Jan. 7, 2007
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -Tyson Gentry's dream of being on the sideline when Ohio State plays for a national championship will come true on Monday night - only with a cruel twist.
Gentry, a walk-on wide receiver and punter, landed awkwardly while trying to catch a pass during a spring practice. There was almost no contact on the play, yet the skinny kid in the No. 24 jersey didn't get up.
"I remember the moment he went down and, for a split second, we all thought he'd pop right back up," defensive end Jay Richardson said, his voice cracking with emotion. "It didn't look that bad when you watched it. I remember then as the minutes went by you started to get that feeling in your stomach and you went, 'Oh my goodness. Something's really wrong."'
Gentry sustained a broken vertebra in his neck and a damaged spinal cord. Surgeons fused two vertebrae to reinforce the injured area. After nine months of intensive rehab, he is able to feed himself and attend classes, but is unable to use his legs.
Accompanied by his family, Gentry flew to Arizona earlier this week to be on hand for the Buckeyes' national championship showdown against Florida on Monday night. Much as he had hoped last spring when he was practicing with the team, he'll be on the sidelines - only in a motorized wheelchair.
"Things are going very well," he said, flashing a smile moments after leaving a Buckeyes practice. "The trip out here was all right. It was a little long. I got a little sore toward the end, but it wasn't really too bad."
He has attended many of the team's activities and workouts. His teammates surround him, talk to him, razz him.
"I don't mind the jokes at all, where you make light of the situation and kind of laugh about everything," he said.
When he was in Ohio State's medical center, they visited him regularly. During his time in a campus rehab facility, several stopped by daily between classes to check on him.
"I'm just glad he's still around with us," defensive back Malcolm Jenkins said. "He's still part of this team, he's still one of our brothers."
The Buckeyes are playing for a national championship, so the size of the game seems to make these 18- to 22-year-olds somehow older and more mature than they really are. That doesn't mean they aren't touched by an otherwise meaningless play during just another practice on April 14.
"That's just really a hard subject because Tyson's locker was right next to mine," Richardson said. "Every time I see him I remember what happened. But I'm really proud of Tyson. Tyson's a strong kid, Tyson's a tough kid. I'm just so happy every time we get to see him on the sideline. He comes to everything and he's just as much a part of this team as I am or Troy (Smith) or anybody. Tyson's really a special story."
Gentry lives in an apartment in Columbus with his sister, who helps him attend classes. His parents and another sister make the two-hour drive in shifts from their homes in his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, to bathe him, exercise his limbs, encourage him to do stretching exercises, and take him to appointments with doctors and therapists.
When he can fit it in, he goes to football practice. He was beaming after one of Ohio State's workouts at Pinnacle High School this week, warmed by the sun and by seeing all of his teammates.
"Tyson has tried to be with us throughout the entire year," coach Jim Tressel said. "He's part of our family, and I think he loves it and our guys love it."
His name is listed on Ohio State's roster for the national championship game.
Gentry remains upbeat. He's looking forward to slowly grinding toward a diploma. He says he's stronger and is able to do more during therapy than he ever did before. He is optimistic that he can regain motion, can return to a normal life.
All that is a tribute to his family, friends and teammates who smother him with attention and love.
"I'd say there's not really been a change in him," Bob Gentry said of his son. "He's a pretty reflective person. He shares his happiness with us and even the things that we don't have to discuss because we understand what he's going through.
"But I don't think he's changed at all, despite everything that has impacted him."