It’s rare that I write about our opponents, but in the case of Friday night’s football game against Independence, I must make an exception.
I highlighted earlier this year my connection to now Independence head coach Tyler Schilhabel, a young man who I was initially introduced to through triumph, which quickly turned to tragedy. Now he’s in the midst of penning one of the greatest comeback stories in history.
Eight years ago, he started his first game as quarterback at Independence. We carried that game on local radio and he was masterful. His arm, his mobility, his leadership of the Falcons led them to a season-opening victory. He talked about the win on the postgame show and you couldn’t help but be impressed with the kid. Forty-eight hours later the news hit that he crashed an ATV on the Central Coast and would be a paraplegic after suffering a spinal cord injury.
Through the coaching staff and the family, I followed his turmoil closely. He granted his first media interview to me from his hospital bed. It was the first time his team had heard him speak. Their coach let me know he set a radio up in the locker room so they could listen after practice. It was one of the few times I choked up on the air. In some moments I just can’t find the words.
With the exception of his legs, Schilhabel recovered. He went on to finish high school and then college. We would stay in touch through text messages, phone calls and the occasional visit. He admitted he went through a few dark times as you would expect anyone who has been through that sort of trauma to experience. I remember when he told me he was going to be a football coach. The light in his eyes was back, the confidence I saw eight years ago as a quarterback that could accomplish anything had returned.
After spending time with a few programs, he was in search of one that fit him, one that saw him as a coach and a leader, not one that was taking pity on a kid in a wheelchair. Schilhabel is not the sort of young man who is keen on taking advantage of something simply because of his circumstance. Although, on the lighter side, his Twitter page profile once stated, “I’m just in it for the parking.” I guess there has to be some humor in a journey like his.
He landed at the University of Utah as an assistant coach. There he also earned his teaching credential and for a few years was part of the Utes program, not as the kid in the wheelchair but as an integral member of the staff. I’m sure they were sad to see him go when his alma mater called him late last spring about returning to Bakersfield to coach the Falcons.
He’s back on his home campus. He’s teaching four classes a day plus another with his football team. He admits that it’s a ton of work as a teacher, combined with the responsibility of being the head football coach. For Schilhabel those things are a little tougher given his spinal condition that makes him fatigued faster than most of us. But, like anything else, he manages; actually, he thrives.
My favorite part of Friday night’s game, considering he got the best of my Warriors, was talking to my friend in pregame. We each had plenty to catch up on and blessings to share with one another. He has a good squad and he leads them well, just like he did eight years ago before tragedy struck.
When he gave that first hospital interview following his injury he mentioned that the doctors said he’d never walk again, his injury was far too severe. He said his goal was to prove them wrong, to continue to work at getting out of the wheelchair and walking again.
He hasn’t reached that milestone yet, and he potentially never will. But, after what he’s accomplished, walking is secondary considering he’s already standing tall.
Corey Costelloe has covered the NCAA, professional and local sports for more than 20 years as a reporter and broadcaster. A THS graduate, he now resides and works in Tehachapi. He can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are his own.