A story of thanksgiving|Teen’s life changed, saved in victory

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tyler Gardner has never liked dirt.

As a child, he wouldn’t play with Play-doh, couldn’t stand dirt under his fingernails and washed his hands obsessively.

But on one night last month playing in a football game against rival Warren Central, things changed for the Vicksburg High School senior football player. On that night, life-long objections to dirt and mud were washed away. Tyler was having too much fun. The moment was too special. Today, he is thankful.

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Tyler’s journey began his freshman year of high school.

Like many young men in high schools all over the South, Tyler dreamed of playing high school football. He played YMCA football for his father/coach Rusty starting in the third grade. He moved on to junior high, worked on conditioning and practiced hard.

But then, as a freshman, things began to change. Inexplicably, especially when throwing a football, he could feel numbness coming over his body. Slowly his muscles would shut down. Many times he simply would fall to the ground without warning.

He was a member of a winless 9th-grade football team and had already caught the eyes of his coaches. He didn’t make a big deal over the spells — at first — but by the time spring practice came around, the spells had gotten worse and worse.

“I would feel light-headed and lose feeling in my muscles and could just fall out,” Tyler said. “I would try to fight it, but it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t something that happened fast, the muscles would shut down slowly and I could hit the floor.”

The trips to doctors began soon after.

At first he went to the family physician, then was referred to a neurologist. It kept him from playing football and changed the Tyler his mother, Tracy, had known.

“Before this all happened he was very outgoing, but he got depressed and became reclusive,” Tracy said. “He didn’t want anything to happen around his friends. If they were laughing really hard, or any emotional outburst would cause a spell.”

A battery of tests and different medications were prescribed. Prozac worked for a while until he built up a tolerance to the anti-depressant.

“It was a lot of trial and error with the medications,” Tracy said.

Doctors moved him to the University of Mississippi Health Care sleep disorder center, where he was finally diagnosed with a form of narcolepsy combined with cataplexy. That disorder “includes a sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone, vivid hallucinations during sleep and episodes of total paralysis during sleep,” the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web site reads.

Tyler said he would go straight to REM sleep, or dream stage, skipping the necessary stages of sleep.

“The thing is I would sleep for an hour and it would feel like I had been sleeping all day,” Tyler said.

Tyler sat out his sophomore year of football. Soon, though, the desire for football — and any other social activity — began to leave him. He left the football team to continue treatments.

In his junior season, a drug combination of propitol and protriptyline started to work consistently.

On June 17 this year, doctors cleared Tyler to play football again. He wavered on whether to return to the game he loved — or call it quits forever.

Tyler and his mother went to see Vicksburg High coach Alonzo Stevens. As he neared the fieldhouse, he spotted some former teammates.

“When my mom and I walked through the parking lot to ask coach, a couple of the players were there and asked if I was trying to get back on the team,” Tyler said. “Alventray Tarleton got out of his car, got on the hood and started jumping up and down screaming.” Tyler was encouraged by the reaction.

The feeling extended to Stevens’ office.

“The desire never left him. He sat out two years and finally got cleared to play. We were still a little wary, though,” Stevens said.

“He showed up in horrible physical shape,” Stevens said. “We run a lot and he would be running and throw up, run and throw up, run and throw up, but he showed so much toughness and never quit.”

Tyler struggled to complete his required three laps without stopping to vomit. He knew, though, that the football fire that burned in his belly before was returning.

On a team that lost 32 seniors, Stevens would give anyone a shot at making the club. He remembered Tyler as a freshman and saw the potential.

“We looked at him as maybe a chicken eater (a perpetual bench player who, jokingly, only is on the team for the free box of chicken on the bus ride home) or a special teams player, but his work ethic was so good he ended up with a starting job out of nowhere,” Stevens said.

Vicksburg opened the season with a bad loss to Ocean Springs in the Red Carpet Bowl. A tough schedule, lack of depth and experience combined for what most around the school knew would be a very trying season.

The losses mounted, but Tyler stayed firm with his decision to come back. “I have only been part of one winning team, my 8th-grade year,” he said with a chuckle. “I was used to being on losing teams.”

The Gators lost their first nine games heading into the biggest one of the year — against Warren Central.

It was a close game — really close. Warren Central and Vicksburg both had trouble moving the ball down the field.

At one point, Vicksburg was backed up to its own 1-yard line. A Vicksburg Post photographer, who said he normally doesn’t take pictures of players standing on the sidelines, directed his camera in Tyler’s direction. A snapshot shows the wide-eyes of concentration, the mud-caked face and the once-white uniform.

“That picture was taken when we were on offense and were backed up to the 1-yard line,” Tyler said. “All I could think of was ‘do not let them get a safety.’”

Warren Central did not record a safety on that play. The Gators later tied the game and it moved into overtime with a tie at 7-7.

After both teams failed to score in the first overtime, it moved to a second. WC was stopped.

It took Vicksburg two plays to score the winning touchdown. Vicksburg 13, Warren Central 7.

Teammates stormed the field and flopped around in the mud. Tyler saw a puddle of water.

“This is kind of embarrassing,” Tyler said. “On the sideline between the field and track there is a little crevice type thing. It was filled with water almost up to my knees. When everyone ran on the field I started jumping in the water and I slipped and fell (not because of a spell) in the water. I didn’t mind it one bit and did it again.”

Then he hit the field on his belly, further covering himself in filth, never once thinking of his aversion to getting dirty.

“When he dove in the mud,” Tracy said, “I had tears in my eyes.” Tyler added, “That Warren Central win made up for everything. That win made it all worth coming out to play again. Oh yeah.”

Tyler’s football-playing days are over now. The team lost its final game to Clinton and finished with the one special win.

He still suffers from narcolepsy, although the numbness and falling out have subsided. He still takes short regularly scheduled naps during the day. Tracy, choir director at Vicksburg High, lets him take naps in her office during off periods. His brother, 12-year-old Tanner, has shown no signs of the condition, although the condition usually shows itself at about age 14.

There is no cure for narcolepsy, and a Stanford University School of Medicine Center for Narcolepsy report showed “the large majority of narcoleptic patients in this country go undiagnosed and subjects are most often diagnosed only after many years of struggle.”

Tyler still visits doctors and psychologists regularly, but the disease shows few signs of returning to its previous degree.

His next task — finally getting his driver’s license, something he has been denied for two years. Tyler turns 18 on Dec. 10.

Stevens will continue to use Tyler as an example to future generations of Vicksburg High Gator football players.

“He had everything taken away from him and got a second chance,” Stevens said. “I want our players to know that if you get a second chance, you have to use it to your advantage.

“… If we had a team full of Tyler Gardners, we’d still be playing football. I don’t even need a whole team, just four — one on offense, one on defense, one on special teams and one substitute for when the others get tired.”


Contact Sean P. Murphy at smurphy@vicksburgpost.com