APEX, N.C. —In the fluorescent glow of a gymnasium at Apex High School, Tyler Forsythe stood clutching a yellow rose against his yellow hoodie.
As his name rattled over a loudspeaker, he walked slowly across the wrestling mat. He grinned broadly as dozens of parents, friends and teammates applauded.
It was senior night, a pretty big deal for a school night.
For Tyler, it was so much more.
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He has owned this gym for the past four years as a member of Apex's varsity wrestling team. He has posted a winning record each season — without ever seeing an opponent.
Tyler is blind. He has been that way since he was almost killed by a tiger.
Sabu the Bengal belonged to Tyler's father, who had been feeding the pet in the backyard of a home west of Apex, N.C., on the afternoon of Thanksgiving 1995.
Tyler and his brothers watched. Tyler, who was 3 at the time, got too close.
The 300-pound jungle cat bit deep into his face, crushing the front of his skull and exposing his brain. He lost an eye. Nerve damage rendered the other useless.
"I would have never thought I'd see him standing here now, so grown-up, with so many accomplishments," said Annette Truelove-Forsythe, Tyler's mother. "I thank God for him. He's my angel."
The mauling made international news. It prompted policies on exotic pets. Even Ann Landers weighed in.
But the story since then is perhaps more noteworthy.
Tyler is just like any ordinary teenager. He goes fishing, shoots pool, plays video games and goes on awkward dates. He even shoots skeet.
His story strikes the extremes of ability and disability, good times and not-so-good times.
"I'm just like everyone else," says Tyler, 17. "I just can't see."
The lengths to which he has gone — and still goes — to be an average teenager are anything but average.
'He surprised me'
Tyler's brothers, Wren and Brent, were wrestlers at Apex. Tyler, the youngest, wanted to do the same. He became one of the top wrestlers in the region, finishing with more than 80 wins in his four-year career.
There were special rules: Opponents were required to stay in contact with Tyler for the full match. Breaking contact would leave Tyler defenseless to a "shot" — wrestling parlance for a dive to the ankles. The rules frustrated opponents; coaches complained about fairness.
"Technically, he can't see," Apex coach Russ Duncan said. "So it seems like you've got an advantage, too."
The rest was up to Tyler. He learned to anticipate opponents' moves with his ears and fingers. His hands latched onto foes' wrists, controlling where they'd go.
Duncan had his team wrestle blindfolded so they could understand how Tyler relied on instincts and fundamentals. At one practice, Tyler barked: "Hey coach, where's my blindfold?"
'A stiffer penalty'
The tiger attacked at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 23, 1995, leaving Tyler in critical condition.
Sabu was put down.
A five-person medical team — including a pediatric trauma surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a plastic surgeon and an ophthalmologist — worked on his head and face for 14 hours.
Mark Forsythe lives in Apex now but is largely out of the picture.
After the attack, Mark Forsythe was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse — maximum sentence: community service and probation. He was ordered never to own another exotic animal.
"He should have received a stiffer penalty," Tyler wrote last month in an essay for a class on law and justice.
Mark Forsythe did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. Tyler's mother remarried.
Tyler said his father tried for years to shield him from accounts of the attack. Lately, he has been learning more about the incident. And he seems to want to make sense of what happened, if not to settle resentment toward his father.
"I can remember seeing the sky," he said recently, reflecting on life with functioning eyes. "But I don't know if that's true or a dream. I remember seeing a huge blue expanse, and I remember seeing the clouds."
His goal: Independence
Friends, coaches and family say Tyler's positive, indefatigable attitude has helped him accomplish the unexpected.
"Other blind people I know lean on people," Tyler says. "I want to be independent."
Tyler plays video games with the help of an 11-speaker surround-sound system.
"I can hear the zombies coming before they get there," he says, explaining the secret to his success in the game "Nazi Zombies."
He uses Braille to take notes, read textbooks and complete tests. He can hear and read five different things at once. With a different headphone in each ear, a hand in two different books and the surround sound on, Tyler's brain can absorb different channels of information.
With assistance, Tyler rides a four-wheeler through the woods. With his ears guiding him, he once shot 10 of 10 at a skeet range.
"He does anything anybody else can do," Keith Adair, Tyler's stepfather, said. "Most people think he can see."