Aug. 2, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -Through the darkest moments – the surgeries and the endless hours with therapists bending and stretching his rubbery limbs – Tyson Gentry thought about others he met who had suffered spinal injuries.

They weren’t athletes. They weren’t as young or as strong.

“There’s always somebody worse off than you,” Gentry said quietly.

A three-year walk-on at Ohio State as a punter and later a receiver, Gentry went out for a pass during practice last April and his life turned upside down.

“I’ve never questioned why me, why did this happen?” Gentry said Thursday from his wheelchair, flanked by his family inside Ohio State’s wood-paneled football locker room. “I’ve tried to be thankful for the fact that this is just something I had to do. It was thrown my way. There’s no sense getting down about it.

“It’s more of a question of, why did it happen so easily?”

Gentry recalls catching the ball, turning upfield, feeling the ball slip from his hands and turning to collect it while falling down. He landed awkwardly.

After the whistle blew, everyone got up except the skinny kid from Sandusky who always wanted to be a Buckeye.

“We knew it was serious immediately,” said Tyson’s mother, Gloria. “He couldn’t move anything from the very beginning.”

He never lost consciousness as tests determined he broke a vertebra. The vertebrae above and below had to be fused to the damaged area to add support. Titanium plates were implanted in front and back of his neck to aid the healing process.

“Before he even left ICU he was moving his arms, so that was tremendous,” his mother said.

Gentry regained use of one arm but still has minimal control of the other. He has sensation in his legs but still can’t move them.

He spent a week in intensive care, then moved to a rehabilitation facility on Ohio State’s medical campus and regularly undergoes therapy.

“If anyone will do everything he possibly can, it will be him,” coach Jim Tressel said. “He’s a guy who will progress.”

Throughout his ordeal, a stream of teammates has visited, making him laugh and lifting his spirits.

That balanced what he often saw and heard around the hospital or during rehab. One boy was on vacation and walking on a beach when a wave hit him from behind and left him with spinal injuries similar to Gentry’s.

“It’s crazy how people can be hit so hard in football or do all these extreme sports, and yet there are times when little things like that are all it takes,” Gentry said.

Gentry tried to focus on his own tasks and look ahead. He was helped by an outpouring of concern and love – from his friends and family, but also from people he’d never met who were touched by his struggle.

The letters, cards and notes poured in – more than 2,000. Some were from other countries, some from military personnel saying they were thinking about him.

“I was really in awe of how much everybody really cares,” Gentry said. “Those stories don’t get told enough. There’s so many good people out there, people who I had no idea at all of who they are or people who didn’t know me at all. But yet they took the time to get a card and fill it out and mail it. It’s really blown me away.”

Some of the notes brought hope. Gentry heard of a 13-year-old Ohio boy who broke his neck, but now is walking and playing golf.

Gentry got calls from Adam Taliaferro, the Penn State cornerback who suffered a spinal injury while playing against Ohio State in 2000. Taliaferro fought his way back, eventually walking onto the field at Beaver Stadium.

Taliaferro said his injury was similar to Gentry’s. The Gentry family hopes that’s true.

“We are all very hopeful that muscle movement will continue to improve,” Tyson’s mother said.

On July 20, Gentry turned 21. He received 500 birthday cards, and presents including a new Ohio State game jersey. Teammates serenaded him with an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” around midnight.

Gentry plans to attend Ohio State this fall, continuing on his road to a double major in psychology and speech pathology. His sister, Ashley, will be one of his roommates and will lend a hand in helping him adapt to the challenges ahead.

A couple of family friends set up a trust fund for him through National City Bank. Tyson’s father said the family’s hope is to not use the money.

“Our goal is to give it away,” said Bob Gentry, himself a former Ohio State player in the mid-1970s. “We’ll give it away when he walks.”

Tyson continues rehabilitation and aims, like Taliaferro, to walk back into his home stadium on game day.

“It’s something the good Lord gave us to deal with, and that’s what we’re doing,” Bob Gentry said. “You’ve got to keep that positive approach.”