‘I think he is one of a kind’

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John Pyles is carrying some pretty heavy burdens, even before he gets to take the field for Otterbein.
Otterbein athletics photo 

John Pyles has a focus few college students – or people any age – possess.

It’s the only way the Otterbein senior running back has been able to overcome more adversity than most 20-somethings.  

Growing up in Grove City, Ohio, Pyles’ father was shot and killed when he was 12. His two older brothers have battled drug addiction and been in and out of prison. And, he’s watched his mother’s health deteriorate due to emphysema.

Through it all, he’s managed to put himself through school and is on track to graduate in May, all while looking after a younger brother and a niece.

Oh yeah, he’s a two-year letterman on the football team and a key element of the Cardinals’ 400 relay team, which qualified for the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

So, how has he been able to overcome adversity?

“I am a Christian and that’s what pretty much defines my life. After the bad times in my life I have had, I had some options and an excuse to go down the wrong path. I turned to God instead of turning to the bad stuff. It changed my life and helped me stay focused and on the right path. I try to maintain a positive attitude even though everything around me isn’t so positive,” he said.

“When I lost my father, I just had to grow up quickly. God really blessed me. I was always mature at a young age. All the struggles are not something you want to deal with. I learned a lot about myself through faith and Christ has built me up. I have gained a lot of wisdom from having to grow up quickly; it wasn’t always fun. It was very stressful, but I have that peace from God. That’s what keeps me going, staying positive and puts smile on my face every day because I know it’s all going to work out.”

In addition to his academic and academic responsibilities, as well as the jobs he has on and around campus, Pyles is president of the Athletes in Action group at Otterbein and leads Bible study sessions as well.

“I am pretty busy, but I try to stay busy. It helps keep me focused in,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I have bitten off a little more than I can chew. It doesn’t always run super smooth, but it finds a way to work itself out.”

Pyles doesn’t want sympathy or help. He is content keeping his head down and working hard toward earning his degree in Health Promotion & Fitness. In fact, most of his teammates may not know about everything he’s gone through, so far.

However, the Cardinals’ coaching staff was aware of what he’s overcome and chose him as the recipient of the team’s No. 5 jersey, which is the program’s highest honor. Each season, the coach staff awards that number in memory of former quarterback Josh Worthington, who was killed by a drunk driver on Christmas morning in 2004.  Usually, it is given to a respected senior who demonstrates great character.

“As coaches, we sat down and I think it was pretty much a no-brainer to let him wear it. With everything he has been through, what a great student athlete he is and a great young man. He is very involved and very well liked. He is quiet and goes about his business,” coach Tim Doup said. “Obviously, growing up it was very tough on him, but he is not going to let anything in his past come in the way with what he wants to do in his life. He turns every negative into a positive. I’ve never heard him say one negative thing. He has learned to overcome a lot of things. He just make things very positive. He is a great influence on a lot of younger players.”

On the field, Pyles had four carries for 9 yards in the Cardinals’ 29-0 loss to Buffalo State on Saturday. He hopes his squad bounces back when they take the field again Sept. 19 to open OAC play.

“We didn’t play so well Saturday. We have some stuff we have to work on,” he said. “We have a bye week coming up and we’re excited to get ready for the start of OAC play.”

Football is not his biggest concern, though. He remains dedicated to helping his family – especially his mom, whose health has deteriorated. She is on oxygen and waiting for a lung transplant. In the meantime, Pyles has used some of the knowledge he’s gained in his classes to help her improve her diet and increase her spirits.

“I have had a few major switches, but now I have a passion for what I am studying,” he said. “Emphysema is not something you can cure; it only gets worse. But, helping her eat better and start to exercise has helped her. She doesn’t do it like she should, but she is doing better. Also, I’ve started to get her to go to church. She is starting to enjoy life more. To see her happy and stuff, that takes some stress away. It’s rewarding to see the impact.”

Pyles watches over his younger brother Josh, a junior linebacker at Ohio Wesleyan, too.

“I am the first person in my family to go to college. It was nice to see him go, too. It’s nice to see us change that pattern and not fall into bad things,” he said. “I really wanted him to come to Otterbein, but he wanted to go somewhere else and do his own thing. It was for the best; he is starting to get closer to God and figuring things out on his own; he’s doing things the right way all by himself. I am proud of him and happy he is doing his own thing.”

While his obligations and aspirations can make the months pass in a whirlwind, Pyles wants to enjoy his senior year of football and track. He hopes to attend graduate school next year or join the military. He’d like to become a firefighter, too.

“I am just kind of sitting back and praying a lot, hoping God guides me. Whatever door God opens, I am going to pursue it,” he said. “I love it here at Otterbein. I have learned to take in life day by day. I don’t want to rush through it. I want to enjoy being around my friends and brothers on the football team and track team in the spring. I want to take it all in and enjoy it.”

Doup will be sad to see Pyles go, but knows he’ll continue to make a strong impact wherever he ends up.

“I am excited for him and I know he is going to do great things in his life just because of the person he is. He has been through stuff people can’t imagine and nothing seems to faze him. I think he is just a role model for everybody,” he said. “I wish other guys would really know his story and the way he tries to turn it all into something positive. I don’t think his teammates even know everything he’s been through. I think he is one of a kind.”

Pyles does not hide from his past, but he’s not out broadcasting his story, either. He chose to talk about it because he thought it could have a positive impact on others.

“If anybody can know my story and it leads them closer to God, that’s what I want,” he said. “Everybody goes through their own struggles. If my story can help anybody or it helps them push through any adversity, then it’s all worth it.”

Game of the Week

Tough debut for Thomas More head coach Regis Scafe? Not exactly. The No. 16 Saints crushed No. 19 St. John Fisher, 48-0, on Saturday. Senior receiver Tyler Vogelpohl picked a good time to have a career game as he collected a program-best 207 receiving yards in the victory. Freshman running back Hjavier Pitts had 90 yards on 11 carries and sophomore C.T. Tarrant had 77 on 12 as the team played its first game in the post-Domonique Hayden era.

Game of the Week 2

Teams don’t really care for moral victories, but St. Vincent can validate it is making progress as a program with its 26-3 loss to No. 8 John Carroll. Last year, the Blue Streaks crushed the Bearcats, 44-0. That was the first game for St. Vincent coach Ron Dolciato, who spent the previous 24 years as a John Carroll assistant. While still a loss in the record column and lots of improvement to make, the Bearcats are on the right trajectory after an 0-10 season in 2013. It’ll be interesting to see how they bounce back when they welcome Waynesburg on Saturday.

What to Watch

Adrian at No. 7 Wheaton (Ill.) on Sept. 12. Wheaton had no problem in its 52-14 win at Coe to start the season. The Thunder racked up 576 yards of total offense. Adrian opened with a 31-13 win over Defiance. Sophomore back Emmanuel Stewart had 181 yards on the ground for the Bulldogs. This will be a good test for Adrian as it hopes to tune up for MIAA action.

In the polls

No. 2 Mount Union remained steady following the team’s 47-0 win over Bethany. Senior Taurice Scott made his first start at quarterback for the Purple Raiders. He threw for three TDs and scrambled for 89 yards and a score. Mount Union is off Saturday, but welcomes Muskingum on Sept. 19 to open OAC action.

No. 9 Wabash moved up from No. 10 after its 35-3 triumph at Hampden-Sydney to sweep the Gentlemen’s Classic. It was the second of a home-and-home series between two of the nation’s all-male institutions. The Little Giants are off Saturday and return to action Sept. 19 at Allegheny in their NCAC opener.

No. 10 John Carroll dropped two spots after its 26-3 win at St. Vincent. The Blue Steaks are off Saturday, but open OAC play at Heidelberg on Sept. 19.

No. 14 Washington & Jefferson moved up a spot after it cruised to a 56-10 win over Wooster. Daniel Lis set a new program record with a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Presidents play their only home game in the season’s first five weeks Saturday when they welcome Westminster.

No. 16 Thomas More made a huge leap from No. 23 after its 48-0 home with against St. John Fisher, which knocked the Cardinals out of the Top 25. Thomas More hosts Hanover on Saturday in a nonconference battle.

No. 17 Wittenberg stayed put after its 38-27 win over Capital. The Tigers erupted for 21 points in the third quarter to take control. However, they gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter. Wittenberg welcomes Ohio Wesleyan on Sept. 19 to open NCAC play.

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Joe Sager

Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. He has written about sports since 1996 for a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites. He first covered D-III football in 2000 with the New Castle (Pa.) News.

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