Against all odds

Cancer diagnosis sidelined Tyler Wilt but Washington’s QB is back on track now

CHARLES TOWN – Tyler Wilt says the certainty came over him during Washington High’s Senior Night ceremony in late October.

After a summer spent battling a rare kind of cancer – and then weeks on the sidelines watching his teammates tackle opponents without him – the school’s one-time star quarterback put on his Patriots uniform and took his spot on the field, and realized that if he could, he wanted to resume his athletic career.

Tyler Wilt (center) sits with his sisters, Talia, 15, and Taelyn, 6, and parents Troy and Tracie Wilt.

Tyler Wilt (center) sits with his sisters, Talia, 15, and Taelyn, 6, and parents Troy and Tracie Wilt.

“We didn’t know if he was done with football,” explained Tyler’s father, Troy Wilt, who himself played quarterback at Jefferson High in the late 1980s and who serves as an assistant coach at Washington. “After everything he’d been through, we thought maybe it just wouldn’t be part of his life any more.”

Tyler, who started as the Patriots’ quarterback as a sophomore and junior, knew getting back on track wouldn’t be easy.

He’d lost 40 pounds since doctors at Children’s National Medical Center in D.C. diagnosed the rare germ-cell tumor. That word came after a spring in which he and his parents thought he was battling a particularly persistent cold. His family physician thought perhaps he’d developed an allergy and prescribed an inhaler.

But in mid-May, when just five minutes of throwing a football in the yard with his dad left him winded, the Wilts headed back to the doctor. That same afternoon, after an X-ray and CT scan at Jefferson Memorial Hospital – and seeing “scared looks” on the faces of doctors and nurses reviewing the tests, Tyler recalls – the 17-year-old found himself on a helicopter headed to the Washington hospital’s pediatric oncology unit.

Experts there took blood and ran more tests and determined what was creating Tyler’s breathing problems. They assured him they’d helped patients with just this malady get better and prescribed four week-long rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor crowding into his lung cavity.

Initially, the hope was that chemo would shrink Tyler’s tumor, allowing it be removed with only minor surgery and giving him the opportunity to play for the Patriots in the fall.

“They knew how much he wanted to play his senior year,” said his mother, Tracie Wilt.

Through much of the early summer, even as chemo robbed him of weight and energy, Tyler continued to suit up and practice with his teammates. In June, he amazed doctors and others by taking part in seven-on-seven tournaments with the Patriot squad in Morgantown and Martinsburg.

As a junior in 2011, Washington High’s quarterback threw for 1,076 yards and nine touchdowns and ran for another 750 yards and 11 TDs.

As a junior in 2011, Washington High’s quarterback threw for 1,076 yards
and nine touchdowns and ran for another 750 yards and 11 TDs.

But by August, it was clear the treatments had failed to diminish the growth as his medical team had hoped, leaving Tyler to face a 5½-hour surgery to remove the 2.8-pound mass.

Following the surgery, the titanium structure put in place during his surgery began to knit his sternum back together. The healing process meant no weight training or other upper-body work for six months.

Throughout his illness, Tyler said he always tried to keep his hopes for a complete recovery – and the chance to play football for Washington again – balanced. “I was trying hard to not get my hopes up,” he said. “I wanted to stay positive, but I didn’t want to let my expectations get up and then have to deal with the doctors telling me the news was bad.”

His father says Tyler’s even-keeled nature is one of the keys to his success both as a quarterback and one he developed early on the pitcher’s mound. “In baseball and in football, you want a good, calm demeanor,” Troy Wilt said. “You never want to get too excited, you never want to get too upset. Tyler’s always had a very good head on his shoulders.”

The days after Tyler’s surgery were among his most trying. “I felt really terrible for so long,” he said. “It took awhile before I was feeling well enough to even think about football again.”

As a junior, Tyler had thrown for 1,076 yards and nine touchdowns while running for another 750 yards and 11 TDs. The conventional wisdom was he’d better those numbers as a senior and lead Washington into the state playoffs, maybe to a West Virginia AAA championship title.

Instead, Tyler found watching unable to help as the Patriots lost seven games out of 10. “I was really mad,” he said. “It was so frustrating to have to just sit there and watch it, especially when we weren’t doing well.”

All through the season, Tyler said he’d thought about football but until he put on his pads and uniform again for senior night, he wasn’t certain he’d pursue the sport again. Seeing himself dressed to play made him realize how much he wanted to quarterback again.

“I felt like myself,” he said.

 

Since mid-February, as soon as he’d gotten his doctors’ OK, Tyler has been hard at work, throwing with his dad, lifting weights and pushing himself with other drills.

Despite the fact that an illness forced him to sit out his senior year, he remained in demand. He found himself being recruited by the University of Charleston and other schools across West Virginia.

It appears Tyler’s resilience has boosted his appeal as an athlete. “When we visited one school, the coach took me aside and told me how eager they were to have Tyler,” Troy Wilt recalls. “He said, ‘We know there’s nothing we can do to him mentally or physically that can compare to what he’s already gone through.”

Shepherd, however, remained Tyler’s top pick and he and his family celebrated when the news came that Shepherd wanted him, too.

Tyler, who describes himself as “nervous and excited both” about the start of football season this fall, will live on campus in Shepherdstown. This way, he can easily stay in touch with friends, visit often with his family and continue his involvement with his church, Rock Spring Church in Kearneysville.

Since he signed the letter of intent to play for the Rams, Tyler said he’s heard from classmates, friends and even teachers who have vowed to come to Shepherd for the chance to see him on the field again – promises that don’t surprise Troy and Tracie Wilt in the slightest.

“The support we’ve gotten from everyone through all of this – it has been just amazing,” Tracie Wilt said. “Within days of Tyler’s diagnosis, people had made up bracelets to raise money for his treatment. The help we got from our church, from other churches, from people we don’t even know – it’s been incredible.”

Football players at rival high schools, including Hedgesville and Musselman, sent cards and Jefferson High’s football boosters organized fundraisers for Tyler, Tracie Wilt said. “This wasn’t about just winning football games,” she said.

Though Tyler is eager for the chance to play football again, his illness and recovery also have him looking forward to a career where he can make a difference for young people facing cancer and other devastating illnesses.

He aims to become a child life specialist, a hospital care team member who acts as an advocate for the young patient. “We never knew this was even a profession, but the person in this job plays such an important role in providing care,” Tracie Wilt said.

Tyler explains the work this way: “Your job involves some aspects of nursing and some aspects of social work. You do everything from explain medical procedures and help the patient stay comfortable to working with the patient’s siblings so they understand what’s happening and what’s ahead.”

As someone who’s lived through dozens of grueling treatments, Tyler said he’ll be able to provide support as well as accurate information. “I wouldn’t tell a patient that something won’t hurt when it will,” he said. “I’ll just be there to help them through it.

“That’s why I want to go into this field. Having made it through, I want to give back.”

 

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