BEISNER'S CORNER || The athlete who has inspired me the most

02/15/2017 01:17 AM

One of the really cool things about this job is that when people find out what I do, they’re curious. When I was in my previous career, no one found out what I did and said “Wow, tell me more about those Kodak scanners.” It just doesn’t work that way. This job makes people ask questions and when you meet someone who isn’t a sports fan, they often ask why I love sports so much.

That’s a difficult question to answer really because I think our love for sports comes in phases. When we’re young it’s fun. It’s competitive. You get a little attention from the girls. As you get older, that shifts into it being a social thing or an identity or, as it is for me now, a love of watching kids grow. That’s my favorite part of covering Kentucky and that’s one of my favorite parts of being a parent. I love watching the evolution of young people that comes from playing organized sports.

In our house, my wife and I try to preach a very simple message to our kids. In life, you should be passionate and compassionate. Always show love and empathy to others and pursue everything you do with nothing less than passionate effort and commitment. And once you do those things, don’t fear anything that gets in your way.

For my oldest son, Tyler, his passion is football and it really started to take shape as he finished up eighth grade.

Tyler wanted to get his high school football career started on the right foot, so the summer before his freshman year, he asked me if he could go to UK’s football camp.

I’m not saying no to that.

A few weeks later, I drove my 14-year old son, fresh out of middle school, to the University of Kentucky for a three-day overnight camp. We were taping our show on campus that day at the football facility, so Tyler had to hang out for a bit while we got everything done. Vince Marrow came over to say hello and I remember telling him that if Tyler didn’t earn a scholarship by the last day, he was walking back to Louisville. We had a good laugh and teased the poor kid for a bit and then got back to taping the show.

When we wrapped up, Tyler was nowhere to be found. I called him in a panic, worried that my son had wandered off into some part of the practice facility and I was only minutes away from a red-faced Mark Stoops dishing out one of those famous tongue lashings.

“Where are you?”

“I’m good. I’m in the dorm.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I saw one of the coaches driving around on a golf cart and asked him to drive me over here. I’m good. I’ll see you on Friday.”

The kid feared nothing. His dad? Different story. But the kid feared nothing.

After a nervous couple of days, I showed up to the camp on Friday about an hour before it ended, hoping to get a glimpse behind the curtain a bit. Camp was wrapping up with a 7-on-7 tournament and most of the kids were sitting around watching one final game. I looked around for my son and couldn’t find him, which wasn’t much of a surprise because he was the smallest kid there. I figured he was just lost in the mix of bigger kids and I would eventually find him, so I started watching the game.

And then I saw it.

Tiny little Tyler was playing in the championship game of the 7-on-7 tournament.

And he was making plays.

I don’t really remember much of what happened from then until the final pep talk and whistle from Mark Stoops because it didn’t seem real. It was all so strange…and it got even stranger. When Tyler finally came over and we started getting his stuff together, I looked up and Mark Stoops was flagging me down.

“Is this your son?”

“Umm, yes?”

“He’s good.”

“Huh?”

“He’s good. He’s really talented.”

OH MY GOSH WHAT IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?

A few weeks later, Tyler went to Western Kentucky’s camp and it was the same thing. Jeff Brohm came over to say hello and congratulated Tyler on a great camp. He asked him what he thought of competing against older kids.

He responded just as any 14-year old would. “Umm, it was hard. And it was really hot. I can’t wait to get home,” he said. I still make fun of him for that.

A few weeks later, he started high school and had a chance to be part of a North Oldham team that advanced farther than any team in school history. The team made the final four of the playoffs and lost on a Hail Mary to Owensboro as time expired. One play away from the state championship game. Or, more accurately, six seconds away from the state championship game. There were a lot of tears shed that night, but the light at the end of the tunnel was there. Tyler still had three more years to play the game he loved.

But that’s when things started to change.

Tyler had always carried an inhaler because he had asthma, but toward the end of his freshman year, it got different for him. He would come home and tell us that he was having trouble breathing at football and, being the wonderful father that I am, I’d tell him that breathing hard was part of conditioning. Suck it up, kid.

The long season left a shorter off-season and as sicknesses came and went, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. It was a sinus infection here and a bad cough there, but no alarms were going off because sometimes kids just get sick.

But then off-season football started up and things got a lot worse.

That’s when we had the first trip to the emergency room for what we all thought was an asthma attack. Ok, kid, use your inhaler. Be smart.

Then two days later, another trip to the ER. Ok, kid, we’re going to give you some medicine and give you a different inhaler. Be smart.

Over the course of the next several months, we saw countless doctors and seemed to receive the same diagnosis every time.

“That medicine you were on wasn’t right. Use this one.”

But it never got better. In fact, it was getting worse.

We would see one doctor, who would recommend we see another doctor to have a potential disease or issue checked out. When we would go see the other doctor, he or she would say something about how rare this condition is and that there’s no way Tyler had it. There was always some slight variation of how the doctor would follow-up, but there was always something like “I’ve never seen this” or “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this”. Every. Single. Time.

Football was basically an afterthought at this point. Tyler was on the team and participated the best he could, which most of the time meant he was sitting out entirely, and was left in this weird limbo of essentially being sick and unable to breath normally for six straight months. There were scopes and surgeries and more prescriptions than I could even begin to count. At one point, he was on 9 pills, 3 inhalers and had to carry a breathing machine around school.

He also had to have an EpiPen on him at all times. I almost forgot about that.

We all knew where this was headed, but were waiting to hear it officially. In November of 2015, we heard it.

“Tyler, you can’t play football anymore. It’s not safe.”

Everyone parents their children differently. We all have different rules and expectations and, in a lot of ways, define what parenting is in very different ways. But we all want our kids to do what they love and experience the joy that comes with pursuing your passion. That day, I saw one of my son’s passions ripped out from under him. We knew it was headed this way, but there’s no way to properly prepare for that moment. I could see the pain in his eyes and I could feel it in my heart. Football wasn’t going to be his life, but on that day, it was his love. And she left him.

Tyler told his coaches, which was hard. He told his friends, which was harder. We went to the football banquet and he told the parents and the girlfriends and the little brothers and every other person who came up and said “I heard you can’t play football anymore”. It was difficult for him, but he made his peace. The good news was that everything seemed to be looking up and giving up football was going to help him finally get a little better.

Or so we thought.

A month later, Tyler was still going through a lot of the same trouble breathing. He had deep pains in his chest and horrible coughs and kept feeling like he was going to pass out. So we started the cycle again. A doctor who recommended another doctor…who recommended another doctor…who recommended another doctor….and so on.

The week of Christmas, we hit a low. Tyler was so sick and pale and short of breath that we rushed him to the emergency room. He was admitted into the children’s hospital and we were told they’d need to keep him there for up to a week to administer medicine and monitor him.

That was, without a doubt, the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. The thoughts that run through your head when your child is sick always start with “Why can’t it be me?” and then evolve into asking yourself what you’ve done wrong. You second-guess every single parenting decision you’ve ever made and try to figure out how you can hide the fear inside enough to show strength to your wife and kids. I’ll never forget my youngest son asking me one night, while we were at home and my wife was staying at the hospital with Tyler, “Daddy, will Santa bring presents to Ty at the hospital?” That hurt.

After being released from the hospital and meeting with the doctor, we were told there was only one thing that was going to help our son’s lungs, which were now functioning at 20%, as well as the handful of other issues going on. He needed to move to Florida and it needed to happen in the next four weeks. We called my dad, who lives in Tampa, and started to try to sort out a plan. I had an awkward conversation with my boss about what was going on and that new contract I had just signed. We started talking about putting the house up for sale and whether I should stay back and work in Louisville and fly down to Florida to see the family on weekends. It was pure panic and confusion.

Then the doctor called a few days later and said that there was a hospital in Colorado that specializes in pediatric lung and heart issues that would like Tyler to come stay for six months so they could study him. So we had all those same conversations again…but about Denver. The panic and confusion remained.

Mostly, though, we prayed. We prayed and we prayed and we prayed. And then we prayed some more.

And that’s when we were recommended to one final doctor. I’ll never forget when he looked at me and said “I can handle this.” I looked right back at him and smiled and told him I’d heard that before. Then I pointed to a poster on the wall that had about 20 different types of medicine. I told him Tyler had been on every single one of those at some point in the last year, in addition to countless others, and none of them had worked. He never wavered. He told me he had a plan.

Tyler began an aggressive medicine treatment that required him to get shots every two weeks, in addition to a couple of other medicines, and he very slowly started to feel better. We decided to let him finish out the school year before making a decision on Florida and he seemed to be getting some relief. Then something incredible happened.

One morning in May, the doctor asked him the standard questions about his breathing and his lungs and his chest pains and Tyler said he was feeling a little better. And the doctor asked him a simple question.

“What’s been the hardest part of this?”

“Giving up football,” Tyler replied.

“What if I told you that you’re ok to do some light football stuff, just to see how you do?”

Suddenly, it was back. And Tyler’s face lit up.

We had a long talk about how there were no guarantees and that, throughout this process, his health was the priority. Under no circumstances was football going to take priority over getting better. That seems like a fairly simple thing to grasp, but for a teenager who has a chance to get back on the team and has been told to pursue everything with relentless passion, my wife and I had some major concerns.

Tyler started some light working out at the YMCA and, when summer workouts started for football, I met with the coach to make sure he was comfortable with Tyler doing some things to see how it worked. He said it had his full support and he would monitor the situation personally. So, with a coach holding an inhaler, a manager holding an EpiPen and a breathing machine on the sideline, Tyler resumed some light football workouts.

At first, it was barely more than what he was able to do before he had to quit. He was barely participating, so Tyler set a modest goal for his junior season. He just wanted to get on the field at least once for the varsity team.

When the season opened, he was the starting running back. And in the first quarter, he had a 40-yard reception. The team videographer was so excited and screaming so loudly, the coaches showed him before the next game how to turn off the microphone on the camera. I’m still not sorry for yelling.

I’ll never forget that moment, looking down from the crow’s nest where I was filming, and seeing the joy in my wife’s eyes. I’ll never forget seeing my son come over to the sideline when the drive ended, taking off his helmet and flashing me that smile.

That is what I love about sports. The joy, the passion, the realization that you can do things that may not have seemed possible just a short time ago. And it didn’t take being around John Calipari or Karl Towns or Boom Williams to feel that. The athlete who has inspired me and changed my view on the world is the one in the bedroom down the hall.

Tyler is still on the same treatment program and he still has issues from time to time, but the routine is no longer painful or stressful. It’s just part of the story. Those appointments for his shots no longer represent what he can’t do. They’re just a free morning for me and him to sit around and watch Netflix together until the doctor tells us we’re allowed to leave. We look forward to those mornings.

I remember asking him once if he was ever scared during this whole ordeal. He paused and said, “Not really. I was just scared that my coaches and teammates would look at me differently, like I was weak. And I didn’t want that. I just want them to see me.”

And that brings us to yesterday, when he called me to tell me he got a letter at school. It was from the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl combine. He was invited to participate in one of the combine for high school players in April. What does that mean? I don’t know. I guess it’s a chance for kids to get in front of college coaches in hopes of getting a scholarship.

That doesn’t really matter much to Tyler because his college interest is in being a doctor, not a football player, but I can promise you one thing. We are going. We are going to be on the field at Paul Brown Stadium in two months soaking in every second of that combine and celebrating the journey that led to that moment. And we’re going to celebrate every game of his senior year like it’s the Super Bowl. Because this is a story that wasn’t supposed to have this ending and he’s a kid who I admire with all of my heart. If he wasn’t my son, I’d be his fan. Instead, I get to have him as my best friend.

So, when people ask my why I love sports, I guess the answer is that they can give us inspiration. They can teach us lessons in discipline and respect and teamwork and faith. They can bring out the best in us and challenge the very things that we think are impossible. And, sometimes, they can be so special that a child can teach his dad that those things he’s been saying for years are more powerful than he ever knew.

Thomas Beisner

TJ is an Anchor for Spectrum News. You can catch his work on KSTV, the only nightly show in the state focusing on UK Sports. When it comes to UK Basketball, TJ covers recruiting, the NCAA tournament and everything in between. During March TJ probably sees the players more than he sees his family but he’s able to provide Spectrum News viewers the unique insight that only a lifelong fan can give. He’s also taken on several special programs including “Wildcat Forever: The John Stewart Story.” KSTV airs weeknights at 7:30 and 11pm on Spectrum News. You can also catch podcasts of the show as well as bonus podcasts, just find KSTV on Itunes. For the latest on everything going on with UK Athletics, recruiting or if you just need some hilarious parenting anecdotes follow TJ on Twitter @tjbeisner.

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