TAMPA — Tyler Hernandez has never taken a step in his life. He hopes to someday, but he isn’t holding out hope.
So he does the best he can to live a life like the rest of his senior class at Jesuit High School. He has a perfect 4.0 grade point average, speaks as articulately as any adult, and rides his wheelchair around campus, blending in with the other Jesuit students.
Oh, by the way — he is a world-class soccer player.
Hernandez, who wants to major in accounting or attend law school after college, said he considers himself normal in every way. He loves soccer and may even want to coach one day but has a neuromuscular disorder that was discovered just after his first birthday. He has used a wheelchair ever since.
He is a self-confessed sports nut who watches ESPN and constantly talks sports. Strong willed and determined, he’s always looked for a sport to play on his own terms.
“It’s just a disability that I have, but I am not going to let it change my life,” he said. “I am going to live my life every day to be my best.”
At first, Hernandez took up Challenger Baseball — baseball for kids with disabilites that require the help of an assistant on the field.
But that wasn’t his style.
“We had people picking up the baseballs and helping us, but I am too independent for that,” Hernandez said. “I want to play a sport where I can do things on my own. I take my independence seriously and, in soccer, I can do everything I need to do on my own.”
Hernandez plays for the Tampa Bay Crossfire, a team that plays all over the country. He has practiced with the French national wheelchair soccer team, and plays in the top U.S. division. There are two Tampa Bay area teams that play at the elite level at gyms throughout the area.
The game is a tad different from your typical soccer game. It uses a ball that is two to three times larger than a regular soccer ball, and their are only four players from each team on the court at a time. The players use blockers at the bottom of their chairs to push the ball, and if that sounds easy, Hernandez said that the players can push the ball up to 30 mph.
The game also doesn’t just consist of wheeling around trying to get to the ball. They can do spin kicks and almost any other kind of “kicks” as someone using his feet.
Hernandez said he wants a new state-of-the-art chair that can really propel the ball. He plays center-midfield, which is the person with the most contact with the ball. There are also two strikers and a goaltender, but Hernandez’s position is the one who controls play.
As for college, Hernandez is torn between the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida. If he goes to USF, he’ll give the Bulls enough players to become the third college in the nation — along with Arizona State and Ball State — to have sanctioned wheelchair club teams at the NCAA level. He doesn’t want to play forever, especially since school is very important, but he doesn’t want to get away from the game.
“I think I can coach outdoor soccer one day,” he said. “I know all about the game and if someone gives me a chance, I think I would be a good coach at any level.”
For now, it’s getting the new high-power wheelchair that is on his mind. The Strike Force, as it is called, can cost up to nearly $8,000, but it is almost imperative to have one in order to make the World Cup team.
“If I can get the new wheelchair, I have a good chance to make the team,” he said. “That thing is incredible. If I make it or not, I am in a great situation.”
He gives all the credit to his parents, who encouraged him to chase his dreams no matter how hard the fight.
“My parents instilled in me the feeling to never let anything get me down and I won’t let it,” Hernandez said. “Whatever happens is going to happen, but I’ll never get down.”