Before the season, senior Tyler Talley sat down with Southwestern University Pirates Men's Lacrosse Head Coach Bill Bowman to share a simple request.
"We had a conversation where he said, 'coach, I just want to be able to score one goal. That's all I would like to do is score one goal,'" Bowman said. "From that point on, my goal was to get him to do exactly that."
The moment came late on a March 11 game against Cornell College.
Lurking on the periphery of the defense's purview, Talley watched as the Pirate offense moved the ball, shifting the defense side-to-side until the ball found Jared Welsh behind the net. As Welsh circled out to his left in a slow trot, the defense overreacted, leaving itself vulnerable on the weakside.
Both Welsh and Talley recognized it immediately.
Welsh reversed course with a sharp cut to his right, his legs suddenly imbued with a sense of urgency. Several rows of players in front of him, Talley did the same, settling into a pocket of space to his left. Talley received the pass and fired his shot across his body, sending the ball through the net before the goalie could react.
It was the sort of impromptu display of chemistry reserved for teammates with years of repetition shared…only, it wasn't.
Talley's goal was the first of a collegiate career beset by two major knee injuries and significant heartbreak, keeping him off the field for all but 11 games in his four years at Southwestern University. In the box score of a 22-4 victory, the goal was a footnote. In the moment, with teammates going crazy on the sideline and lining up to hug Talley, it was everything.
"You saw when he scored that first goal, it was pandemonium," Bowman said. "They know what he's been through, where he's come from, and they know most of them probably couldn't do it. He's beloved."
For Talley, it was a whirlwind of emotions that left the details vague but the moment vivid, like an impressionist painting.
"It was kind of surreal, actually," Talley said. "In high school, when I would do something well, everything would sort of slow down.
"This time, I don't remember much from the entire play. I don't remember hearing people react but I was told the sideline erupted. For me, it was the culmination of a lot of years being injured and just putting in the hard work, I just remember it felt pretty great."
Talley arrived at Southwestern University as a highly touted recruit. Back in Rio Rancho High School in New Mexico, Talley was a versatile player who rarely left the field, often running to the sidelines to exchange the long pole on defense for a short stick on offense mid-play.
"Tyler was someone we were very excited to get," Bowman said. "One of the most blue collar, hard-working guys I've ever met in my life. He came in with an unbelievable work ethic."
Three days into fall ball practices in his first year, Talley tore his ACL running sprints. After surgery, during the grueling rehabilitation process, parents Thomas Talley and Janita Fitz were each battling cancer.
During the summer, he was in a motorcycle accident, setting back his return date. When he was finally cleared, he reinjured his ACL walking backwards, tearing his meniscus in the process.
"I've never seen someone have more things happen to them in their life but I've never seen a more resilient person either," Bowman said. "He's the backbone of what it means to be a good character person."
The injury left Talley not only sidelined but in a wheelchair for a brief time. The absence of sports removed any escape from the mental trials of two sick parents.
"My sophomore year was the toughest part of everything," Talley said. "The rehabilitation was tougher because the injury was a lot worse and, at the same time, my dad was getting progressively worse, which added to my emotional state."
Once cleared to start rehabilitation, Talley poured himself into getting back physically; perhaps even to the point of shutting out those around him.
"I'm a pretty quiet person, so I don't really like asking for help, which I realize is an issue because you should be able to," Talley said. "I just didn't want to feel like I was burdening people, so in my mind it was on me to push myself to get better.
"When I was doing rehab, it felt like I was at least doing things to get stronger and had something to look forward to."
Tally got through another year of rehab with his recovery on schedule to play in his junior season. When summer rolled around, everything came crashing down with one phone call. Tyler needed to return home.
During his visit, Talley had to rush his father to the emergency room. Four days later, his father passed away.
"I came back to school and physically, everything was fine," Talley said. "Emotionally, not so much."
Strengthening his surgically repaired knee offered Tyler a goal to keep moving forward. Random chance provided the support group he'd need to keep from falling back.
In his junior year, Talley was randomly paired with Sam Grubbs from the men's track and field team. It was a friendship that developed slowly due to Talley's reserved nature.
"He was secluded in a way, not coming out to the common room," Grubbs said. "If I had friends over, he'd hang out with us a few minutes and then return to whatever he was doing."
But Grubbs and his friends kept reaching out, slowly but surely bonding over friendly competition through video games, cards, or sports.
"They basically adopted me into their group because they knew I didn't go out or talk very much," Talley said. "They sort of forced me into their group but it has been a blessing. They're friends for life."
The two discovered they had much in common, for good and bad. Grubbs came to Southwestern University as a football player. Three torn discs in his back ended his collegiate football career early, transitioning to track and field full-time.
"You hear a lot about athletes getting depressed and low when struggling with injuries," Grubbs said. "So, we both kind of bonded over the fact we'd been injured and overcome a lot of things.
"A lot of my friends were football players, so when I lost that, it felt like I was singled out. It was nice to know I wasn't alone, that we could talk to each other if we had a bad practice or my back was hurting. The biggest factor is having a really good support group to keep us going in the right direction."
Talley appeared in four games during the spring of 2018, recording three ground balls and one shot. He also found solace on his bike, a Harley Davidson Road King left to him by his father.
"I take a lot of drives. I have this particular route I take through Georgetown," Talley said. "It's always most beautiful at sunset."
The motorcycle has been a source of freedom and therapy for Talley, going from the confines of crutches to the thrill of the open road.
"You can't understand until you've been on a bike with no seatbelt, no anything, and it's up to you to hold on for life, basically," Talley said. "The freedom of it is magical and I have that connection with my dad, so it makes it even extra special."
In the spring, while on the mend, Talley finally opened up to his roommate about his father and family's struggles.
"At first, I was very surprised. Then it made sense why he was so standoffish at first," Grubbs said. "If you go through something like that, you don't want to be too open. So, it was really an eye-opening moment when he brought us into his life. You just had so much more respect for him as a man, going through all that and still playing college sports and doing well in school.
"It was a lot of fun seeing his transformation from being secluded to becoming a big part of this group."
In the fall, heartache struck again. A few days after returning from visiting his grandparents on his father's side, Talley received a call his grandfather passed away. Rather than focusing on what he'd lost, Talley threw himself once more into what he could regain.
Perhaps no other student-athlete at Southwestern was as diligent in the trainer's room, strengthening his knee and the surrounding muscles. Working primarily with Assistant Athletic Trainer Jena Whitley, Talley prepared for his senior season.
"Being around him, watching him work really hard to get back for this year, it was just nice to see how much heart he had," Whitley said. "We never had to ask more than once for him to come in and do something. He's a really good person who keeps everyone in check."
Talley regained enough strength to score his first goal. Over the months, his family also regained his mother's health with Janita Fitz going into remission.
Fitz watched from her office computer when Talley scored his first goal, her screams of joy reverberating throughout the halls of Lincoln Middle School, where she's a special education instructional leader.
Three weeks later, she'd witness Talley's greatest collegiate lacrosse moment in person.
On Saturday, March 30, Fitz brought a contingent of family members—including his 95-year-old grandmother—to watch her son play in Denver against Johnson & Wales University. At the 7:40 mark in the first quarter, Talley received a pass from Welsh and scored his first goal of the game. Before the end of it, Talley would score two more for his first collegiate hat trick.
"Everyone was excited, some of our family had never got to see him play," Fitz said.
"We weren't going out of our way, he got everything in the flow and it shows the kind of ability he had if not for the injuries," Bowman said. "He has persevered and managed to be a part of this team when most people would've walked away a long time ago. It's a testament to who he is and he will be missed."
"There were definitely times I thought I wouldn't be able to play again," Talley said. "So it was amazing, whether you score or not, to just get out there and run, even if only for 10 seconds."
As Orson Welles once said: "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
Soon after recording his hat trick, Talley reinjured his knee and went under the knife a third time. Within days, even with his college career over, he was back in the training room as dedicated as ever.
"He's a really strong young man, he'll persevere," Fitz said. "He'll be successful in whatever he does. It doesn't matter what happens today because there's always tomorrow and he will find what he's meant to do."
This story doesn't stop at the hero riding off into the sunset, though you can be sure Talley will be found riding his motorcycle through Georgetown around that time.
"When I was a child, my dad always told me to never give up," Talley said. "I saw some of the adversity he'd gone through with injuries so his example kind of stuck. It was never an option for me to not come back.
"A lot of bad things happen. Certainly, people have been through worse than me. You just have to find things that keep you going and see the sun poking through the clouds."
Fairytales and even sports movies are driven by the happily ever after and, in a simpler sense, Talley's goals would have been enough to that end. Real stories—the type a reader doesn't want to put down—are driven by character.
Talley's story isn't inspirational because of a happy ending. It inspires because in any circumstance, under any duress, it's a story he won't allow to stop.