Created:Friday, September 1, 2006 12:00 a.m.CDT

CL South senior tackles disability

Crystal Lake South senior Tyler Nelsen doesn't let his cerebral palsy get in the way of playing football.
Crystal Lake South senior Tyler Nelsen doesn't let his cerebral palsy get in the way of playing football.

Gayle Nelsen chuckled as she recalled the doctor's prognosis for her youngest son, Tyler, when he was a toddler.

The doctor tried to reassure Gayle and Craig Nelsen that Tyler, afflicted with cerebral palsy, could still lead a fairly normal life.

"He said there were two things he'd never do: Play piano and ride a bike," Gayle said. "He was wrong."

Tyler was cruising around on two wheels before he was 5, an earlier age than both his older brothers had ridden. Despite the balancing issues with the less-developed left side of his body, Tyler found a way to make it work.

"He was a determined kid, that's for sure," Gayle said.

As it turns out, Nelsen was laying a foundation for a lifetime spent beating the odds. His determination has led him to an unlikely place for a person with his disability - the football field.

Nelsen is a 5-foot-8, 135-pound senior middle linebacker for Crystal Lake South, where he mainly sees action in junior varsity games and earned a varsity letter last season.

"I tried baseball for a couple of years and wrestling," Nelsen said. "Baseball was fun, but I wanted to hit people."

Plus, his brothers Eric (now 23) and Brent (20) had played football. Craig and Gayle were resolute not to treat Tyler any differently than them.

South coach Jim Stuglis was uncertain about Tyler when he arrived at South three years ago, but Craig helped put Stuglis' mind at ease.

"I talked to the coaches and said, 'Look, this is what the problem is,' " Craig said. " 'He's not going to get any better, he's not going to get any worse. There's nothing football can do ... he's no more at risk than any other kid.' He walks a little funny and doesn't have full range of motion in his [left] arm, and the natural inclination is that he may get hurt."

The Nelsens discovered Tyler had cerebral palsy, an abnormality of the brain that affects the muscular and nervous system, when he was about a year old and was trying to walk. Tyler feels fortunate his affliction is mild compared to many cerebral palsy victims, some of whom are confined to wheelchairs or are disabled mentally as well as physically.

Tyler cannot do a lot with his left arm and his left leg, which curves in slightly. His running is hampered, although he still moves well. He runs better since surgery his freshman year to remove a section of the growth plate in his right leg. The surgery was performed to keep the legs as even as possible and alleviate back problems later in life.

Craig says the surgery made Tyler a lot faster and less noticeable.

"Now, he just kind of walks like somebody with a groove," Craig said.

Stuglis said an official thought Nelsen was hurt last year and suggested he take him out.

"I just said, 'No, that's how he walks and how he runs,' " Stuglis said. "We forget about it. When we're coaching and yelling, 'Tyler, you gotta wrap up!' and he'll say, 'Coach, that arm doesn't work.' He takes it in stride."

It's one of the few times Tyler will actually admit he is limited. In the weight room he refrains from power cleaning because his left arm won't cooperate. He can bench press, and he has squatted 325 pounds, almost 200 more than his body weight.

Nelsen's impact on his teammates was evident last spring. After the team elected its eight off-season captains, one of the captains, Tony Benedetto, proposed Tyler be included. The others agreed.

"It was pretty cool they wanted me there," said Nelsen, an honors student and member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "The team's been awesome for four years. They've been right there with me. [My disability] is not always talked about, or if it is, we joke around about it a lot. They never really did that until they knew that I was OK with it."

Gators center Chris Wolff played with Nelsen on the Crystal Lake Raiders in the sixth grade.

"I was very surprised, he tried out for my team as running back," Wolff said. "It's remarkable he could do what he did. He works his tail off and pushes everybody every day. He's a great kid. He's living life like he wants to live it."

While the Gators want Nelsen to feel normal, his inspiration is evident.

"He's a hard hitter and an excellent football player, but he's not really that big, which is the only problem," guard Greg Homuth said. "We don't really think of him as different. He's just another person, part of the team."

Stuglis sees Tyler as a special person who doesn't particularly want special attention.

"He doesn't make excuses, he works hard," Stuglis said. "It's very inspirational. Whatever he does in life, he'll be successful."