Tyler Stacey never thought he’d have the kind of year he had during his first at Cardinal Stritch University. As team manager and “hustle police,” Stacey was a key piece to the men’s basketball team that won the NAIA Division II national championship.
When the final buzzer sounded and the Wolves had the title, fans, players and coaches celebrated. It was time to cut down the championship net. Stacey has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and only has use of his right hand, but two Stritch players picked him up and put him on top of another player’s shoulders.
“I hadn’t been on anyone’s shoulder in a long, long time,” Stacey said. “At first I was really nervous, but as I was up there, I was overwhelmed with pure joy. I realized, knowing what I know about those guys, they wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”
He was handed a pair of scissors and he cut his own piece of the net.
Before arriving at Stritch, Stacey, a junior majoring in political science, spent time at other universities and didn’t feel at home until he contacted head coach Drew Diener.
“He’s known me and my dad (assistant coach Dick Diener) since he was a little boy,” Diener said. “He didn’t find a place where he was really comfortable and he’s really into basketball and reached out to my family.”
At the beginning of the season, there was a team meeting, which Stacey nervously attended.
“I was nervous from the standpoint of I didn’t quite know what my role was going to be,” Stacey said. “I wasn’t quite sure how the guys who I hadn’t interacted with before were going to receive me.”
Stacey took the first step.
“Before coach could introduce me, I kind of decided to give a little impromptu blurb about myself and really let the guys know that I had the same common goals that they did,” Stacey said. “That kind of put my nerves at ease as well as theirs.”
Stacey explained his disability and told them he had “tremendous love and passion for the game of basketball.”
The team embraced Stacey.
“He’s really found a home,” Diener said. “I wanted to give him something that he could kind of make his, and he did.”
Along with managing the score clock, Diener assigned Stacey the role as a motivator during practice, asking him to work specifically on pushing the players to sprint hard and work for rebounds.
“He gets guys to rebound and gets guys to play hard,” Diener said. “He’s a vocal kid. When they’re running sprints, he’s yelling at these guys.”
Originally, Stacey was given the title of “hustle coach” but eventually he morphed that into “hustle police.”
“I always want to make sure that guys are putting forth their best effort because, to me, if they’re not, they’re doing their God-given-talent a disservice,” said Stacey, who one day hopes to coach. “You just want to see people thrive in areas that you necessarily cannot.”
Stacey said he’s grateful to Diener for taking a “leap of faith” in him.
While pushing his teammates to do their best on the court, friendships have developed off the court.
“These guys are some of my best friends; we play video games, we watch sports, we have study groups together,” Stacey said. “I love each and everyone of the guys like they’re my brothers.”
Cardinal Stritch player Derek Semenas admitted he had never been around anyone with cerebral palsy, but he said he was impressed with Stacey.
“He’s a great guy and he brings something to our team that not many teams have,” Semenas said. “Just the passion that he brings every day with life. He just makes sure you don’t take anything for granted and you work as hard as you can every day.”
After winning the championship, Semenas said the team spontaneously decided to include Stacey in the net-cutting ceremony.
“We just feel like he’s a part of our team and he’s just like another player that we’ve all grown so close to him,” Semenas said. “He’s another brother, he’s another part of our family.”
Stacey is a detail-focused person who tries to get his “fingerprints” on every part of preparation – from yelling during sprints to film study to coaching from the sidelines.
“I’m kind of a control freak and a perfectionist,” Stacey said. “Once the game starts and the ball tips, I have no control over what goes on, so it freaks me out.”
Diener noticed this as well.
“He maybe gets more nervous than anyone before a game,” Diener said.
Before the NAIA final four game against Indiana University Southeast, Stacey said he was sick to his stomach.
“He really has a passion for our team to get us better and our guys treat him like he’s one of the players,” Diener said.
Through 6 a.m. workouts, pre-game jitters and the courage to be part of a team, Stacey was a champion.
Being hoisted by his teammates at the end of the year meant more than the piece of string tied around a hoop; it was a lesson to others.
“For the people in the gym, it gave them an opportunity to see first hand what I felt every single day,” Stacey said. “I wasn’t just someone that they let be on the team or took pity on; I was really one of them and that they (the players) went
outside of what they had to do to let me get the full experience. I think it speaks to who they are as young men.”
Diener said he was celebrating with someone else when he turned and saw what his players were doing.
“As a coach you become so proud when guys do that on their own,” Diener said. “That’s what made it so special to me. I wasn’t dictating. It came out of genuine care for the guy.”
Weeks later, that experience still touches Stacey.
“It was really overwhelming because I had all these dreams and aspirations but being in my position I never really knew if they’d come true or not,” Stacey said. “There are mornings when I look up at the blown up bracket that I have in my room or just the articles or any of my personal accomplishments and I just start to cry because I never thought I’d have this opportunity.”
Being at Stritch has also affected Stacey’s faith life.
“Even though I’m not Catholic, I do think God plays a huge role in who I am as a person,” said Stacey, who attends a non-denominational church in Fond du Lac. “I’ve grown way, way personal with God over the last year… being someone in my situation sometimes growing up is hard to see God’s plan.”