Any hope of playing college football came to an abrupt end for Tyler Schilhabel when he was left paralyzed at age 16 after an ATV accident. But in an interesting twist, a pair of college coaches have played a critical role in mentoring him and encouraging his return to the field, as a coach rather than player.
Shortly after his accident in September 2010, Schilhabel was hospitalized at Stanford Medical Center when Jim Harbaugh — then head coach of the Cardinal — walked into the hospital with a group of players headlined by star quarterback Andrew Luck.
“He was alive, but there was no life to him. He was as low as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Harbaugh recalled in a recent interview.
“This isn’t just a hi and bye. We are in it for the long run,” Harbaugh told Schilhabel. And the two have remained friends ever since.
“He’s been along for the trip from the get-go," Schilhabel said of Harbaugh, adding that he recently texted him to let him know how the season is going so far at Independence.
“I feel lucky, lucky, lucky to know him and be friends with him,” Harbaugh said of Schilhabel. “To see him go from the lowest, to what he has become. From that to now. It’s a transformation.”
If Harbaugh gave him the initial encouragement, University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham gave Schilhabel the break he needed to get back into the game.
The two met atop a ski slope in Utah after Schilhabel had taken up adaptive skiing as a hobby. Schilhabel saw an opening and went for it.
“I crunched over to him in my ski and ... gave a little background about myself and always had an interest in coaching college football …,” Schilhabel recalled. “I said any opportunity you are willing to give me I would be willing to take.”
“I was very impressed with him right from the get-go,” Whittingham said.
“He’s very intelligent. That’s what jumps out at you foremost. He knows the game.”
When Whittingham expressed a willingness to consider Schilhabel, the athlete’s persistance and tenacity kicked in. Over the coming months, he called and followed up with Whittingham, and then moved to Utah. He had no job offer at the time but Whittingham gave him a job recruiting to start. Within several months, when a special teams coach left, Schilhabel was promoted to the job.
“He did everything we asked of him,” Whittingham said. “He was a real asset to us.”
With coaching experience for a Division I team, Schilhabel felt more than ready to take on the head coach position at Independence High in Bakersfield when it opened up.
“Just when I think I am flying under the radar, I then get this position and I am back in the light again and people are proud of what I am doing and see that I am doing what I love,” he said. “I have never once asked for the publicity, but I don’t shy away from it.”