Eight-year-old Tyler Hostetler showed up about 90 minutes late for his first day of third grade at Cheat Lake Elementary School in Morgantown, W. Va. Still, when Tyler walked into the room, accompanied by his beaming parents, his classmates rose and began applauding and chanting "Tyler, Tyler, Tyler."
"It was a pretty emotional moment for everyone," said Jeff Hostetler, the former Redskins quarterback and Tyler's father. "What's happened here basically is a miracle. It's the only way to describe it."
On June 14, Tyler and a friend were riding around a friend's property on an all-terrain six-wheel vehicle. Tyler had ridden similar four-wheelers at home, but only when his father was present. The ATV apparently hit a fence post and flipped, and Tyler was pinned underneath it.
Only a few seconds before, his friend's father, John France, had pulled into the driveway after a day of work at a nearby hospital, where he specializes in trauma and spinal surgery. France saw the overturned ATV and ran to the field. His son had suffered only a cut. But Tyler Hostetler was in deep trouble.
"If John had just gone right into the house when he first came home, he told us afterward he didn't think Tyler would have made it," Hostetler said. "When he got to him, he wasn't breathing, but John did CPR and got him back and stabilized him as much as he could. As it turned out, that's the other miracle. Tyler couldn't have been in any better hands."
Hostetler related his son's story in an occasionally emotional hour-long telephone interview. An intensely private man, he had not previously spoken about the accident.
In addition to having multiple fractures from the vertebrae at the base of his skull and in several areas of his spine, Tyler also had a punctured lung and a fractured clavicle. Initially, he had slight movement in his extremities, but Hostetler was told by doctors that night that at one point, it had been "touch and go" as to whether the boy would even survive. Tyler never underwent surgery and didn't even need a stitch, but he had suffered life-threatening internal injuries, and paralysis also was a possibility.
"The doctors told us the injury was not a good one," Hostetler said, "and they really didn't know where it would lead to next. Over the first 24 to 48 hours, there would be a lot of swelling, so Tyler had to battle the injuries, and battle his body.
"That night, I sat in his room for three hours and I saw the motion disappear completely in his left arm and leg and most of it in his right leg. It seemed like every hour some movement left him. At 5 a.m., I knew without anyone having to tell me that things had gotten worse."
Tyler spent about 10 days in the intensive care unit at Ruby Memorial Hospital, a teaching facility associated with West Virginia University, Hostetler's alma mater. Tyler then was transferred to nearby Mountainview Regional Rehabilitation Hospital to begin the often torturous process of regaining the use of his arms and legs.
"A week after he was in the rehab hospital, things started to come back," Hostetler said. "We were always looking for just a little motion, and when we saw it, we knew that it had a chance of getting better. Over the next two or three weeks, his left leg came back very fast, then his right arm got better. Right now, his left arm is probably the most affected."
Through it all, Hostetler said his son performed like a champion, despite what he knows had to be excruciating pain. Tyler was placed in a halo, with a screw inserted in his skull, to help stabilize his spinal area. "It was a lifesaver," he said, "but it was awful tough for him to deal with."
Over the course of his own 15-year NFL career, Jeff Hostetler had rehabilitated a number of far less serious injuries. He worked with Tyler's therapists at Mountainview, and often found himself pushing his son the way team trainers had once pushed him.
"There were times when he didn't want to do anything, and I had to get firm," he said. "With an 8-year-old, it's hard to make him understand that the pain he was going through now eventually would make him better."
Hostetler and the therapists also tried to make the rehab into a competition of sorts. About six weeks after the injury, Tyler had enough feeling in both legs to try walking again. As the days passed, Jeff would use a stopwatch to time him over certain distances. They counted repetitions of various exercises, always trying to surpass the previous day's total.
"Basically, we had to retrain all his muscles all over again," Hostetler said. "When he took his first step, to us, it was like taking his first step as a baby, probably even better. To see him light up when he was able to do it, that was pretty special."
Tyler now goes to therapy twice a week, and life has returned to some semblance of normalcy for the family. Jeff, who sat out the 1998 season to recover from knee surgery, was cut by the Redskins and remains a free agent. Before Tyler's accident, he said a number of teams had contacted him about signing for the '99 season.
"When he was hurt, that obviously was the last thing on my mind," he said. "We all had one priority, and that was Tyler."
Now, however, he is starting to think about football again. The St. Louis Rams would like to sign him as soon as possible in the wake of the season-ending knee surgery suffered by starter Trent Green two weeks ago.
Green became the Redskins' backup last year when Hostetler hurt his knee in the final preseason game, and eventually became the starter. That led to his departure to hometown St. Louis as a free agent with a four-year, $16 million contract. When Hostetler was listed as the No. 3 quarterback, behind No. 2 Gus Frerotte, he opted to have knee surgery and miss the rest of the year, even though he probably could have put if off until after the season.
Jeff Hostetler is healthy again and has been working out regularly. But he's still not sure he's ready to leave Tyler and return to football.
"It has to be the right situation," said Hostetler. "What's the right situation? I don't even know. I've always said I just want the opportunity to contribute, and you can do that all kinds of ways. Helping the young guys is one of them. My goal has always been to contribute on the field, but if I felt it was the right circumstance, I'd have to consider it.
"St. Louis is calling me now, and I'm thinking about it. I'll probably make a decision in the next three or four weeks. Tyler will continue to improve, and the more he improves, the more comfortable I'll feel about playing. The dust has started to settle, and we'll just have to wait and see."
Doctors have told the Hostetlers that the prognosis remains good for Tyler's complete recovery. The fact that he was so young and such a strong, athletic boy to begin with were all in his favor.
"They haven't ruled anything out," Hostetler said. "Everything is coming back. The biggest obstacle will probably be his left bicep. It's still a long road, but at least he's well on that road.
"Just before the accident, he'd made the all-star team in baseball. He was a switch-hitter. His brothers won't like to hear this, but he was probably the best natural athlete of all the boys. Tyler was a natural left-hander, but now he's doing things right-handed because that's his stronger arm. He says his goal is to become the first switch-pitcher in the majors. Who knows. After this, you have to believe that anything is possible. We are very blessed."