Wyatt Hernandez's story is one of perseverance
By Audrey Roberts, KTVZ.COM
It sounds like a blockbuster movie: Boy loves football, boy gets hurt -- and overcomes numerous challenges to remain in the game. That's the story of Sisters High School kicker Wyatt Hernandez.
"It was super hard as a mother to watch him, because I knew he wasn't right," Kathleen Warner, Wyatt’s mom, said recently.
Hernandez's freshman year started off rocky. He received a minor concussion at football practice.
"I decided not to tell anyone and to keep playing, and what happened, that damage done, it continued to worsen and worsen," he said. "My teammates brought me in the locker room, and of course I went to the hospital, where I began developing symptoms, like stuttering.”
The speech impediment would follow Hernandez for six months. He also lost his ability to read.
"I could barely get through a sentence -- that, of course, was very difficult,” Hernandez said. “Speaking was almost out of the question. I didn't like speaking. I was embarrassed."
He said substitute teachers thought he was faking it, and strangers mocked him in public.
His mother said: "We had no idea what was happening. We just tried to be there for him any way we knew how but those things didn't make him comfortable. He was 15 years old, and his mom and dad had to order dinner for him at a restaurant, because he didn't want to stutter in front of the waitress."
Hernandez used a federal Section 504 plan to help with his schoolwork -- like extensions and auditory tests -- which made the difference between an 'F' and a pass.
"He was trying to take his learners' permit. You know that's an exciting time,” Warner said. “How many times did you fail it?”
Her son said, “I got it on my fifth time, so four times.”
Warner recalled, “They told him if he didn't pass it that time, he'd have to wait a year. So that's a lot of pressure, and the DMV ladies were so sweet. They recognized him and so finally one spouted out, because she could hear him stuttering. She said, 'Do you want to listen to it instead of reading it?' And his eyes lit up, and he said, ‘Yes, I want to listen to it!’"
Hernandez assisted on the football sidelines his sophomore year, but it wasn't a good fit. After trying out other sports, including soccer, golf and swimming, it was time for Hernandez to return to his first love: football.
Warner said, "Then all of a sudden, one day he said, 'I want to kick.' And I thought, 'OK."
Hernandez said, "I can't tell you what made me want to start doing kicking, but just -- I said, 'You know, I just want to play football one last time.'"
Sisters High School doesn't have a special teams coordinator, so Hernandez taught himself to kick by watching videos on YouTube. He practiced hours on end -- even in the snow.
Warner said lovingly to her son: "He wasn't great, and as a mom -- ‘Mom, come shag balls for me!’ Okay. They didn't even leave the ground. It was horrible.”
Some of the videos he watched were posted by a former college kicker in Austin, Texas. Hernandez's mom did some research and found him.
"I didn't know what to think of it, because I get calls from time to time,” said Brent Grablachoff, coach/owner with Kicking World. “Some people are serious, and some are just inquiring about what we do. She said, 'I'd like to fly you out to Sisters, Oregon.' And I said, 'Sisters?' I never even heard of Sisters, Oregon, no less I didn't know much about Central Oregon or the state."
Grablachoff has trained kickers and punters who play in the NFL, college, high school and youth teams. He travels to 25 states with his company, Kicking World. Kickers often come from soccer and have a natural ability to kick.
"You certainly need a certain type of athleticism, particularly being very limber, coordinated with your feet, your balance," Grablachoff said. Wyatt lacked those years of experience.
"As far as athletically and as a kicker, he certainly did not have the natural ability," Grablachoff said.
The coach warned Warner that it was not necessarily realistic to assume Wyatt could pick up kicking. But he hoped he could get his new student to a level where he could have a fun senior year.
"I like to give it to people straight,” Grablachoff said. “I feel like if I'm real with people and tell them what's on my mind and be truthful, obviously while being respectful, they're going to appreciate it and it's going to save them time in the end. And it also gives them something to work for, to almost prove me wrong."
Their three-day training session consisted of a 90-minute practice twice a day.
"It was a battle and a journey for the first day and a half," Grablachoff said. "But by day 2 and day 3, we went from barely being able to consistently kick an extra point, which is about a 20-yard field goal, to he started kicking a couple 40-yarders on the last day, so it was a testament to his ability to focus, listen, implement."
Even though Wyatt's story is unique, he's part of a larger trend in football.
Grablachoff said, “Over the last decade or so, I've noticed a big change where we're getting a lot more inquiries from rookie parents or rookie parents of rookie kickers, where maybe they played soccer or maybe they didn't, and they're trying to get involved in football. Maybe the mom or dad was hesitant to enroll their son in football due to the nature of the violence of the game, and a lot more increased injures or at least more awareness for the concussions."
In the fall of 2018, Hernandez made his debut back on the field for the Sisters Outlaws.
Warner said, "I'm going to cry even talking about this, I'm sorry. But he went out for his first point-after (try) and the whole stadium -- I mean, kicking's not a big deal in high school football, especially in Oregon -- and the whole stadium just went nuts. That was the most exciting thing ever -- ever. And I think that the whole town went, 'He's good!'”
A few months later, Hernandez received a text message he at first thought was a scam or a joke. It was a coach from Willamette University, asking him to submit the rest of his application.
"I texted back, 'Oh, if you don't mind me asking, what is this for?' Like not expecting a response or anything. But just like immediately, he texted back: 'Oh, I'm a coach for a football team at Willamette. We're interested in you.'"
Hernandez is now enrolled at Willamette next fall, and he's regained his confidence.
"I went up to my mom and said, 'Like for the first time in two years, I truly feel better,'" he said.
Friends and family both admire his perseverance.
"I've always been inspired by sports stories. Everyone has challenges in life, and I just recognized that as one of my challenges, and I had to overcome that,” he said.
Hernandez made all-league first time, and all-state honorable mention. He's an advocate for safe football practices, along with his family, and offers advice to any families who may be dealing with a concussion.
Hernandez has plans to fly out to Texas to work with Grablachoff this month. His opening game playing for Willamette is Sept. 14 at Laverne, in Laverne, California. His first game in Oregon is Sept. 21 at Occidental College in Salem.