While his mom awaited a heart transplant, Tyler Duplantis found relief on the Nicholls baseball diamond
April 7, 2013. Nothing was going right. The Nicholls baseball team, already off to a disappointing 1-7 start in Southland Conference play, now trailed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth.
With two outs and runners at the corners, junior first baseman Tyler Duplantis made his way to the plate. Hitless on the day, Tyler had a chance to be the game hero. With a 2-2 count, he was quickly down to his final swing of the bat. The game rested on the Thibodaux native’s shoulders.
For Tyler, though, this wasn’t pressure — it was the perfect escape. Pressure was patiently waiting for him at home. Baseball was his relief.
In March 2007, Tyler’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with an arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy. Simply put, her heart no longer worked the way it should, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Shortly thereafter, the Duplantis family sat down and made a pact.
“We decided right then that no matter what would happen with mom, we were going to keep our day-to-day lives normal,” Tyler says. “For me, there would be no carry-over from family life to baseball.”
Easier said than done. The next six years would test every fiber of the Duplantis family’s mental toughness and faith as Mary endured a series of medical procedures — some more effective than others — and a long-term hospital stay in Houston. Through it all, Tyler poured his fears and frustrations into baseball.
A graduate of E.D. White High School, Tyler joined the Nicholls baseball program in 2009, but he didn’t stay long. “He walked on as a freshman and didn’t have a great fall,” recalls then-assistant and current Nicholls head coach Seth Thibodeaux.
“He wanted to play and realized there wouldn’t be much opportunity here, so he headed to Loyola and had two really good years. But I think he always wanted to return to Nicholls and prove he could play here. We got him back in fall 2011, and he was on a mission. He put on muscle and was in the cages every day. It was one of the best redshirt years I’ve ever seen. He studied film — something I’ve never seen a redshirt do. That’s who Tyler is, though. He gets the most out of himself every day.”
The source of Tyler’s drive was both simple and noble: Every night he just wanted to relay some happy news to his mother, who was patiently waiting for a heart transplant.
“For me to say that all this hasn’t been hard wouldn’t be right, but in those early years, I learned how to flip the switch,” Tyler says. “There was nothing I could do to help my mom’s health, but I could do my best in everything else. How could I give anything less while she was fighting so hard? So, I knew that for me to do well and have a good story to tell her at the end of the day would make her happy. That was my way of providing for her.”
Staying true to his family’s wishes, Tyler kept his mother’s personal struggles to himself while quietly taking on additional home responsibilities. His dad, David, drove back and forth from Thibodaux to Houston, where Mary waited on a new heart with their youngest child, Jacob, now 12. Rather than move into an apartment with his teammates, Tyler stayed at home to help look out for his younger brother, Ryan, now 18, and help his sister, Kaley, now 20.
“That young man has never been a complainer,” Thibodeaux says. “He helped raise his siblings, he’s carrying a 3.2 GPA in marketing and he’s been successful on the field. You never would have known that something was wrong. We, as a team, handled it well because of how he handled it.”
Tyler fed off of his teammates’ energy. “I don’t think they realized how much I relied on them,” he says. “They’re just a positive group of guys to be around. The field was my getaway. For three to five hours out of the day, there was nothing that could go wrong.”
Tyler worked his way into the starting lineup during the 2012–13 season and was off to a solid start when he got a long-awaited call in late February.
“The hospital called my mom and said there’s a small chance she might get a heart transplant. Right before practice, I was told to pack my stuff because they were pretty sure this was happening. My team and I gathered for a quick prayer, and I was gone. It was pure excitement but with a little anxiety. It’s never a given that it’s going to work. She had some early signs of rejection, but everything’s been good so far.”
Mary’s new heart started beating March 1. The very next day, Tyler was back with his team on the field, picking up right where he left off. In his best season yet, he led the Colonels in batting average, on-base percentage and fielding percentage. Seemingly, neither Tyler nor Mary skipped a beat.
Mary even made it to a few late-season games, and she and Jacob have moved back into their Thibodaux family home.
As for that early April nail-biter, Tyler struck out. He went down swinging, but in the grand scheme of things, did it even matter?
“When you’re dealing with a heart transplant, everything else seems minor,” Mary says. “You need to put it in perspective and think of how this small trial can improve who you are.
— Written by Mike Wagenheim, assistant athletics director for communications
This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.