Published: April 01, 2015

Back in November, Tyler Hernandez ’18 was riding in his parents’ car, surrounded by his family, when he got the call he’d been hoping for. It was his birthday, and they had just finished a celebratory dinner at his favorite restaurant.

His phone rang and he saw that it was Mike Hayes, head coach of the U.S. Power Soccer Association’s Team USA, which will compete in the FIPFA World Cup later this year.

“I figured a Facebook post wouldn’t be enough to wish you a happy birthday,” Hayes said, and they talked about how Hernandez was faring with his home team, the Tampa Thunder.

Hernandez appreciated the call and was pleased that Hayes remembered his birthday, but as their conversation came to a close, Hayes asked a question that would change the trajectory of his life and, as he puts it, complete a dream.

“Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you how would you like to play for Team USA?” said Hayes.

“I was like, ‘What? Of course! I was just so thrown off. It was crazy,” said Hernandez, describing how his mother, Megan, started screaming with excitement in the front seat, how his father, Chuck, tried to shush her so he could hear, and how his younger sister, Haley, was sitting next to him smiling.

Hernandez’s journey to Team USA began 11 years ago, when he was just 8 years old. Diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 13 months, he has been in a wheelchair since he was 3 years old. At a Muscular Dystrophy Association camp one summer, they asked him if he’d like to try out power soccer.

“I said, “Sure, why not? I’ve loved it ever since,” he said. Hernandez played first with the Tampa Thunder club team, then for the Tampa Bay Crossfire for a few years. He recently rejoined the Tampa Thunder, who are currently the No. 2 team in the U.S.

“I tried other disabled sports, but there’s no independence to it. Somebody has to help you,” said Hernandez. “With power soccer you do everything on your own. You control the chair. You control what you do. You don’t have somebody else do it for you. And that’s what I like. I want to be independent. I want to make my own decisions when I’m playing sports.”

Hernandez also enjoys the level of competitiveness and that it’s an international sport.

He got his first taste of international play five years ago, when he was able to go to France and train with the French international team. Watching the best players in France play, Hernandez started to realize if he put in the effort, he might one day reach that level.

“I saw what it took to be a world-class player,” he said. “I decided to stick with this and continue to work hard to be the best I could be.”

The last two FIPFA World Cups were held in 2007 in Tokyo and 2011 in Paris. Since players are required to be at least 16 to play at that level, Hernandez was too young to try out for either of those teams. The 2015 team was his first opportunity to apply, but the timing of the tryout came at a critical transition for him.

Hernandez began his freshman year at UT in August 2014, and tryouts for Team USA were slated for October.

“I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue playing,” said Hernandez. “I love power soccer. It’s taken me places that I could have never imagined, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle playing soccer for the Tampa Thunder, possibly playing soccer on the national team and also balancing college. It was a really tough decision.”

Ultimately, he decided to apply and was chosen to be one of 20 to try out for one of 12 spots on Team USA.

“I couldn’t give it up,” he said. “Soccer is just one of those things I can’t let go right now. I just have too much fun. And having the opportunity to be able to represent my country is something I couldn’t give up.”

Though he was excited about the invitation, there was one major element still holding him back. In order to be able to hold his own against the best power soccer players in the nation, he would need a Strike Force Wheelchair.

“Everybody has one now,” said Hernandez. “If you don’t you get pushed around. You can’t compete.”

The cost of these specially designed power soccer wheelchairs runs from $8,000 to $10,000, depending on the configuration. Hernandez didn’t want his parents, who were already paying for college, to take on this added expense.

That’s when Hank Malouf stepped in.

Last March, Malouf was reading the Tampa Tribune, when an article about Hernandez captured his attention. He was struck first by all the things they had in common. Here was a kid who went to Jesuit High School, where he spent three years in high school. He planned to attend UT, where Malouf also attended. And he played soccer, which Malouf also played both in high school and at UT.

When he realized that all Hernandez needed to move up to the next level was this special wheelchair, Malouf was moved to action.

“It was instant,” said Malouf. “We had so much in common, and I had the means to help out.” Malouf contacted the author of the original piece, Jeff Berlinicke, who put him in touch with Pete Young, the director of communications at Jesuit, who finally connected the two.

Malouf owns Hank’s Place Catfish and BBQ, located at 8546 N. Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, and he invited Hernandez to come by the restaurant. Once they met, Malouf’s hunch that they had a lot in common was confirmed, and the two began a friendship that continues today.

When the Hernandez family finally found a Strike Force wheelchair that would work for Tyler, Malouf told them to send him the invoice, and he’d take care of it.

“So many people have helped me get to where I am,” said Malouf, who opened Hank’s Place just over three years ago and has been overwhelmed by the support from the community. “It’s beyond what I anticipated, and I feel very fortunate. I look for any chance to give back, and this was just the perfect opportunity.”

For Hernandez, the difference between the Strike Force and his everyday wheelchair is “night and day.”

“Its speed. Its power. Its acceleration. It took me a good solid few months to get accustomed to it,” said Hernandez. “It’s definitely upped my game to a whole new level.”

Hernandez had just three weeks between receiving the chair and the tryout for Team USA. Everyone else, he said, had had their Strike Force wheelchair for a year. Though he practiced, often just going to the gym to drive it around without a ball, he said he still didn’t have the same mastery and ease the other players had.

“I knew going to camp that it was going to be tough for me to make the team,” he said, explaining not only was he new to using his Strike Force, but a lot of the people from the previous Team USA were trying out as well.

The tryout was a three-day camp, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, filled with drills and scrimmages — a grueling schedule, but Hernandez simply said, “It was awesome.”

The process was a little longer for Hernandez than his Team USA teammates, as he didn’t make the initial 12-member team. That disappointment was short-lived, however, when he got the call from Hayes on his birthday.

So far, his worries about juggling soccer and studies seem unfounded.

An honors student and accounting major, Hernandez received one of only seven As in his Honors financial accounting class taught by Robert Marley, assistant professor of accounting. The class, he said, was his favorite by far.

“Since accounting is such a difficult subject, I am amazed that he indicated it was one of his favorite classes. Most people do everything they can to avoid it,” said Marley.

“Tyler is an amazing student who intuitively grasps that financial accounting is not an abstract subject requiring mindless memorization,” he continued. “Tyler is also an inspiration to me, personally, because he demonstrates the possibility of the human spirit. I wish all my students possessed his drive.”

Hernandez still plays with the Tampa Thunder and is gearing up to play in the national championship, which is being held in Tampa this June. He said it was a tough transition joining both the Tampa Thunder and Team USA in the same year.

“I got both play books at the same time, and they both use a number system. I was trying to keep both of them straight in my head and thought, ‘Well, this is going to be confusing,’” he said with a laugh. “I’m finally getting them both down. I’ll be alright.”

In January, Hernandez completed the first Team USA training camp in Arizona. In between camps, he is required to complete weekly drills, which his sister, who plays soccer for Steinbrenner High School, helps him with.

Playing with Team USA comes with some high costs — air travel, hotel, wheelchair van rentals, to name a few. To help offset these expenses, Hernandez created a Go Fund Me site at www.gofundme.com/ju31nc.

Hernandez clearly feels the experience is worth the cost. He lights up talking about his fellow Team USA teammates.

“These are the 12 best players in the United States, and the level of soccer is crazy. Insane. Awesome,” he said. “Everything you do is top level. I love it. I love the pressure. I love that I’m playing with the best.” 

--By Kiley Mallard, Writer/Editor

Read more about Hernandez and others in the Spring 2015 Journal.