'A miracle.' How South Bend Saint Joseph's Tyler Brown worked his way back from near-death experience
SOUTH BEND — Eric Gaff had no regrets when he unexpectedly evacuated his classroom.
It was near the end of the school day in October 2021 when the South Bend Saint Joseph's boys basketball coach received an unexpected FaceTime call from one of his players — Tyler Brown.
Gaff's heartrate jumped when he saw who it was. At first he thought it was some kind of distasteful joke. But when he answered and saw Brown's face for the first time in two weeks, he couldn't be happier.
"Am I supposed to empty a class for a phone call from a player? Probably not," Gaff recalled. "But I was willing to risk it in this case."
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Their conversation was short and light considering the heavy circumstance in which the call was placed.
"Are you good?," Gaff asked Brown.
"Great," Brown responded. "I've started dribbling a basketball again."
"Glad you are still working on your game," Gaff answered back. "You look great."
Brown's wide smile extended to both ends of Gaff's phone screen as they talked. If Gaff hadn't known, he wouldn't have been able to tell Brown had just recently awoke from a week-long coma.
He wouldn't have known Brown had part of his skull removed.
He wouldn't have been able to tell that just two weeks earlier his sophomore guard, just 15 years old at the time, was clinging to life after suffering a stray gunshot wound to the head.
Gaff knew all of that, which was why the this call was more important than anything else at that moment.
A mother's worst nightmare
To this day Mia Lee tries at all costs to avoid the intersection of Johnson Street and Elwood Avenue when driving around South Bend's Northwest side. That's where her son Tyler's life forever changed on Oct. 7, 2021.
Brown was getting driving lessons from his father the night of Oct. 7, 2021 when shots were fired from a passing vehicle. Brown was shot in the left side of the head.
"My dad called the police," Brown recalled some of the details. "I tried to get out of the car. Someone threw me on a stretcher, and I don’t remember what happened after that."
Since then Treuth Griffin, then 19, has been charged in the shooting. Trials are expected to begin in February, according to Lee.
Upon arriving at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, where Brown spent 34 days, he was put in an induced coma. Brown then was in six hours of surgery before being put on life support.
Lee was at home that night with Brown's younger brother Braylen, then a 6-year-old, when she got the call from Brown's father and rushed to the hospital.
"It was a nightmare to not know if he was going to make it and seeing him there in the emergency room," she said "I’m never going to forget that night.
“My son was never in any type of trouble. He hadn't even been in a fight. So it was like, why? Who did this? Why would somebody do this and not having the answers."
Gaff didn't have the answers, either when he received a text in the middle of the night from a former player, worrying about Brown.
"I was up the rest of the night," Gaff said, "thinking 'what am I going to say to the guys tomorrow morning?' "
There were many of those sleepless nights over the next two weeks before he saw Brown's face for the first time during that FaceTime conversation.
Saint Joe didn't have school the day following Brown's accident. Some of Saint Joe's players periodically stopped into Gaff's office to talk.
Gaff relayed whatever information he had, which at that time was minimal. He tried to keep things light, prolong conversations. Gaff said he even brought in some donuts. Anything to get the guys to smile a little bit.
That night at practice, Gaff led the team through a prayer and as hard of a practice as the team had endured that early in the season.
"Let's do our best to do what Tyler would do," Gaff said. "Let's bust our butt and get ready for him to return."
Fighting through recovery
When Brown's neurologist gave him the all-clear to return to athletic activities in June, Lee immediately hired a personal trainer from T2 Sports Performance in South Bend.
It was Brown's first major step to getting back on the court. But even reaching that point was a strenuous process.
Brown had a tracheostomy and feeding tube put in his throat. He had to learn how to eat and drink again.
"I couldn't drink regular water," Brown said. "They had to put thickener in it. Sometimes I cried, just questioning why me and why I had to go through this. Some days I couldn’t even put food in my mouth, or my mouth was so dry from no water. I just cried. It was hard."
Lee would stay at the hospital form 7 a.m. until being sent home at 7 p.m., watching her son progress through physical, speech and occupational therapy sessions three times a week.
Brown had to relearn how to walk. He is still working through learning how to write again. Now back at school, Brown has a para professional who writes everything for him.
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Back in September Brown got his driver's license, doing that on his own.
The next step came basketball.
During his time in the hospital, Brown's teammates brought him a signed basketball that he keeps in his room. He used that ball to begin dribbling with his dominant left hand. Brown's right side of his body still lags behind from the accident, and isn't as strong.
Shooting the ball, however, came back a lot easier.
"I don’t know that there are a lot of people in this world," Gaff said, "willing to fight as hard as he fought to get back on the court."
Free-throws remembered forever
During Saint Joe's home opener last season, Brown watched from the school's cafeteria that overlooks the gym, as his team beat South Bend Adams.
“They won it for me," Brown said. "It was a tight game, but they won that for me. To watch it was a plus one, a step forward."
Welcome home, Tyler. We missed you. #TB4 #RollTribe pic.twitter.com/6NNzXnEoJO
— SB St. Joe Basketball (@SJhoopsquad) December 4, 2021
A step toward one day playing on that court himself. That moment may be here soon.
Before this season started, Gaff had a talk with Brown, now a junior, about him playing again. Brown had been practicing every day with the team.
"I told him If he was ready to play to put the jersey on," Gaff recalled. "If not, put on your travel gear."
Before last weekend's Homestead Holiday Tournament, Brown made the call. He was ready to play.
Brown made his first varsity appearance in Saint Joseph's first of two games this past Saturday against Munster, where he played for just over a minute.
"(My teammates) were more happy than I was to get in," Brown said. "They kept trying to get me the ball so I could score."
Brown got in again during the night-cap against Fort Wayne Dwenger, where he scored his first varsity points on a pair of free-throws.
Tyler Brown makes his first varsity points after a challenging year. So many prayers made this possible. So the whole world sees that God is good! @jlee_42 @SaintJoeBsball @SaintJoeHigh pic.twitter.com/o4ayllrW9O
— Wesley Lee (@Wessigma4) December 29, 2022
"I sat and down and it was like, holy heck, this kid is about to shoot a free throw," Gaff said. "A year ago I am sitting in the office and they don’t teach you to handle situations like this in the coach’s manual.
"It was one of those moments that gives you chills and makes you emotional to see that."
It was tear-jerking in the locker room after the game, too. Gaff didn't want to say much because he knew he would have lost it. He told Brown how proud he was of him and called him a miracle as Brown's teammates clapped him on.
“I couldn’t believe it because the doctors told my mom I wasn’t supposed to make it," Brown said. "I wasn’t supposed to walk again.
"It was just a blessing that I could do the things I love again."
All Brown could do was smile.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Saint Joe's Tyler Brown returns to basketball court a year after shooting