"Quit walking," Tyler Schilhabel barked at one of his players in between drills during a recent football practice.
That may seem like a typical exchange between coach and player but for the 24-year-old in his first year as head coach at his alma mater, Independence High, it has greater significance.
Schilhabel hasn't been able to walk in eight years. And some of the last steps he ever took were running off the football field as a star player after securing a big win for Independence in 2010.
Two days later, he was paralyzed from the chest down in an ATV accident at the dunes near Pismo Beach. Since then, he's taken the road less traveled to become the only known current high school football coach in America who’s confined to a wheelchair.
Schilhabel doesn’t want a handout, only the respect he knows he deserves.
“Never doubt yourself and what you are capable of doing no matter what the circumstance is,” he said. “It will never be more than you can handle. ... You just have to make that choice to attack it head on."
THAT FATEFUL DAY
It was Labor Day weekend eight years ago when 16-year-old Tyler Schilhabel (pronounced sheel-habel) and his older brother Drew traveled with friends to the dunes near Pismo.
It was a time of celebration. That Friday night, Tyler, a junior quarterback at Independence, had just thrown for 241 yards and two touchdowns. Drew had two sacks as the Falcons beat Clovis North, 21-19, in the season opener.
On Sunday, hours before they were scheduled to head back to Bakersfield, the Schilhabel brothers, along with friends Josh Hickle and Alex Starkey, went for one final ride on their ATVs.
At one point, Tyler looked for his brother and saw him riding in the opposite direction. He turned his quad around and began to race after Drew, before realizing the dune was about to plateau into a 35- to 45-foot drop-off.
“I stayed on the quad the entire time. It’s like slow motion," Tyler recalled. "I was hanging on, knowing it’s not going to end well.”
The two front tires were the first to make impact. His chest slammed into the handlebars, which sent him flying off the quad.
“I am just laying in the sand next to the quad and instantly paralyzed,” he said. “I couldn’t feel a thing.”
He reached in his back pocket and grabbed his cellphone, but couldn’t find reception.
By this point, Tyler's two friends were on top of the dune peering down at him, laying flat in the sand.
“Hey, you know it’s a lot easier if you get up and walk around," Hickle yelled down.
"I can’t feel anything," Tyler yelled back. "I can’t move.’”
Tyler remembers the ambulance ride and being rushed from one hospital to the next — from Arroyo Grande to San Luis Obispo — before eventually being airlifted to Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto.
He had severely injured his spinal cord and was left without feeling or movement below the fourth thoracic vertebra.
He spent three weeks at Stanford Medical Center, then three months at a rehabilitation center in Downey, near Los Angeles, where he became acclimated to life in a wheelchair.
Six months after the accident, Tyler moved to Carlsbad to begin his quest to walk again at Project Walk.
"It’s a cutting-edge way to get people in the process to walk again," he said.
The program was not covered by insurance but, at this point, money wasn't a concern to Tyler's parents.
“We were going to keep doing it for as long as he felt he was getting something out of it,” said his father, Dave Schilhabel. “They were very encouraged when he first started there and it encouraged him. If he felt he wanted to keep going, we would have kept going, too.”
But the program's success rate is 15 percent.
In total, Tyler spent about six months trying to walk again until he reached what he called "a come-to-Jesus moment." He realized his chances of walking again were gone.
“We told (the trainer) long ago I made the personal decision that it didn’t matter if I walked again,” he said. “Of course I was going to try everything in my power to walk again and make it happen. But if it doesn’t, oh, well. It’s not going to deter me from living my life.”
THE ROUGH PATCHES
Tyler's life was forever changed, and he described himself as “a baby all over again.” Not an easy situation for someone who was a standout athlete, and grew up the youngest of six kids in a no-fuss, tough-love family.
“I was learning how to redo everything,” he said.
The week his older brother, Seth, came home from a church mission, Tyler was in the kitchen trying to fix himself a bowl of cereal. But he couldn't pour the milk.
“With my balance still being so terrible at this point ... I had the bowl of cereal in one hand and the milk in the other and couldn’t bring them together to pour it without falling over,” he said.
He asked Seth for help only to be told to do it himself in the family's typical no-nonsense style.
Their father, Dave, was coming around the corner when he saw it happen. He recalls the moment vividly.
“The part that Seth didn’t understand and a lot of people don’t, is with people that are paralyzed, is they have no control over their midsection," Dave said. "I had to explain to his brother that he has no control."
More trying times awaited.
One day while at rehab with his oldest brother, Tyler was working on getting back in his wheelchair in the event no one was around to help at some point. While there, lying on a mat, flat on his stomach, he hit a low point.
“When you are freshly paralyzed, the most uncomfortable position is being on your stomach and prone on the ground. That position sucks,” he said. “They have me do it. I am laying flat on my stomach and my legs are behind me and I feel like I can’t do anything. All I can do is turn my head from side to side on the mat.”
He couldn't focus his mind to do the drill.
“I just sat there. This was the lowest point. I just stopped and broke down and just started crying,” he said. “There was a puddle of tears around my face and I had my oldest brother, Kip, with me in rehab that day. That was the point where I couldn’t do it. I was done.”
But faith and that tough Schilhabel family love turned him around.
“My brother got down on the mat and all he said was, ‘Think of the Savior,’” Tyler said. “My mind immediately went to everything that Christ suffered, everything I suffered and He knew the exact pain I was feeling at that moment. That picked me up and got me going again.”
The tough times didn't end there, but the moment was a turning point in how he approached challenges.
In the fall of 2012, Tyler moved to Idaho to attend Boise State University. He had aspirations to help out with the university's football program, as the team's former head coach Chris Petersen — along with numerous others in the football community across the country — had reached out to him following his accident in high school.
Although he didn't get a gig with the team, Tyler remained in Boise for one semester. One day, he went downtown to get a bite to eat. While crossing an intersection in his wheelchair, he lost control rolling over a pothole.
“I fell out of my chair right in the middle of the intersection. ... I fell out and with traffic, no one knew what to do,” he said.
“The chair rolled away. ... I am scooching myself across the pavement with my chair, and get myself back in and go get my Mongolian beef.”
That moment was demoralizing, but also a learning experience. One of many over the next few years.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
As he came to terms with his disability and how he would live life in spite of it, Tyler remembered the importance of football in his life.
“For my entire life, every friend I had, every girl I ever dated, all came through football,” he said. “(The injury and rehabilitation process) was the first time I was without football.”
While working as an assistant coach at Independence, Tyler had a chance meeting with University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. He seized on the opportunity.
"I said, 'Hey, my name is Tyler Schilhabel' and gave a little background about myself and that I always had an interest in coaching college football. ... I said any opportunity you are willing to give me I would be willing to take, " Tyler recalled.
Whittingham told Tyler he was open to the idea but wanted him to continue coaching back in Bakersfield. The college head coach was honest about his skepticism, telling Tyler that he hears from a lot of young guys who want a start in college football.
“I told him I'm sure he does, but I was going to stay on top of this," Tyler said. "Every two or three weeks I was texting him and giving him updates and letting him know.”
When he finished out the season in Bakersfield and showed up in Utah, Whittingham gave him a spot recruiting for the Division I FBS level team. And a few months later, he was moved into a special teams coaching spot that opened up, working directly with players.
It was a huge confidence boost for a guy that doesn’t lack confidence but needed a shot in the arm as an unknown future awaited him. And Tyler made sure the rest of the staff knew he was there to be a coach and not a pity case because he is disabled.
“I sat down all of the coaches and let them know that if they have questions, they needed to let me know," he said. "I said, ‘If I am (messing) up, let me know. Don’t spare my feelings or take it easy because I am in a wheelchair and don’t think I can’t do something because I am in a wheelchair.”
All the while, he kept his eye on his high school alma mater. When Lucas Lucero stepped down as the Falcons' head coach in May, Tyler, with Division I experience now under his belt, knew he was ready to take on the position.
“I thought it would be four or five years down the road. But one of the things that gave me the confidence to apply for it and think I could get it was I had Division I football coaches that treated me just like another coach,” he said.
Independence Athletic Director Derek LaRosa said that experience and Tyler's maturity despite his young age made him stand out as a candidate.
“We had a lot of really good candidates for the job and he really blew us away in his interview," LaRosa said. "We went out on a limb due to his age, not his disability. ... He is wise and mature far beyond his years.”
"I never had any doubts about him. He had great success at Utah,” La Rosa said.
When Tyler arrived on campus at Independence early this summer, he commanded the attention of his players much in the same way he commanded the coaching room at Utah.
“I said to them, 'Wheelchair or not, I am going to coach and get the job done just like anyone else.’ I laid it out plain and simple," he said "I didn’t allow them to see me as someone other than a coach that is to be held to a high standard and one that knows his stuff.”
"It's been amazing. He's been teaching me a lot," said Sergio Borreli, the senior starting quarterback for the Falcons. "He can talk to me on a level I understand. He leads by his actions."
Borreli said when he interacts with Tyler, he forgets his coach is in a wheelchair.
"It doesn't matter to me," he said. "He is a great coach and a great guy. He's amazing."
Independence is 6-2 this season and 3-0 in the South Yosemite League after beating West 35-20 on Friday night. They take the field this week in a pivotal game against Bakersfield Christian.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD
Through this journey, Tyler met the love of his life, Courtney Wall, on a dating website for Mormon singles.
A radiologic technologist by trade, Wall and Tyler developed a quick bond.
“We went the next night and I never dated or talked to anyone after,” Tyler said.
“It was different at first, but it was nice that he didn’t make it a big deal and that he is so comfortable with himself,” Courtney said. “It’s how good of an attitude that he has about life. He never lets anything get in the way of him. I needed that because he is the more positive one. That drew me to him.”
Tyler proposed to Courtney in June while on the family’s boat on Lake Mead. The two will marry on Nov. 30.
Wins and losses will come and go, but for Tyler the ability to shape young minds and change preconceived notions of those with disabilities is now his life goal.
“I don’t ever want somebody to see me as a guy in a wheelchair. I want them to see me as a teacher, as a coach, as a husband, a father," he said. "No different than anyone else."