Toughness is a quality that is hard to teach an athlete. It’s not something that you can learn from a book. It’s a quality that comes from hard work.
Senior TJ Ayers is an athlete who has been active all his life in track, football and wrestling and this all came to a crashing stop in eighth grade.
During this time, the doctors gave him some bad news. The heart murmur he had all his life would have to be treated. A heart murmur is an abnormal sound made by the heart. In this case, the sounds indicated he had a hole in his heart wall which had not closed up. He was going to need open-heart surgery.
Connie Ayers, his mother, said he was born with the defect.
“The doctors first said when he was younger that it was so small that it would repair itself, but when he grew in sixth or seventh grade, he grew so fast the doctors said that is why it could not keep up,” she said.
Prior to the surgery, he knew he had a problem with his heart, but it never gave him any problems or cause for concern and it never stopped him from being active.
The only reason they found it was going to be a problem was because TJ had to take a physical prior to playing high school sports.
They performed the operation during his eighth grade year and the operation went well but then he had some complications with his pericardium, the tough double layered membrane which covers the heart. The heart would not heal. This membrane developed an infection, which the doctor thought he could control with anti-inflammatory steroids. The infection worsened and TJ was told he would have to have another surgery between eighth grade and his freshman year.
Connie said the surgery took out the front and the back of the pericardium.
The surgery went well and everything healed nicely.
“Once they removed that he has been really good since. You would not know he even had surgery except for the scars,” Connie said.
During both surgeries, TJ said he was not too afraid.
“I never thought about dying. I had complete confidence in the doctor. I really had no fear going into it. I was just a little nervous,” he said.
His mother said after the second surgery they got TJ walking pretty fast.
“They had him up after 12 hours walking around. They did not let him sit, despite the major pain,” Connie said.
Of course after the surgery he had limitations. When school first started his freshman year he could not do anything until Sept. and Oct. until he got released.
Despite having cable ties which held his chest closed TJ still wrestled his freshman year. Cable ties are used to close up the chest cavity after open-heart surgery. He kept wrestling up to his junior year, but could not wrestle his junior year because he injured his knee. The knee required surgery.
TJ said the cable ties sometimes irritate him and cause him to wear a specially padded shirt to prevent irritation while playing sports. He played football his senior year. He even beat out Jeb, his brother, with more tackles. TJ ended up with 37 tackles on the year and his brother due to injury had 21.
TJ did concede that his brother was a better football player than him, but he felt he was the better wrestler of the two and said he had no problem beating him on the wrestling mat and said, “I hurt my brother and make him cry every day.”
TJ stands at 5 feet 11 inches at 160 pounds, where his brother is wider and shorter at 5 feet 10 inches tall at 185 pounds.
TJ said wrestling is his favorite sport. During his sophomore year he qualified for state.
“I like wrestling because it is more one-on-one. All you can do is blame yourself if there is a mistake. I just like it better,” he said.
The “switch” is his favorite move. This is a reversal move so if you start from the ground position it is a way to end up on top and gives the wrestler two points if done right.
Muckers Coach Duffy Otteson believes Ayers to be one of a kind.
“TJ is the toughest kid I have ever coached. He came out his freshman year for wrestling. Never wrestled before and just came off heart surgery. He has cables holding his chest in place. He got his butt kicked his first year wrestling, but grew so much from the beginning to the end. He never gave up and continued to listen and improve. There was times he got slammed and I thought for sure that that was the last time he would do this. His ‘tough as nails attitude’ and the way he listens is what brought him to be the wrestler he is today. His sophomore year he made it to the state championship tournament. Then his junior year he had knee surgery. He is back his senior year and I am expecting good things from him not only as a wrestler, but also as the only senior on the team and a leader.
After he graduates he will be going to college in Wyoming to become a diesel mechanic.
“I found taking apart cars interesting. I had a lot of Legos growing up and I was constantly building things with them and this led to cars,” he concluded.