Tanner Varner is right where he wants be.
The Ottumwa native and former high school football standout has signed a deal with the Jacksonville Sharks and will report to football camp March 23.
Varner, who has bounced around from team to team since he started his arena football career with the Arkansas Twisters back in 2007, is happy his nomadic career has parked him in the Sunshine State.
“I have always been a fan of Florida,” he said. “That was where I wanted to relocate.”
In fact, Florida — unlike other landmarks he’s inhabited over the years — is where Varner wants to permanently put down roots and settle in for the long haul.
“I’m just a warm-weather guy,” he said, “I love the beaches; I love being on the water.”
If he follows through on his plan, it will mark the end of a football-induced journey that has exposed him to a large chunk of the American landscape. The defensive back has been the football equivalent of a gypsy; wherever he leaves his helmet is his home. And, at least for a time, Varner was OK with this style of living.
“It was nice to travel the country like that and not have to worry about bills because they [teams] relocate you,” Varner said.
But, with his greenhorn years past him, the veteran defensive back has begun to plan for a life after football. When he finally decides to make his exit, he plans to trade in his football jersey for a police uniform. Varner said becoming a cop wasn’t so much a lifelong dream as it was an initial idea that gradually matured into a concrete plan.
“I’ve had a lot of friends transition from football to police officer,” he said. “It’s a way to stay active in the community.”
To prepare for a future job on the police force, Varner recently spent a couple of weeks working as a corrections officer for the Wapello Sheriff’s Department. Varner said he did everything from booking in people who just got arrested to transporting prisoners around the state to court and doctor’s visits, to taking care of them and watching over them inside their cells.
“If you treat everyone with respect you will get it right back,” he said.
In his first season with the Twisters in the AFL2 league, a feeder league to the AFL; Varner wasted no time making his mark in the arena football world. Not satisfied with quietly earning his chops in this new football environment, with its criminalization of punts and blitzes and 50-yard field, Varner hurled himself into the action at full force. He led the AFL2 with 29 pass breakups and was named the defensive player of the game on three different occasions. Varner also was a card-carrying member of the defensive unit nicknamed the “Land Sharks,” because of the way the squad got to the ball in the offensive-oriented league. The Twisters ended up finishing 12-4; which was the most wins in the program’s history at that point.
In 2008 Varner returned to Iowa to join the then-AFL2 Iowa Barnstormers. He led the Barnstormers — an ode to those risk-taking, fear-defying airplane pilots of a time long past — in tackles in 2008 and 2009. And in 2010, a year when the Barnstormers were promoted back to the AFL, Varner was simply brilliant, setting an all-time AFL rookie record with 129.5 tackles. He also had eight interceptions — the fourth best in the league — and scored two defensive touchdowns. These bona fide credentials got him named the Barnstormer’s Defensive MVP and earned him a spot on the First-Team All Arena team. In 2011 he took his skills to the Philadelphia Soul and he played for the San Jose SaberCats in 2012.
Despite the constant movement, Varner’s approach to the game hasn’t changed.
“It’s the same concept of playing football,” he said. “As a defender you are going to keep guys from not catching the ball.”
And judging by his numerous accomplishments, Varner’s approach has suited him quiet well.
Before his AFL playing days, Varner had a hugely successful college career at Northern Iowa, where he was named to the first-team Division 1-AA All-American squad. As a senior, he compiled 85.5 tackles, three interceptions and earned team Defensive MVP honors. Varner’s play helped the Panthers reach the I-AA championship game. But before he donned a UNI helmet, Varner played a couple of years for Ellsworth Community College, where he was named the IKON Defensive Player of the Game in the 2003 Graphic Edge Bowl; the National Junior Athletic Association Championship game. While at Ellsworth, Varner was a two-sport athlete, as he also played center field for the Panthers baseball team. He said he enjoyed running down fly balls in the outfield.
During his time at Ottumwa, Varner was a busy guy, playing not three, but four sports: football, track, baseball and basketball. In his senior football season, he ranked second in state in punt-return average and the Bulldogs advanced to the second round of the state tournament. He also won the Ottumwa A-Club’s “Outstanding Athlete” award.