(Photo/Courtesy of the Lillard family)
If you're familiar with wrestling at the youth level, I'm sure you've heard the name Tyler Lillard - he was Georgia's first 8th-grade high school state champion in 2018, the 2019 FS/GR Cadet Ohio State Champion, 2019 Fargo All American, 2020 Journeyman Champion, 2021 Journeyman Runner-up, and the 2021 NE Regional FS Runner up. Despite hearing the name and undoubtedly seeing his talent on the mat, it was learning about his personal life that truly intrigued and inspired me. Tyler Lillard, a 17-year-old junior at Wyoming Seminary Prep, is wise beyond his years and has overcome more in the last nine years than most could ever imagine.
While getting ready for school one morning, Tyler became very ill and could not stop vomiting, so much so, his mother grew with concern and took him to see his family doctor, who, upon arrival, immediately sent Ms. Lillard and Tyler to the emergency room. While doctors were not 100% certain what was wrong, it was clear Tyler was experiencing something that raised great concern. After weeks of EEGs, MRIs, bone scans, blood work and visiting several specialists, including neurologists, ophthalmologists, and oncologists, a long-awaited call came, "Ms. Lillard, we found a brain tumor on Tyler's optic nerve, this is also called an optic pathway glioma, which causes visual impairment because it presses on the optic nerve. We need to run some more tests. Also, those vomiting episodes that he was having, which later turned into convulsions and staring episodes, were actually seizures."
(Photo/Courtesy of the Lillard family)
Her son was in third grade at the time Ms. Lillard received the phone call that forever changed her life - it was the day Tyler Lillard was diagnosed with epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes seizures. The doctors could not figure out if the tumor was causing the seizures or if the seizures were the cause of the tumor. The rest of his third-grade year was spent traveling halfway across the country to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, visiting specialists to undergo five surgeries and establish a plan for future care with an uncertain promise one day Tyler would ultimately lose his vision.
Already involved with his local youth wrestling club at Johns Creek HS (Georgia), Tyler returned home with the expectation that his wrestling career was over. However, a club coach, Charlie Morris, at Morris Fitness Wrestling, had other plans. He reached out to Ms. Lillard and instructed her to bring Tyler to practice to watch on the mat, and she did just that despite Tyler's lack of interest in the sport since his diagnosis. Coach Morris knew better; he saw something special in Tyler. Little by little, practice after practice, Tyler began to drill alongside the wrestlers as they conditioned and trained. It was only a matter of time before he took to the mat once again.
(Photo/Courtesy of the Lillard family)
Fast forward just four years later, a few nights before the youth state tournament and Tyler suddenly was unable to see, his vision went completely black. Ms. Lillard called Coach Morris to inform him Tyler could not compete, but this persistent wrestling coach knew Tyler's journey on the mat did not end here. Instead, Coach Morris told Ms. Lillard to meet him in the wrestling room. Upon their arrival, Coach Morris blindfolded Tyler with a sock, turned off all the lights and began to drill with him. Coach Morris explained, "you don't have to see to wrestle," it was then that Tyler learned to adapt and overcome on the mat - from that moment on, he focused on perfecting three moves that keep him in constant contact with his opponents in case he does lose his vision during a match.
A year later, Tyler became Georgia's first 8th grader to win a high school state title in the Georgia Independent School Association.
Despite his determination, support system and his natural ability to wrestle well, Tyler had to overcome many more obstacles off the mat, "I used to have 60-70 seizures a day. Sometimes I was aware of having them, and sometimes I had no idea. After my brain tumor treatments and going to different doctors and specialists, I was put on medication to control the seizures, so now I currently have maybe two major [grand mal] seizures a year. However, I have smaller and less severe seizures on a weekly or daily basis."
In fact, it was just a year after winning his first state title when Tyler experienced a major grand mal seizure while on the mat during Liberty Nationals in February of 2017, "I don't remember what happened or what led to it, I just fell down and laid there unable to control my body. My mom remained calm and talked the trainers through protocol and with their help, I was able to safely get to the hospital." Unfortunately, Tyler experienced another grand mal seizure that same year. This one was more severe than the last, as it lasted seven entire minutes and landed Tyler in the hospital for over a week. Once again, Tyler questioned if he would ever be able to wrestle again, but he met uncertainty with faith rather than fear.
Although his condition has caused setbacks, it's not necessarily what Tyler focuses on; instead, he demonstrates and lives out the life of an overcomer both on and off the mat, "I never think about if I will have an episode. It's not something that crosses my mind when I get on the mat. I'm usually in a zone to think about how I plan on scoring. I do worry about if I lose my vision while wrestling; that is more of a concern for me than a seizure." This concern doesn't go unwarranted; in fact, just a few weeks ago, while Tyler was competing at the Northeast Regionals, his vision went completely dark, "This happens every now and then, and I know one day my vision will leave me for good. But I don't focus on that because if or when it does, I know at that moment God would have allowed me to see everything that I was supposed to see. Then, I can just figure out another way to train and hopefully win."
Tyler with his mother (Photo/Courtesy of the Lillard family)
As if that statement alone doesn't show you the type of Overcomer this young man is, Tyler and his mother formed a foundation called Team Tyler Epilepsy Foundation, which provides school supplies to children who are in the hospital and cannot start school in the classroom due to their medical conditions, "I remember being in school while I was in the hospital and teachers came around to keep us on track with our classwork, but no one had backpacks and notebooks and other cool stuff. Supplying those items, parking passes and meal vouchers for families is my way of giving back to my community because I was blessed to walk out of the hospital, and unfortunately, some kids can't and won't do that."
While the reality that Tyler will struggle with his epilepsy and visual impairment for the entirety of his life may seem overwhelming to most people, let alone continuing to wrestle despite his diagnosis, Tyler was able to walk out of the hospital after each incident. Because of that, he is sure not to take a single moment of his life for granted. Tyler doesn't allow epilepsy or the thought of one day going blind, hold him back or keep him from striving toward his goals. With the support of his mother, coaches and his teammates, this high school wrestler earned his way onto a D1 wrestling program in the Big 10 conference - one Tyler has dreamed of competing in since he was younger. When he graduates high school, Tyler plans on attending and competing for Indiana University under the guidance and coaching of Angel Escobedo, "I definitely would like to be a National Champion. I'm not sure if that will happen in high school or college, but it is something that I strive for every day."
Clearly built differently, this wrestler, wise beyond his years, wanted to share one final piece of advice for anyone facing adversity while chasing their dreams, "It may feel like there is nothing going your way, or your battles are not being won...never let anything or anyone get in the way of your dreams and goals. Set daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals and reach them knowing that I believe in you and God believes in you; the battle has already been won. It's also really important that on your journey, you share your feelings and emotions with others, your coaches, teammates, parents, pastors, anyone. It feels so much better to tell someone than to keep it bottled up inside. Know you are never in this alone and you can overcome."