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TAMPA — On his last play of the season, Chaminade quarterback Jerrard Randall never saw or sensed the arrival of Tampa Catholic linebacker Tyler Robb.
Facing fourth and 7 from the Tampa Catholic 34 with less than two minutes to play and his team down by one, Randall dropped back, gazed downfield and pump faked before being leveled from his blind side by Robb. A flag had been thrown on the play, only to be waved off. Robb, a junior, began jumping in exhilaration.
He had conquered yet another daunting foe. The first was leukemia. On this night, it was the Lions.
“I actually didn’t realize what I had done,” Robb recalled four nights after that Class 2B state semifinal.
As surreal as the sack was to Robb, it had nothing on the first year of his life. As TC coach Bob Henriquez says, “He certainly is a story of perseverance.”
Nine months into Tyler Evan Robb’s existence, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, which fight infections and produce immunity. Seemingly everything — Tyler’s age, sex and the fact he was part-Hispanic — was working against him.
According to his mom, Gloria, Tyler was given a 60 percent chance of survival. Maybe.
“It actually, around the time, was around 50 or 55 percent,” said Dr. Cameron Tebbi, Tyler’s pediatric oncologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Today, he’s an honor student and the Crusaders’ second-leading tackler, gearing up for Saturday’s 2B state title game at the Florida Citrus Bowl. According to TC’s statistics, he has 60 unassisted tackles, not to mention one season-preserving sack and a highly improbable backstory.
“Dr. Tebbi told us, ‘Great, we save his life and you let him play football,’ ” Gloria Robb said with a laugh.
No one was laughing in the spring of 1994.
Though Tyler’s leukemia was highly treatable, his age made things tricky and treacherous. The peak incidence for ALL, Tebbi confirmed, is between ages 2 and 5, with aggressive chemotherapy being the treatment. For an infant, doctors would have to gauge the amount of chemo cautiously.
In essence, Gloria Robb said, the youngest of her two boys would be a guinea pig for other ALL-diagnosed babies. “They almost had to kill him to make him better,” she said.
Thanks to the aggressive approach, Tyler was in remission in 28 days. But the pain, parental anguish and pediatric floor visits were far from over.
There were excruciating shots in Tyler’s legs, which Gloria recalls being weekly. There were blood transfusions, even spinal taps to ensure the leukemia never reached the brain. To this day, Tyler sports tiny red marks above his pectoral muscles where ports were inserted.
All this before Tyler began kindergarten. His earliest recollection of it all? “Definitely the shots they had to give me, especially in the port,” he said. “I just remember I used to scream a lot.”
Tyler has remained in remission the past decade and a half, living as normal a childhood existence as the typical Crusader.
He has played baseball and football, winning three “Super Bowls” with his Carrollwood-based Tampa Bay Youth Football League team. He has broken arms and toes in a variety of childhood ways. He has blossomed into a 5-foot-10, 185-pound linebacker teammates call T-Robb. The only remnant of his illness: once-a-year bloodwork.
“We encourage the kids to participate in life like everybody else,” said Tebbi, a Bucs season-ticket holder. “A true cure is when you can do what everybody else does without restriction.”
None will be placed on him Saturday, when the Crusaders line up against a storied Jacksonville Bolles program that has won four state titles this decade alone. Henriquez said he senses his kids aren’t merely happy to be at this point. To the contrary, they believe they can win. T-Robb sure does.
After all, he has faced tougher foes.
“I definitely think I’m lucky,” he said.