two-sport bad boy, wants to be known as an athlete for Christ.
By Mathias Durie | Sports Reporter
Bethel University sophomore Bridgeport Tusler drives to the basket, Euro-steps past a defender and lays in the ball with his left hand. With a smile on his face, he jogs back to the other side of the court to help on defense. He hears insults from the bleachers but he has learned to block them out and focus on the game.
“BP for two!” the announcer says.
“Bridge,” as all his teammates and friends call him, is an African-American football and basketball player at Bethel and says he has experienced some unequal treatment in athletics because of race.
“I definitely got the N-word a bunch. There’s times when you’re at the bottom of the pile and they’re like ‘Hey, stay down you N-word’.” — Bridgeport Tusler
In middle school football, the immaturity of other kids gave Tusler some of his first experiences of racism.
“I definitely got the N-word a bunch,” Tusler said. “There’s times when you’re at the bottom of the pile and they’re like ‘Hey, stay down you N-word’.”
Tusler attended Osseo Senior High School, a diverse school where 51 percent of students are minority. Because of this diversity compared to other schools around Osseo, Tusler says he and his teammates had confidence and stuck together.
“I never really felt like a minority,” Tusler said. “When we played other schools, there was a race piece. We definitely tried to keep that as a motivation for us.”
His senior year of high school, Tusler was deciding between two universities: the University of Northern Iowa and South Dakota State University. After switching the week of signing day, Tusler chose SDSU.
“At SDSU there’s a huge [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] Program,” Tusler said. “I’m out in the country. I’m away from all distractions, so there’s time for just me and Christ.”
The SDSU student body consists of 90 percent white kids and 10 percent non-white. Of that 10 percent, 2 percent are African-American and most of them are athletes for the Jackrabbits. Since he played football, Tusler felt secluded from the rest of the school and chose to hang out with other black athletes. As soon as he arrived, Tusler wanted to transfer. He made this decision final after the last spring football practice of the year. He missed basketball and wanted to be able to play both of the sports he loved. With its emphasis on faith and successful football and basketball programs, Bethel was his perfect choice.
Tusler hoped Bethel would be a change in the kind of treatment he received because of his race. He hoped other schools would treat him like any other student-athlete. He hoped he would be respected for who he is.
Tusler sits on the bus ride home from a nine-point win over the University of Northwestern in December 2014. He receives a text from a friend. He opens it to find a screenshot of a message on Yik Yak, the short-lived anonymous social media tool. The message came from a Northwestern fan who attended the game: “Number 50 looks like he has five kids he doesn’t know about.”
“As soon as I read it, I was pretty ticked off,” Tusler said. “I don’t understand the idea of looking at someone and that’s the first thing you think of.”
For motivation, Tusler still looks at this message and other like it. Even today, Tusler says he is treated like a thug.
“I would walk into stores and I’d get that manager leaving his counter to follow me around,” Tusler said, “looking over my shoulder just to see if I’m going to steal anything.”
The football piece of Tusler’s journey at Bethel hasn’t been as smooth as he wished. With only 16 percent of the student body being a non-white — 5 percent African-American –Tusler isn’t the typical Bethel student or even Bethel athlete. He feels like he’s looked at by coaches, fans and some players as the team thug.
“I might be the most thuggish guy on the team but that doesn’t mean I’m a thug,” Tusler said.
He dances and performs complicated handshakes with teammate Charles Johnson, also African-American, after he scores.
For basketball games, he wears socks with the face of 1990s rapper Tupac on them. He wears a white arm sleeve and white shoes to match his all white uniform.
“I want to dance when I score but I don’t think it’s to bring attention on me,” Tusler said. “If we dress a certain way, I don’t think that is trying to draw attention to us.”
That may also be true of his tattoos, which are all “Christ-related.”
“I love Christian hip-hop,” Tusler said.
At Bethel, Tusler says other students are intimidated by him and shy away from talking with him. He can’t help but think it has something to do with how he looks. Football teammate Drew Neuville has become close to Tusler during the two years they’ve played together.
“Bridge is different than a lot of other great athletes,” Neuville said. “He’s physical on the field and court, but outside of that he’s a really friendly guy. … It’s rare to meet a guy who’s such a good athlete, but also devoted to God,” Neuville said.
Tusler says he has learned to embrace his African-American culture and everything that comes with it. The good and the bad. He’s not going to change the way he lives just because the school he goes to has a different view on how their students should carry out their walk of faith.
“My biggest thing is if you don’t know me, get to know me,” Tusler said.