Rise Above: Tyler Carrico
Senior RHP for James River (Midlothian, Va.) returns from a broken back
This story appears in the April issue of ESPNHS magazine.
In the intensive-care ward of a Virginia hospital three years ago, Tyler Carrico lay in tremendous pain, thinking of everyone but himself.
Tyler's mind wasn't on the pain, the three surgeries he'd had in the past two months or whether he'd ever play sports again. Instead, he was thinking about his brother, who was enduring a battle of his own after doctors found a tumor near his heart. He was thinking of his parents, who were running from hospital to hospital to be with their sons. He was thinking of the other children who came into the hospital unaware that they might never leave.
Today, Tyler is a long way from intensive care. One of Virginia's top baseball stars, the senior pitcher at James River (Midlothian, Va.) has signed with the University of Virginia. He boasts a fastball that can touch 90 mph and a hammer curve that keeps hitters off balance.
"When he can locate that curveball, he's very deceptive," says James River coach Pete Schumacher. "He's really become a complete pitcher, which is really nice to see."
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But as an eighth-grader, Tyler was playing in a football game as his team's quarterback when he suffered a fractured vertebrae -- a broken back.
He doesn't remember the hit. He remembers the pain.
An initial diagnosis showed no problems, but the discomfort persisted for nearly a year. Then a freshman at Midlothian (Va.), Tyler was getting ready for an all-but-guaranteed spot on the varsity baseball team, but he couldn't shake the back pain. A second visit to the doctor prompted another look at the X-rays, which confirmed a break.
"I just remember I was shell-shocked," Tyler says. "At first, I didn't really process it. But the next day in school I was sitting there, thinking about it and I realized, 'This is it. I may never be able to play baseball again. I may never run again.'"
The first surgery was a spinal fusion that required cutting all muscle away from the bone.
"It's a major surgery," Tyler says. "There's always a possibility where you might never run again or will always have pain, and there's always greater risk for injury."
It appeared to be successful until it caused a staph infection, requiring a second surgery.
Shortly thereafter, Tyler found out that his younger brother, Drew, had a softball-sized tumor in his chest.
"He had this huge tumor between his lungs and his heart," Tyler says. "This was literally two weeks after my surgery. So everyone was freaking out about that, too."
Today, Drew is fully recovered after the tumor turned out to be benign and was removed, but at the time, there were some sleepless nights.
"The pain of my surgery was just amplified by all that he was going through," Tyler says. "Just not knowing what was next. I'm at one hospital. He's at another."
Tyler's second surgery cleaned out the infection, but there was still damage. He needed a third surgery.
"That was the most pain I've ever been in," he says. "They're pushing this needle into my heart & it was intolerable. I was miserable."
Tyler missed four months of school during his surgeries and recovery period. When he was ready to return, he opted to transfer to James River. He felt like he needed a fresh start.
But James River was loaded with pitching talent. Then a sophomore, Tyler accepted a junior varsity assignment. Quietly, he was frustrated. He'd gone from a promising, varsity-bound freshman bound to a JV sophomore who hadn't thrown a pitch in nearly two years.
"Tyler was itching to play, but he was always respectful," Schumacher says.
"Everything felt sluggish," Tyler says. "Before the surgery, I remember being able to go out there and succeed and not have a problem. But I didn't deserve to be on varsity. I wasn't at my best."
By his junior year, Tyler had earned a varsity spot but was still stuck behind several pitchers. But that changed during the team's regional final. The starting pitcher had been pulled after two tough innings, and Schumacher called on Tyler.
"He never complained about his playing time," Schumacher says. "Then we got to the regional final and I called on Tyler and he was unbelievable. The most he had pitched (in one outing) was two innings, and after four I went to check on him and he just said, 'I got this, Coach.'"
Three outs later, Tyler had gone five innings as James River rallied to win the regional title. College scouts in the stands took notice. Soon, Tyler was no longer a bullpen piece for James River -- he was a pitcher with elite stuff and plenty of potential.
"It all happened that night," he says. "Everything just came together -- all the hard work and literally blood, sweat and tears of the past three years. It was victory over all of my surgeries."
Now, Tyler feels like he's back and is looking to go out on a high note before heading off to Virginia. He'd been a bat boy for the Cavaliers when he was younger, and both of his parents attended went there. Several members of the team had visited him in the hospital, and more came later to visit him and Drew at their house. That always stuck with Tyler.
Then, on the day after the regional final, Virginia's baseball team bumped Tyler and took top billing on the front page of the local sports section following the team's trip to the College World Series.
"It was kind of ironic how everything happened like that," Tyler says. "I just sort of thought, the way everything came together like that, I always had them in the back of my mind. UVA was always my dream school. Both my parents went there. So when they offered, it was pretty much a no-brainer."
Although Tyler is one of the state's top pitchers this season, he'll never be completely healthy. There's still pain -- not to mention two rods and four screws in his back -- but he's able to shake it off and concentrate on pitching.
"It's a great story," Schumacher says. "He's a good young man. For him to be able to overcome all this, it's a special thing to watch as a coach. Even though I wasn't around for all the negative stuff, just seeing where he is now, and especially this year, you can just see it in him. He's got this level of determination that he hasn't necessarily had before. He's got his life in order, he's going to college and he's expecting to have a good season."
Tyler never forgot about those kids in the intensive-care ward, though. Not long after returning to full health, he helped raise money for Noah's Children, a group that provides assistance to the families of kids who have been diagnosed with life-threatening and terminal illnesses.
He organized a fundraising dance, volunteered at the organization over the summer, and he put on a charity fun run at high school with all proceeds going toward the group.
"You are in and out of so many hospitals, and you get some perspective from the whole experience," Tyler says. "I'm in there with a back surgery but all around me there's babies with terminal illnesses and little kids who might not ever leave the hospital.
"I thought to myself, we're going to get through it, and we need to give back."
That's Tyler. Always thinking of everybody else.
Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPNHS magazine and ESPNHS.com. Follow him on Twitter @CParishESPN.
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