Last March, Tyler McKinney sat in a doctor's office and listened to a pep talk unlike any he'd heard on a basketball court: Tyler, lots of people have had successful lives with one eye. The Creighton point guard's heart sank. On the eve of his second cornea transplant, McKinney had already lost so much: his junior season, 25 pounds, his tolerance for light and, not least, nearly all the vision in his ravaged right eye. "I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," he says. "I really thought I would lose my eye."
Nine months later McKinney is not only playing again for the Bluejays, who were a surprising 8--2 through Sunday, but he had also hit game-winning shots in upsets of Ohio State and Xavier. "I wasn't even expecting to play four months ago, so to be in this position now is crazy," says McKinney, who has made a remarkable comeback from an acanthamoeba infection, which can result when a water-borne parasite enters the eye through an abrasion. (McKinney thinks he contracted the infection by using tap water to clean out his contact lens case during a preseason trip to Canada last year.)
McKinney's symptoms seemed innocuous at first--the eye was red and itchy--and doctors allowed him to keep playing. But his condition deteriorated quickly. On Christmas Day 2003, he screamed in pain after a camera flash went off, and in an early January game at Bradley his vision was so bad that he stepped three feet out-of-bounds while driving the baseline. Unable to endure light, McKinney lay in bed 18 hours a day, rousing himself every 25 minutes around the clock to administer eyedrops. Playing basketball wasn't even remotely possible. "It was probably among the worst 10 percent of cases I've ever seen," says Dr. John Sutphin, the specialist who finally performed McKinney's cornea transplants at the University of Iowa medical center.
When the infection recurred following the first transplant last March, McKinney began taking pentamidine, an IV medication normally given to AIDS and cancer patients. Side effects included severe nausea and weight loss, and he hit his low point during a tearful call home to his parents, Jim and Judy. "I don't care if they have to take my eye out," he told them. "I just don't want to deal with it anymore." The second transplant was successful, however, and McKinney recovered so quickly that doctors waived the yearlong ban on contact sports that customarily follows such surgery.
Jim and Judy shed their own tears when Tyler was introduced at Creighton's 2004 home opener and received a standing ovation from the crowd at Omaha's Qwest Center. Granted, there were some scares: McKinney had surgery in June to separate the iris and the cornea, which had become stuck together, contorting the pupil; and in November, with the help of a steroid injection directly into his eye, he overcame a brief rejection of the second cornea. Otherwise, McKinney's main irritants have been the hecklers at Nebraska who wore Rec-Specs and waved eye charts at him in a display that rivaled those of notorious Maryland fans in its tastelessness. (McKinney responded by assisting on Creighton's game-winning shot.)
McKinney's individual statistics aren't eye-popping (5.0 points and 6.2 assists in 32.7 minutes a game at week's end), but the numbers that count most are terrific: From the start of last season through Sunday, the Bluejays were 18--2 with him in the lineup and 10--9 without him. "Tyler's a glue guy who doesn't make mistakes," says coach Dana Altman. "I don't think it's a fluke that those numbers add up the way they do."
Now back up to speed in school and hoops, the 6'1", 185 pound McKinney, a marketing major, has a new outlook as well. "I appreciate little things a lot more," he says. "Even being able to practice." And you'll never hear anyone say he lacks focus on the court.