The Tuesday Toss: Tyler Degirolamo's Long Road Back To The Top
October 25, 2016 — By Evan Lepler
The Tuesday Toss Archive
Like a lot of athletes, Tyler Degirolamo tried to play through the pain.
His knee began bothering him back during his debut AUDL season in 2014. The trophy shelf and highlight reels gave no indication of any issue, though. Fresh off a historic run of back-to-back championships at the college level, the former Pittsburgh star registered a sizzling +85 in 10 games for the DC Breeze, putting up 38 assists and 55 goals on his way to an All-AUDL First Team honor in his first season as a pro. Considering he had never before endured a serious injury, he just kept pushing.
In 2014, Degirolamo could get to any disc, anywhere on the field.
One year later, despite the still lingering pain, Degirolamo authored another eye-popping full-season performance. Returning to his college home, he immediately became the face of the franchise for the expansion Pittsburgh Thunderbirds. He played 12 games, registered a lofty triple-digit plus/minus (+105), and set a new AUDL record for assists with 86. In the regular season he sliced and diced the vaunted Madison zone, only to have his hamstring flare up during the playoffs. He played only two points in the 2015 Midwest title game, a 24-21 victory for the Radicals.
Season highlights from Degirolamo's record-breaking 2015 campaign.
Following the 2015 season, when he finally accepted that his knee was not improving, he went to the doctor for an X-ray. Structurally there was nothing wrong. Degirolamo was diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome, a wearing down or softening of the cartilage under the kneecap that impacts more than three million people—many athletes—in the U.S. each year. It was a formalized, clinical way of informing Degirolamo he had knee pain, which, of course, he already knew.
The final months of 2015 were spent taking it easy, engaging in some physical therapy, and limiting the type of violent impact that most bothered him. Running was usually OK, but leaping and landing—the hallmark of Degirolamo’s soaring downfield game—were the things that really stung. As alternatives, he lifted, he biked, and he tried to stay in as decent shape as possible for the upcoming U.S. National Team tryouts.
As the calendar turned to January 2016, Degirolamo’s knee was feeling relatively rejuvenated. He iced it often, he avoided threatening impact, and he journeyed to Florida for the Team USA tryout weekend with a mixture of hope and uncertainty.
“I was a lot less confident than I would have been if I was 100% going into that tryout,” Degirolamo admitted.
Still, even gamed by an injured, Degirolamo stood out in Orlando on that January Saturday.
His superb speed and cutting smarts consistently got him open, and he focused intently on playing turnover-free ultimate, knowing that any mistake would be magnified on a field full of the nation’s greatest talent. By the end of a rigorous and long day one, the knee did not feel great, but it was not awful, either.
Unfortunately, as countless ultimate players have experienced, sometimes the brutal beatdown of one’s own body isn’t fully understood until that next morning.
“That second day, after a night’s sleep (and) icing it, it didn’t feel good,” Degirolamo explained.
“But I wanted to give it a go. We were doing one warm-up drill, I wanted to get up for one, and I just came down on it pretty hard. It was the first time I felt a really sharp pain in the knee. I played for a couple more hours, but called it [quits] before the end of the tryout.”
Team USA Head Coach Alex “Dutchy” Ghesquiere, who was largely responsible for choosing the team, thought that Degirolamo had clearly proven himself despite the injury and a shortened tryout, saying “he made the team based on how he played, not how I thought he would play.”
While tryouts were a vital part of the selection process, Ghesquiere’s previous exposure to Degirolamo’s game offered important context that undoubtedly advanced Tyler’s candidacy. Not only had Ghesquiere coached Degirolamo on the Breeze in 2014, but he also witnessed his unstoppable skill set up close even before that.
Back in 2013, when Dutchy was preparing his co-ed USA team for the World Games, he saw Degirolamo at Poultry Days, the legendary annual tournament in Versailles, Ohio, where the U.S. team was competing in exhibitions in order to prepare for Cali.
“We played his team, and Mac Taylor’s job was to stop Tyler from cutting deep,” recalled Ghesquiere, mentioning the former Team USA deep coverage specialist Taylor. “Tyler caught four deep goals before I asked George [Stubbs] to try and stop him.
“Tyler is good enough that defenses can’t set up to give him one cut and take away another,” Ghesquiere continued. “Tyler will take the cut he wants even against the strongest defenders trying expressly to stop it.”
Ghesquiere’s dilemma—figuring out how to stop Degirolamo—is one that countless college teams dealt with between 2008 and 2013, typically with little success. By the end of his freshman year in 2009, he had gone from being a guy with literally zero ultimate experience to a starting O-line cutter for a collegiate contender on the national stage.
At his first college nationals, Degirolamo scored an outrageous nine goals in Pittsburgh’s upset win over Cornell in the pre-quarterfinal round. This brilliant performance—from a former high school soccer and tennis player who had only recently discovered ultimate—laid the groundwork for his Pitt team’s future championship plans.
Nick Kaczmarek, who was a fifth-year Pittsburgh player during Degirolamo’s freshman season and the team’s coach during the program’s pair of titles in 2012 and 2013, still vividly remembers an emotional conversation with the young DeGirolamo after Pitt fell to Carleton, the eventual champs, in a 16-14 battle in the 2009 quarters.
“He came to my room [in the hotel],” Kaczmarek said. “I was mad that we lost to Carleton. I was just chilling in my room with one or two other people, and [Degirolamo and I] talked for about an hour and a half.”
“I still remember talking to him that night, and saying ‘if we’re gonna win it, you have to be the best player in the country. ‘Cause you have the capability. You have the build. You have the physicality. You have the ability to do that.’ Not that I think he remembered the whole conversation, but that’s exactly what he became. He had a special ability to realize how great he could be.”
Degirolamo filled a specific role during his freshman year, but he took Kaczmarek’s words to heart and developed a deep desire to do more. He strived to be a well-rounded player and sought the throwing skills that would equal his otherworldly athleticism. Surrounded by an abundance of other young talent, including throwing genius, Callahan finalist, and longtime friend Alex Thorne, Degirolamo gradually gained confidence as a distributor.
As a Freshman, he had just been told to go deep. By Degirolamo’s junior year, his deadly hammer had emerged as a unique weapon in the college game. He reached the point as a player where he could control a game with his throws or with his athleticism.
DeGirolamo's jaw-dropping Callahan highlight video.
Isaac Saul, a teammate of Degirolamo’s going back through college, described the typical game plan of Thorne throwing to Degirolamo. One that “basically won us two national championships,” with the roles becoming interchangeable as Degirolamo developed his throws.
“’The Play’ was literally Ty taking an easy under, me throwing it to him, Alex going deep on the open side, and Ty just ripping a 60-yard hammer no matter what,” Saul explained. “I swear this play worked 90 percent of the time. Alex’s defender always bit hard on the open side deep, and right as Ty would get the disc, Alex would just turn his shoulders and spring hard to the break side deep, and the hammer would almost always just show up perfectly in his hands.
“It was bonkers, and most people just couldn’t believe Ty had that throw on top of everything else,” Saul said.
Degirolamo elevating above the 6'7" Mischa Freystaetter at a tournament in college.
When Degirolamo joined the Midwest Division of the AUDL with the Thunderbirds in 2015, his over-the-top throwing, along with his overall game, was just entering its prime. Going against the league’s top defense for the first time, DeGirolamo registered half of his team’s assists in a 24-18 loss to the Radicals, single-handedly giving Madison fits in his first game against the typically stifling defense.
Game recap from Degirolamo's impressive first encounter with Madison in 2015.
“I think he was the single toughest player we faced that year, including Beau Kittredge and Ashlin Joye,” said Radicals Head Coach Tim DeByl. “He is such a tough matchup because he excels in all facets of the offensive game and has the size and speed to create matchup problems everywhere.”
A prototypical deep receiver, Degirolamo adapted his stellar footwork to eviscerate Madison’s zone, darting into any available space before the defense had a chance to react.
“We came out in zone roughly half the game,” DeByl said. “Generally, teams don’t beat us deep when we are running our base zone package, but he managed to do it consistently by just making very quick decisions and using a very high velocity hammers to hit holes in the zone that were supposed to be closed when he got the disc.”
Against a defensive scheme that left little to no room for error, Degirolamo effortlessly fit throws to any conceivable target.
“I’m pretty sure he threw a 60+ yard hammer over the top of our defense in that game, and did so without any indecision,” DeByl said. “One of the core principles of our zone, and man, is to keep throwers from being sure where the defenders are. This keeps throwers from making quick decisive throws. He seemed to understand what we were doing better than most players and would beat the defenders to their adjustments.”
Later in that season, Degirolamo helped hand the Radicals what still to this day is their worst loss in franchise history, a 26-22 Thunderbirds victory. Degirolamo completed all 55 of his passes, despite Madison’s defensive adjustments that attempted to limit his effectiveness.
Degirolamo celebrates one of his three goals against the Radicals in June 2015.
It was a game that illustrated how Degirolamo, just arriving into his mid-20s, could now do absolutely everything at the highest level. He had shown that he could dominate games in several different ways. Consequently, Madison knew its perch at the top of the Midwest was more precarious than ever, and it’s natural to wonder what would have happened over the past two postseasons—both ending with Pittsburgh falling to Madison—if health issues had not intervened.
Upon returning from World’s tryouts on the final weekend of this past January, Degirolamo underwent an MRI, which revealed a 35-40% partial tear in his patellar tendon. It would likely require surgery at some point, but he wanted to wait. Immediate surgery would have necessitated an extensive period of rehab and would have put playing at Worlds—not to mention the AUDL season—very much in jeopardy.
Thankfully, there was another choice.
“The other option was this thing called PRP, platelet rich plasma injections,” he said. “Basically, they take my blood, spin it through a centrifuge, get the platelet rich plasma—it’s the stuff that promotes scabs and healing in the body—and then inject it into the knee, and then just hope it heals the tendon. The way my doctor was talking about it, he made it seem like I could have these miraculous results within two months, or it might do nothing.”
When he officially learned that he was selected for Team USA, he chose to begin the unproven and variable PRP treatments, which would also require a combination of rest and rehab to give him a chance to compete in London. The process began in March, and for the first couple weeks, he was harnessed by an immobilization brace. Soon thereafter, he worked to rebuild the muscle. He often jogged on an alter-G treadmill.
“It’s a little bubble that you sit in and it puffs you up so you weigh less than you actually do, so there’s less stress on the knees,” Degirolamo said of the device.
And as the 2016 AUDL campaign commenced in April while the U.S. National Team concurrently prepared for Worlds, Degirolamo remained on the sideline. He attended Thunderbirds tryouts and practices, but could not compete. He traveled for Team USA practice weekends in Colombia, San Francisco, and D.C., but did not participate in on-field activity.
Despite not being able to compete on the field, Degirolamo has always shown a strong allegiance to his teams from tryouts through gameday.
He stressed to Pittsburgh’s ownership how playing at Worlds, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience, would be his priority throughout the spring. The Thunderbirds’ leadership, along with Degirolamo himself, envisioned him rejoining his AUDL teammates after playing in London, assuming his knee held up.
“It was kind of a playing-it-by-ear thing,” Thunderbirds Head Coach David Hogan explained. “I don’t think either of us envisioned the injury lasting this long or requiring surgery or anything like that. But as time went along and I saw where he was and saw him get a PRP injection, and kinda have these, not setbacks, but signs that it was a longer injury. At some point, probably a few weeks into the season, I made the mental choice, ‘we’re probably not gonna have him back.’ Whether that was true, I didn’t know.”
As the Thunderbirds adjusted to life without their best player, Degirolamo dealt with the frustration of being unable to contribute to either of his teams.
“Leading up to Worlds, I was still having hopes that [my knee] would hold up through Worlds and I could come back and play [for the Thunderbirds afterwards],” he said. “I was just trying to rest it as much as I could and get healthy.”
In London, Degirolamo did compete, playing in six of the team’s nine games. But he was clearly still hindered mightily by the knee, an ailment that was now more than two years old. Throughout the week, he digested many doses of Ibuprofen and Advil to help him stay on the field.
“My running speed and top speed wasn’t affected that much, so I could still be a competent player,” recalled Degirolamo. “But changing direction and jumping wasn’t that great. I rested some games leading up to quarters, semis, and finals, but in finals I was like, ‘alright, I’m gonna let loose; there’s no reason to try to save anything at this point.’"
It was the game of a lifetime for many players, as the undefeated and favored Team USA squared off against one of their most evenly matched rivals from Japan. The game was a back-and-forth thriller, with USA's size and athleticism providing the perfect juxtaposition to Japan's speed, timing, and precise throws.
“There’s one play, a guy on Japan takes me deep. I bust full speed trying to catch up to him. It’s this short little guy on Japan, but he’s speedy. And I close the gap. Normally, I think it was a play I would have made. I tried to go up while running full speed, landed, came down, and just knew—I felt that sharp pain in my knee again.”
Now, Degirolamo was not the only American who got burned by Japan’s #24 Taiyo Arakawa, who scored six of his country’s 11 goals in that game. Furthermore, only one player in the world—Belgium’s Pieterjan De Meulenaere—scored more goals than Arakawa during the entire tournament. But nothing is quite as agonizing as the specter of one’s potential lingering over an injury.
As the U.S. completed its climactic 15-11 victory to seal the gold, a hobbled Degirolamo still celebrated wildly alongside his overjoyed teammates. They had capped off a perfect week at the world championships, an experience they would all never forget. But understandably, Degirolamo wishes he could have been much closer to 100%.
“Getting to meet the guys, going to training camps, getting to know all these players and see them play together, the whole experience itself was just awesome,” Degirolamo said.
“On the field, it was definitely a hollow feeling for me. We still won, and that’s great. But there was more that I could have done. Personally, it was a hollow victory. As a team, it was great.”
When Worlds ended, he carried his gold medal around Europe for a couple weeks, exploring Amsterdam, Zurich, Nice, and Rome with his sister, Lauren. But getting around was not too easy. His knee was in rough shape, and he wore a brace throughout most of his journey.
By the end of July, he was back home and on the operating table to finally get his torn patellar tendon repaired. An MRI had revealed further damage around the knee, including scar tissue and other build-up. The news meant that Degirolamo would be sidelined for the remainder of 2016.
After a career year with the Thunderbirds, Degirolamo missed every game with the team in 2016.
Two and a half months removed from surgery, Degirolamo is back to the arduous grind of rehab as he aims to return to the field in 2017. His doctor told him that the range for full recovery was uncertain, but he could be back to form within six months. That timetable would work for the Thunderbirds, who will begin their third season in the AUDL in April.
“We have aspirations,” Degirolamo said, when asked about his goals for Pittsburgh’s ultimate scene. “We have enough talent on our team. We know we’re competent and capable of beating Madison any given day. I think that’s always the goal, to try to get the one seed in our division to have the home playoff game, have that extra day of rest leading up to Madison instead of having to go there and play.”
While knee injuries are always tricky, Degirolamo still believes he can be one of the top players in the league. His powerful desire for improvement, a trait that drove him early in his college days, remains ever-present as one of his defining competitive characteristics.
In his early playing days, Degirolamo barely had a functioning flick. One time, he was benched after launching a particularly awful forehand at the Trouble in Vegas Tournament, an experience that resonated with him and inspired him to really work on his throws.
Like any competitor, Degirolamo doesn’t easily forget his mistakes.
Later in that same season, when one of Pitt’s O-line guys got injured in a game against Penn State, Degirolamo got his shot with the O-line. David Vatz, then his assistant coach and later his Thunderbirds teammate, told him that he would play offense as long as he kept scoring goals. If Degirolamo didn’t score a goal on the next point, he “would be taken off the field.”
“I think maybe the team was trying to feed me, but I scored three or four goals in a row to end [the game] and was just on the O-line for the rest of the year,” Degirolamo recalled. “And, basically, the rest of my life.”
Those who have seen his growth from the very beginning marvel at the player he has become.
“Ty has always had a special ability to see a level of play that’s beyond where he currently is,” said Kaczmarek. “He can see what’s beyond where reality presents. I don’t think everybody has that. I think there are very few special players who have that.”
That belief in self has been the central force in Degirolamo’s ascent.
“The two years I coached him at Pitt, I believe he was the best player in the country, if not easily a top five player in the country. Right after college, you could make the argument that he was one of the top five players in the world. I really think that would have been a legitimate argument had he not had some of the injuries. I think he was that elite.”
While 2017’s opener is still nearly six months away, Degirolamo’s comeback is poised to be one of the most intriguing storylines of the AUDL’s sixth season. At 27 years old, his body is still at a good age to respond to rehab and return to its peak form. But it will be a monumental challenge to ascend back to the level that twice made him a First-Team performer, not to mention a prohibitive MVP favorite heading into last year.
“Knees can end careers, so I’m not sure if he’ll ever be ‘right’ again,” acknowledged Saul. “Knowing Ty, though, I’d bet on him if I had to, and I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to suspect him to be the best player in the AUDL in 2017.”
Highlights from Degirolamo's then record-setting 15 assist performance against the Minnesota Wind Chill in 2015.
The Tuesday Toss is published weekly during the AUDL regular season and will be monthly staple during the offseason. Got a comment or question about the AUDL or the current state of ultimate? E-mail Evan Lepler at AUDLMailbag@gmail.com. Feedback can also be levied on twitter: @EvanLepler