October 30, 2002

They’re down 13-10 with less than 3 minutes left in the game. Coach has called a time out and they’re all in a huddle, listening as he calls out the next play. It’s one they’ve practiced probably a thousand times before so it should be a piece of cake. The crowd at the game is deafening from both sides of the field and Tyler can barely hear his own thoughts, let alone the coach’s. But he knows what he needs to do - get the ball downfield and hopefully a touchdown.

No pressure or anything, he thinks as he pulls his helmet over his head and jogs out onto the field with his teammates. They line up in formation and his heart is pounding in his ears as he calls for the ball. It’s snapped back into his hands almost automatically and he sees everyone around him start to scramble, some down the field in the direction of the goal line and others trying to protect him in the pocket to give him enough time to throw the ball. Tyler moves a few steps to his leg as the offensive line tries to hold off the opposing team and he looks around for someone to get open. Seconds are counting down off the clock and he knows he has to get rid of the ball. What he doesn’t see is one of the other player’s getting loose from Tyler’s teammate and barreling towards him.

There’s not enough time for him to scramble out of the way or even brace himself because a split second later, Tyler is slammed into the ground by someone who has to be at least 300 pounds. His head hits the ground with a sickening thud even though he’s wearing a helmet and he swears he sees little cartoon birds flying around above him. Then players from both sides are landing on top of him in a scramble for the ball as he tries to keep his fingers wrapped around it. Someone tugs at his face mask and then there’s a jab from a knee or foot in-between the pads around his ribs. He can’t breathe under the weight of the other guys and the smell of wet grass and sweat. His head is ringing and he can’t really feel anything else.

Just when Tyler thinks he might die of suffocation by high school football players and the panic starts to set in; the weight lessons and he can actually see a couple of stars in the night sky as the other boys are pulled off of him or stand up on their own. He gives a curse from his spot on the ground when one of the other players stomps on his leg, just out of sight of the referees. Tyler glares at the other boy as his own teammates help pull him to his feet and help him over to their bench. One of the coaches starts peppering him with questions as he’s looked over and while Tyler’s head isn’t ringing as badly as it was, he still thinks he might have a concussion.

But he gets sent back to the middle of the field and huddle a few moments later, hiding a limp and pretending his head doesn’t hurt.

The play has changed this time and his head does start to feel clearer as he lines up behind the center. The ball is snapped a little too high but he catches it, tucks it in against him and takes off for the right side of the field. His gait is off and he feels a twinge in his leg that he pushes to ignore, blaming it on cramping up in the humid night air. He can hear footsteps pounding the ground behind him and figures with his luck that it’s probably the goon that got him in the last play. He gets away from one tackle, scrambles past another player and can see the clock counting down out of the corner of his eye.

But just when Tyler thinks he might be home free, another player dives at him and catches him around the waist. They fall to the ground hard in a tangle of arms and legs, and he feels and hears the snap as they come to a stop flat on the field. He tries to keep his fingers around the ball but it pops out at about the same time and Tyler can only lay there as the other team pounces on it.

He’s not sure how long he’s there before he’s helped up but he can’t put weight on his left leg and has to practically be carried to the sideline. From there, he’s taken to the locker room where he’s checked over again and his leg is stabilized. They lose the game 13-10 and his parents drive him to local hospital to see how much damage has been done and all Tyler can see is any college football scholarship waving in the rearview mirror.

Four hours and a bunch of pain medication later, Tyler’s diagnosed with a mild concussion and has torn both his ACL and MCL in his knee. Surgery wouldn’t be happening for a couple of days due to the swelling and he’s sent home with instructions to rest, along with an uncomfortable brace wrapped around his knee. His parents help him get settled at home and just when he’s starting to doze off, he hears a knock at his door. His sister pokes her head in, gives him a bright grin and enters the room holding her hands behind her back. He’s a little loopy and drowsy but laughs when she brings her hands out, holding a cupcake with one lone candle in it. 

“It’s after midnight,” Christina says with a shrug of her shoulders. She holds the cupcake out, grinning as he leans forward to blow out the candle.

He’d almost forgotten with all the craziness of the night. He closed his eyes and blows out the candle. Christina sits on the edge of his bed, careful of the stupid brace on his leg and holds out a paper plate and two forks. She smiles as he spears part of the cupcake on his fork and says, “Happy Birthday Ty.”

He can’t help but laugh as he enjoys his half of the cupcake. What a hell of a start to his 18th birthday.