March 14, 2014
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Partnering with Team IMPACT and Sparrow Hospital, the Michigan State wrestling team has welcomed 11-year-old Tyler Jones, who is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, to the Spartan family.
A non-profit from Quincy, Mass., Team IMPACT matches kids facing life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams to create long-term support networks.
Tyler was officially introduced to the team during a mock press conference in the MSU wrestling room in late February. Accompanied by his mother, Jill, and his younger brother, Lucas, Tyler answered questions from Spartan wrestlers about his interests and his excitement about joining the team.
Since that first day, Tyler has gotten to know several members of the team. He has visited multiple practices and attended the Central Michigan dual meet in Mount Pleasant on Feb. 22, as the Spartans downed the Chippewas, 18-14. A week after his "signing", Tyler was back in the wrestling room, smiling and high-fiving with other Spartans, reminiscing about the big victory over CMU.
He has even joined the team in warm-ups, along with Lucas, and has played several games, including "tape ball" and "toe tag." With safety at the forefront of everyone's minds, the wrestlers serve as their pseudo-security guards during the games, keeping Tyler and Lucas in good hands.
Being around the team has also motivated Tyler to work on his physical therapy. He has done pull-ups and used the exercise bike during practice. Not surprising, it's a little easier to want to work out physically while watching dedicated student-athletes on a Big Ten team giving it their all in the wrestling room.
There's no doubt that Tyler's presence has been felt by everyone on the Spartans, serving as an inspiration to the program.
"I think in wrestling and certainly in college sports in general, you get wrapped up in your season and you get wrapped up in what you're doing and it becomes life and death for you, so to speak," said MSU head coach Tom Minkel. "We've had Tyler join our team and his struggles are at a whole different level than ours. I think it has been really good for the team to kind of bring him into our group and see a young 11-year-old kid who is struggling with really challenging, life-threatening issues. You understand things that are really important and it has given our team an opportunity to kind of bring him in and enjoy his company."
Senior heavyweight Mike McClure also appreciates having Tyler around the team.
"It's great that he's coming into the wrestling room and we can take him under our wing," said McClure. "He has to spend a tremendous amount of time at the hospital , so we're trying to help him experience something that he otherwise probably wouldn't have the chance to.
"I definitely think he's feels a part of the family here. I thought maybe it was going to take a little bit to adjust, because there are a lot of guys on the team, but he really surprised me and fit in really quick and felt comfortable with us."
As McClure and John Rizqallah prepare for next week's NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla., Tyler was back at IM West on Thursday, wearing a Michigan State wrestling sweatshirt, soaking up his time with the team. He said it feels good to be around the team and that he's "proud" of his Spartan apparel, and he often gets asked how he received the gear.
"I tell them I got it because I'm on the wrestling team," he remarked with a smile.
McClure was the first one to greet Tyler on Thursday and walked him into the wrestling room, along with his mother and brother. At one point or another, all of his Spartan teammates gave him a high-five and asked him how things were going.
Once practice was underway, Tyler hung out with sophomore Joe Johnson, who is injured and unable to compete. For a time, there was no age difference, and it was harder to see who was having more fun - Tyler or Joe. Which is exactly how Minkel views it as well.
"I think it's certainly good for Tyler because he gets to be a part of our team and experience what we are going through," Minkel said. "For our team, it's just as valuable because we get to see things maybe in a little better perspective than we might otherwise. It has been an enormously valuable thing for us."