Inspiring Turn Around: The TJ Gerhardt Story

  • 7/19/2017 11:10:48 PM
  • Brian Skowronski
  • Local Sports

LEXINGTON, OH - TJ Gerhardt was destined to be Lexington's next high school football hero. Raised in a football family, TJ spent many of his younger days being molded by the gridiron as he prepared to star at the prep level. Though he would accomplish that feat as a record-breaking linebacker on the program's best team ever, his journey to that point made him a hero both on and off the field that inspired everyone who crossed his path.

With a head football coach for a father and an uncle who played at Miami of Ohio where his football coach grandfather also played for Bo Schembechler, TJ had football running through his veins from the day he was born. The gridiron has always been his most comfortable environment and the driving force for much of his life.

Gerhardt moved into the Lexington school district in middle school, in part because his class had a wealth of talent on the football field. The team would lose just one game in two seasons of junior high football and had giant expectations for their high school careers.

Though TJ did not expect to play on the varsity squad as a freshman, he would get an opportunity in week 1 of the season because of numerous injuries at his position and never came off the field again. Gerhardt earned a starting spot on the defense to following week and also received significant action in the backfield on offense. The team struggled through a 1-9 season with a young roster, but TJ led the team in tackles and finished the season as the starting running back, so the Minutemen had at least found their centerpiece to build around.

TJ's father, Taylor, would then take over as Lexington's head coach in the offseason and was counting on TJ to lead the program back to success. TJ would injure his knee the week before his sophomore season opener, however, and the season quickly fell apart. The team went winless in his absence and despite getting TJ back for the second half of the season, Taylor would finish his first year running the program at 0-10.

The team had lost 18 games in a row heading into TJ's junior season and had just three seniors on the roster. The good news was that most of the junior class received significant playing as sophomores, but still not much was expected from them. Then just a few weeks before the start of the regular season, Taylor noticed TJ struggling through workouts and immediately took him to the doctor. The Gerhardt's were informed that TJ was suffering some neurological problems and would need to see some specialists in Columbus.

It was discovered that TJ had Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that triggers rapid-onset muscle weakness caused by the damaging the peripheral nervous system. He became partially paralyzed to the point where he couldn't walk without assistance or even smile and close his eyes. 

Then came the bad news.

Doctors found a brain tumor on TJ and suggested that he needed surgery to remove it. Though he was 20 lbs lighter than when he walked in the hospital doors a week earlier and unable to physically walk, TJ was adamant, "Not until after football season."

The day after being released as a patient, TJ was at practice. He was barely strong enough to watch an entire session, but he kept showing up day after day and eventually progressed his way from doing drills to wearing a helmet then dressed in full pads. He tested himself in a scrimmage with the JV squad to see if he was ready to play and it all became clear, TJ was nowhere near being ready for a live football game.

He still wanted to achieve his goal of playing in week 1 against county rival Ontario, however, so he convinced his dad to let him play long snapper. Then the following week he saw more playing time, eventually getting healthy enough to return to his starting defensive role. Inspired by TJ's courage, the Minutemen started the season 5-0 and narrowly missed the playoffs with a 6-4 record. Amazingly, TJ finished third on the team in tackles and was determined to finish his high school career with a huge season.

Though still not completely healthy, the Minutemen rebounded from a 1-2 start to make the playoffs on the strength of a six-game win streak. A gutsy 2-point conversion call by Taylor in overtime then lifted Lexington past perennial powerhouse Clyde to move on to week 12 where again TJ's crew overcame the odds by stunning state-ranked Sandusky. The following week the Minutemen's dream season would come to a close at the hands of undefeated stat #1 Toledo Central Catholic, but the team had made it deeper into postseason play than any in program history and TJ was named a 1st-Team All-Ohioan as one of the best linebackers in the state.

Gerhardt will attend Dennison University in the fall to fulfill his dream of playing football at the college level.

In this short Sports Buzz documentary, see how TJ's story inspired his team to rally together and turn around the Lexington program through emotional interviews with both Taylor and TJ. 

Watch new episodes of The Sports Buzz with Brian Skowronski every Wednesday at 8 pm on WMFD-TV. 

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