Fairbanks High School senior Jacob Oiler is pictured during a football practice earlier this week. A spinal disease ended Oiler’s playing career after his freshman season, but he has kept active with the program as a student-assistant coach.
(Journal-Tribune photo by Tim Miller)
Fairbanks High School senior Jacob Oiler has enjoyed football for a long time.
He began playing on the junior level when he was four or five years old and followed up with tackle football beginning in the seventh grade.
Oiler progressed through the middle school level and played wide receiver and on the defensive line for the Panthers as a freshman.
Imagine then, the shock and pain of finding out that he’d never be able to play football, or for that matter, any contact sport ever again.
“It was some of the worse news I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Oiler.
The story begins during Oiler’s freshman year while he was playing another sport.
“Jacob was playing in a freshman basketball game,” said Panther head football coach Patrick Cotter. “He was undercut in the lane, fell and hit his head on the floor.”
Oiler went for a CAT scan on his head and that’s when doctors discovered something far more serious.
The exam revealed that Oiler suffers from spinal stenosis.
“I have very narrow gaps in my spinal cord and that doesn’t allow spinal fluid to flow as normal,” said Oiler. “Once that was discovered, the doctors said they didn’t know how I was able to even stand or walk.”
Oiler missed the remainder of his freshman basketball season and most of the baseball campaign that spring.
“I really didn’t have much activity the rest of my freshman year,” he said.
The real punch in the gut came when doctors warned him against ever again playing any contact sport.
That meant no more football or basketball.
The news sent Oiler’s world reeling.
“It just about drove me to insanity,” he admitted. “After that, I didn’t want to do anything… my school work… anything.”
What doctors said next basically drove home the point of how serious the situation was that Oiler faced.
“They told me if I played contact sports again, there was a chance of death or paralysis,” he said.
Oiler went through a bit of treatment, mainly to rest his head and neck after the basketball fall.
While he is absolutely fine for a normal life today, the doctors’ prognosis wasn’t encouraging news for a young man who enjoyed playing sports.
His mother Jenny takes up the story.
“There was also the incidental finding of spinal stenosis. The doctors consulted with a neurologist and Children’s Hospital, who said it would be OK to send him home in a neck brace with a follow-up in two weeks,” she said. “During this time, he was light sensitive, had severe headaches and a lot of neck pain.
“On the day of the appointment, we thought we were going to be cleared to remove the neck brace and follow up on the concussion and be cleared to return to play basketball. The neurologist told us that he had severe congenital spinal stenosis.
“The canal that the spinal cord runs through was very narrow at certain levels in his neck and gave his spinal cord very little protection. He recommended that Jacob no longer play any contact sports such as football, soccer, hockey, etc.
“Jacob had to continue to wear the neck brace as there was still swelling in his neck and we were to follow up with Sports Med to be cleared of the neck brace and concussion.
“Our first visit with Sports Med was the day our lives changed forever.
“Jacob went through a multitude of testing to check his brain to see if his concussion had improved. The doctor came in to tell us that he still had a concussion and to discuss a time frame on when he could return to play basketball.
“I never expected to hear ‘Your son is at an extreme high risk for a catastrophic injury.’ We hadn’t been told the severity of the spinal stenosis until this appointment. It had only been recommended that he not play contact sports.
“Jacob’s love and passion is football and to be told at 15 you can’t ever play the sport you love again was heartbreaking.
“We requested to have second and third opinions and they all said the same thing. He would not be cleared to play contact sports. If he played, he was given a 10 percent chance to make it the next three years without having an injury that could put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“He was finally cleared to remove the neck brace and was in PT for about three months.
“Jacob withdrew from everyone and everything, except for Coach Cotter.”
That’s when Cotter came to the youngster’s rescue.
“Coach called me and said he wanted me to come see him early in the day,” said Oiler. “That’s when he told me that I was still going to be a part of the program and help change the culture of Fairbanks football.”
That’s also when Oiler was named to the FHS coaching staff as a student-assistant.
“I talked to the other coaches and we agreed that we needed to find a way to keep Jacob in our program,” said Cotter.
Over the past three seasons, Oiler has learned the coaching ropes.
“We started him out as a sophomore learning how to coach position by position,” said Cotter. “He’s worked hard to the point where he now helps supervise our scout and special teams and is a live caller of offensive signals during games.
“Jacob knows our offense and defense and he especially knows the guys, maybe better than the rest of us since he grew up with them,” he said. “I trust Jacob just like I do our other coaches and he’s fully vested as an assistant coach.
“Jacob wants to be good at what he does and works hard at it.”
The Panthers have worked just as hard as the youngest coach on the staff. That hard work has paid off as the team will travel to Fort Frye High School on Friday for the program’s first state playoff game since 2007.
“I knew that Fairbanks football was going to be great again someday,” said Oiler. “I’m grateful that Coach Cotter wanted me to be a part of the change.
“It took me about a year to realize I could make a difference by helping on the sideline,” he said. “I just wanted to help my friends and my team.”
Oiler said the experience has helped him grow as a person.
“I never thought I’d be standing here today (after hearing the initial news of his disease),” said Oiler. “The only real way I got through it was because of my parents (Joe and Jenny) and Coach Cotter.
“Knowing I had to deal with certain circumstances has, I think, helped me become a leader,” he said. “I consider it an honor to be standing where I am today, helping the team and the coaches.”
Whether the Panthers’ season continues or ends on Friday night remains to be seen.
What stands a decent chance of not ending is Oiler’s coaching career.
Because of what he’s had to deal with, the Panther senior has decided to study exercise science-physical therapy at Eastern Kentucky University.
“I had looked at a few other schools, but decided that Eastern Kentucky has the best program I need,” said Oiler.
Coaching may also be in his future as well on the collegiate level.
“We’re trying to get Jacob on their coaching staff as a student-assistant,” said Cotter. “I’m going to keep bugging their head coach until that happens.”
Oiler hopes to minor in coaching and also start in that field upon graduation from college.
“I would eventually like to work my way up to being a head coach some day,” he said. “But first after (college) graduation, I’d like to return here and give back to Fairbanks and Coach Cotter.
“I’d do anything for that man.”
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