Nov. 22 was senior day for the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the team's seniors were being recognized for their contributions to the program. Each senior, from the unheralded walk-ons to the captains, was announced to the crowd and received applause as he headed to the Tunnel of Pride to meet first with head coach Jim Tressel and then with his family members.
And as Tyson Gentry wheeled his way from the south end zone toward the tunnel, the former walk-on who suffered a freak injury during the spring of 2006 and is still fighting to regain the ability to walk was treated to a standing ovation from the OSU faithful.
The reception brought a slight tear to the fifth-year senior's eye.
"I could definitely feel the emotion, but once they announced my name and I was going toward the Tunnel of Pride it was definitely a little emotional to think of all the previous players and everything," Gentry told BuckeyeSports.com. "It was just a very emotional day overall."
Gentry's senior day experience actually began some time before the team's annual date with arch-rival Michigan. When the day's activities were being planned several weeks prior, the Buckeye coaching staff had a tough choice on its hands.
With a senior class of 28 members, which senior would be the last to be recognized? Traditionally, the honor has gone to the team's most valuable captain – see Troy Smith in 2006 or Kirk Barton in 2007. With five players who chose to return for their senior seasons rather than depart for the NFL as well as a handful of notable others, the choice this season figured to be a tough one.
Except that in this case, it was pretty clear from day one which senior would receive the honor: Gentry. His day in the spotlight began two hours before kickoff when the football team made its annual appearance at Skull Session, a pep rally at nearby St. John Arena featuring the school's marching band.
"When the coaches were talking earlier in the year about what seniors might want to speak at Skull Session, we naturally thought of Tyson, and it seemed like a good choice for the Michigan game," head coach Jim Tressel said. "Throughout his time here, Tyson has been an inspiration to every member of our team, and to every person who has gotten to know him. His family has also been an amazing example of courage and love. We knew the crowd at the Skull Session would connect with that same inspiration."
The decision to have Gentry be the final senior to be recognized was simply posted on the team's bulletin board with the instructions as to how senior day was supposed to be run. No discussion was needed among the players about why Gentry was deserving of the honor.
"I think it was something that we knew was going to happen," senior captain Brian Robiskie said. "I don't think we decided that we were going to kind of have him speak or get announced or anything like that."
When the team met for chapel the night before the game at the Blackwell Hotel on campus, Gentry was chosen to speak to the players there. It was a warm-up for the following morning, where he spoke to a near-capacity crowd at the former home of the school's basketball teams.
Although he is growing more comfortable speaking in public, Gentry said he is not often asked to give speeches.
"It was definitely an honor just to be considered to do that for Michigan for that game," he said. "It was definitely an honor to be a part of that and to be considered for that. It was awesome to get up and introduce myself and say my thing just because I've seen all the seniors in the past do it. Just to be able to finally be able to do that was pretty special."
Gentry fell awkwardly after being hit by a teammate during spring practice in 2006. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a broken C-4 vertebra and needed two surgeries – one from the front and one from the back – to fuse his C-3 and C-5 vertebrae together and insert titanium plates for stability.
He was discharged in late July and has since been on the road to recovery. A source of inspiration to his teammates, Gentry attends all team functions and is treated as a full member of the team.
"He's always in the weight room working out, he's always in the locker room driving around and in practice he's out there rolling around," OSU senior defensive tackle Nader Abdallah said. "I joke around with him all the time, telling him to go out there and make a play. It's just stuff like that that really keeps me going."
The entire senior day experience made Gentry grateful for all the support he has received during his five years as a Buckeye. At the team's annual banquet, he brought home the Bo Rein Most Inspirational Player Award.
"I'm definitely very thankful for people's thoughts and prayers," he said. "It really means a lot. The amount of respect and everything else that people has given me has been very meaningful to me. It's nice that people care so much."
Gentry's therapy is progressing, but there remains no prognosis for when – or if – he will ever walk again. Although many were hoping for a miracle to occur and for Gentry to rise out of his wheelchair and walk across the turf at Ohio Stadium on senior day, the man himself was not disappointed in the final outcome.
"I don't really focus on that," he said. "Granted, that's what I'm pretty much going to therapy for, to get out of the chair one day, but at the same time I'm not focusing on that. Just because it's not there doesn't mean that I'm always thinking about it."
With an attitude like that, Gentry has already succeeded in Tressel's eyes.
"I know his future will be filled with making a difference in people's lives," Tressel said. "He has handled his tough situation with great strength, and I have already seen his ability to share that strength with others. He is an exceptional person."