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Gift of wheelchair powers University of Tampa student's soccer dream

TAMPA — Tyler Hernandez usually plays his favorite sport on the hardwood floor of a basketball gym, but on one particular morning he chose an asphalt parking lot just off of Dale Mabry Highway.

Hernandez, eager to show his friend Hank Malouf how a new piece of equipment would enhance his performance, couldn't wait until he found his way back into a gym.

So he rolled out his new Strike Force Power Soccer wheelchair and began whooshing around the parking lot and pinging the 13-inch ball with Malouf.

The new chair had speed. It had a different center of gravity and Malouf got to see Hernandez experience it for the first time. He watched as Hernandez figured out how to operate the chair almost immediately.

"The first time Tyler sat in the chair, it was a little frightening. That thing flies," Malouf said.

Malouf, owner of Hank's Catfish & BBQ just north of Waters Avenue on Dale Mabry, was more than a friend watching Hernandez celebrate the arrival of the new wheelchair. He was the man who helped fund the purchase last spring.

Now Hernandez will bid for a spot on the U.S. Power Soccer team this weekend, thanks in part to Malouf's generosity.

"Hank has a wonderful spirit," said Hernandez's mother, Megan. "He's just a very giving person."

Malouf, 31, read an article last spring about Hernandez's dream of trying out for the U.S. Power Soccer team. All Hernandez, then a Jesuit High School senior, needed was a high-tech wheelchair to advance his game and make his dream a reality.

"Having played soccer at Jesuit, I could appreciate Tyler's passion," Malouf said. "And if that's the only thing he needed, then I wanted to make it happen."

Wanting to assist Hernandez with making his goal, Malouf made a call to Jesuit and was put in touch with Hernandez's father, Chuck. Within weeks, Hernandez and Malouf made an immediate connection. They both attended Jesuit. They both would have a connection to the University of Tampa, with Hernandez planning to enroll in the school in the fall.

And they both shared a passion for all things soccer.

"I knew being friends with him was going to come naturally," Malouf said. "He's very bright, very well-spoken. He just lights up the room."

The two stayed in touch over the next several months, talking on the phone about the World Cup, texting back and forth about Hernandez's favorite player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Hernandez's dad was able to locate a previously owned chair and had it shipped to the family's home. Malouf told Chuck to just mail him the invoice.

"I'll take care of it," he told the family.

The day Hernandez got the Strike Force chair, his parents brought him and younger sister Haley down to Malouf's restaurant. Excited, they arrived before the restaurant opened.

"I looked around Hank's parking lot and thought, 'This looks good enough,' " Hernandez recalled."

Hernandez was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a neuromuscular disease, at the age of 13 months. He has been in a power wheelchair since he was 3 years old, but he has never had one like this.

The Strike Force chair is not built for comfort, it's built for speed.

"It's insane the difference this chair makes," Hernandez said. "The batteries, the motor, the guard on it that we hit the ball with. It's a different feel. A different way to play the game."

As the center midfield player for the Tampa Thunder, a competitive wheelchair soccer team, Hernandez strives to be the person who can help the team do their best, whether it's stopping the ball or making a crucial pass to one of the wingers. He likes to operate under pressure, and the pressure will be great this weekend, but he believes the chair will be the equalizer.

"The focus is more on who can play better, who can outsmart the other player and capitalize on certain plays," Hernandez said. "Who can execute when they need to execute. It's made the game much more exciting."

The self-described hardworking, committed and fun-loving University of Tampa freshman isn't slowing down for anyone.

"With my ability, having the chair in time for tryouts can only make me a better player," he added. "Without the chair I wouldn't be as great, but with the chair, I can compete with anyone."

Malouf considers it a blessing to be able to help Hernandez out.

"Being able to have the luxury to do that reinforces how great the community has been to me," Malouf said. "They've helped me fulfill my dream of being a restaurant owner for the past three years, so I wanted to do the same for him. It was really nice to not have to think about it and say let's just get Tyler in here and get him the chair."

Now Hernandez greets Friday's tryouts as a key move toward a career-long dream.

"It's a good feeling to know that some of the work has paid off," Hernandez said. "But I'm not there yet. I have to keep working hard. I've been working on a lot of drills, extra practice and extra time in the gym just to get ready for this opportunity. It's going to be an awesome experience."

Contact Aimée Alexander at aalexander@tampabay.com.

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