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Father, son keep tradition alive at NAIA volleyball tournament


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    SIOUX CITY, Iowa (Sioux City Journal) — Don’t let anyone tell you that these NAIA championship tournaments Sioux City hosts are just another event, not all that important in the grand scheme of things.

For Gary and Tyler Steinke, the NAIA tournaments are not just a father-son bonding experience, but a chance for Tyler to share his enthusiasm with anyone who engages him.

Tyler is autistic, and sports play a big role in his ability to connect with people.

He pours over the tournament media guide, memorizing stats and then telling his dad which players to watch during each game. Couple that with an engaging personality, and Sioux City’s Tyson Events Center has become a place where Tyler thrives.

“What he loves most is sitting there and watching every single game. He would rather do that than go to Disney World,” said Gary, the president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization that represents all of Iowa’s private colleges.

To explain sports’ significance to Tyler, Gary says you must first backtrack. When Tyler was 2 or 3, doctors told Gary and wife, Terri, that their son would never walk, never talk. Terri quit her job to stay home with Tyler and work with him. By age 6 he was walking and talking and going to school.

Sports became a valuable tool in Tyler’s education. His photographic memory allowed him to devour sports statistics and overcome learning disabilities. Gary said 2+2=4 never made sense to Tyler. But put a baseball box score in front of him, and he can perform math with ease.

“Sports became a huge deal to him. That’s how we got started with all this social stuff,” Gary said.

The two began attending games. High school games in and around their home in Urbandale. Iowa Cubs baseball games.

Tyler would interact with people at games. He’d email or call coaches and players, asking them questions and becoming friends with them.

“Everybody that runs into Tyler loves him,” Gary said.

When Tyler realized that the NAIA schools his dad works with have athletic teams, he wanted to see those schools’ games, too. So they went, to a lot of them.

Twelve years ago, Gary suggested they go to the NAIA Women’s Basketball National Championship in Sioux City. Tyler was all in.

They spent the week here, watching every game. They ate at Sioux City landmarks such as Bob Roe’s Point After and El Fredo pizza and visited the Palmer Candy store.

They’ve been back every year since. Tyler insists they follow the same routine: hitting the same eating establishments and sitting in the same seats, two rows up from the Tyson Events Center floor and next to the players’ entrance so Tyler can high-five players and coaches as they enter and leave the court.

Over the years, tournament co-director Corey Westra noticed a then-teenager sitting with his father.

“I started noticing all the coaches knew him,” Westra said. “I asked who is that. People would just tell me that’s Tyler.”

Westra struck up a conversation with Gary three or four years ago and said hi to Tyler. Westra gave him a media guide, earning him an instant friendship.

“The kid’s a fanatic. You can’t help but love it. I think that’s what this tournament is all about,” said Westra, who speaks on the phone with Tyler once a month and exchanges text messages with him more often.

When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 basketball tournament on its second day, Tyler was devastated, Gary said. Not because he wouldn’t get to watch the rest of the tournament, but because he felt bad for all the players and coaches who had worked so hard to get there and wouldn’t get to play.

Because Gary and Tyler weren’t fully vaccinated for COVID-19 when this year’s NAIA basketball tournament tipped off in Sioux City last month, they had to stay home. Tyler watched all the games via live stream on their TV instead.

“It worked great, but that’s not the same,” Gary said.

As this week’s NAIA volleyball tournament approached, Westra thought of Tyler. He called Gary and asked if he and Tyler had had their COVID vaccinations. When Gary said yes, Westra told him if he and Tyler weren’t doing anything, they should come to Sioux City and catch some games.

“I hadn’t even thought about it,” Gary said. “This is the perfect way for us to get back to Sioux City.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, Gary and Tyler, now 22, settled into their usual seats next to the players’ tunnel, Tyler armed with all the information Westra could supply him about the teams participating.

“Tyler has to know who the best teams are, and Corey told him, and Tyler’s ready to go,” Gary said.

They can’t stay for the whole tournament, but they’ll hit Bob Roe’s and other regular spots. They may have missed their annual trip to the basketball tournament, but watching top-notch volleyball more than made up for it. Tyler was as excited as ever, and Westra was glad to see that the tournament was a hit.

“It makes me happy that he enjoys it,” Westra said. “This tournament is for people like Tyler.”

A team champion will be crowned at the tournament’s conclusion, but we can agree that the event has become a winner for fans like Tyler and his father and so many others who have come to love it.

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