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Nov. 15 2009 - 8:09 pm | 64 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Blind football players and the three steps of the differently abled athlete

In the last month, I’ve found at least three stories about blind football players — Riley Schmitz, a 13-year-old in Adams, Minn.; Charlie Wilks, a 14-year-old in Emporia, Kans., and Rocco Romeo, a 7-year-old in Salinas, Calif.

How ESPN discovered Charlie Wilks.

Having coached a team with an athlete who is facing a disability or disease (in my case, in coaching a softball team that included an 8-year-old girl with leukemia), there are three steps in the process of whether that kind of athlete reaches the ultimate victory — being a part of a team to the point that no one notes the disability or disease anymore.

Rocco Romeo is on step one: coaches explaining to other kids what is wrong, and making some special arrangements on his behalf. At step one, this athlete is, deservedly, an inspiration. From the Salinas Californian:

Before every play James [Rocco's father] leads Rocco to the line of scrimmage and positions him so he’s looking straight ahead.”I want to make sure he knows who his guy is,” James said. “Then I pat him on the back, and say I’ll be back.” …

In a sport that has had its share of bickering parents, sometimes overzealous coaches and questionable behavior in general, Rocco Romeo seems to have brought out the best in everyone.

Prior to their game against Steinbeck, the Carmel Panthers got word of Rocco’s story, and that set in motion what was to become a moment few who were there will ever forget.

“When I received the e-mail about Rocco I shared it with our head coach, Chris Henslee,” said Carmel Panther vice-president Sara Higman. “Chris talked to the boys about Rocco, who in turn talked to their families.”

One of the dads donated a white football, to be signed by all the players and presented to Rocco the day of the game.

Higman took it one step further.

She decided put the names of each player on the football in Braille. …

“I’m not sure who was more excited,” Higman said. “Rocco to receive the ball or our team to meet such an inspiring young man. It was quite a moving and emotional experience.”

In my case, the girl, Olivia, a friend of my daughter, Grace, had to miss the first few weeks of practice because of chemotherapy. I explained to her teammates, and her parents, what was going on, particularly pointing out that she would have no hair because of the medication. I gave her mother a coaches’ cap so she could make it into a cap for her daughter, rather than have her wear the usual visor. When she arrived at practice, she got a hero’s welcome. It was quite an emotional moment for everyone.

Riley Schmitz is on step two: worry. For the disabled or ill athlete in against nondisabled and well competition, coaches and parents begin to fret that maybe the child is pushing himself or herself too far, and is going to get seriously hurt. From the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin:

Whether Riley keep playing is an open question.

Because of his extremely limited field of vision, Riley’s running style is rather rigid and upright, and he jogs in short, choppy steps, rather than sprints.

“He has always ran that way,” said his father, Charlie. “The problem is he thinks he’s really fast.”

Riley also thinks he can keep playing football, but not everyone is so sure about that. His parents tried to talk him out of playing this season, but he wasn’t hearing it.

“When the time comes that he can’t play anymore, it’ll have to come from his coach, because he won’t listen to us,” Angie said with a laugh.

[Coach Bill] Feuchtenberger said he already talked with Riley, and explained that football gets more physical and dangerous at every level.

“I told him, just being honest and up-front, that at some point his safety becomes the primary issue and this is probably going to end,” he said. “I told him there are other things he can do to be involved, like being the team manager.”

Riley didn’t want to hear that Monday’s scoreless tie with Kingsland might’ve been his last game.

As far as he’s concerned, it was just the last game before next season.

After the initial excitement of Olivia’s return, I got practically paranoid about pushing her too far — as I should have. I knew that chemotherapy wore her out, and I wanted to make that as I put everyone through their paces, I wasn’t doing anything that was going to interfere with fighting her leukemia. Already, Olivia had the athletes’ credo of, and I’m not trying to be flip here, death before dishonor, so she would never tell me if she were tired. I would consult a lot with her mother, the other coaches, and sometimes with Grace, who knew her as a teammate as well, having played softball with her the previous year and playing on an all-star team together. I asked Olivia so many times if she was OK, she probably wondered if there was something wrong with me.

Charlie Wilks is on the third and ultimately final step (if step two didn’t cause an athlete to quit, or be forced to). That step is normalcy. As in, unless somebody told you, you wouldn’t there was anything unusual going on with that athlete.

Wilks, in the TV news clip I posted above, said he didn’t want to be an inspiration — he wanted to be a guy on the football field. But don’t get him wrong. In a piece that aired in November on ESPN’s E:60 TV newsmagazine, Wilks said it’s great that people consider him an inspiration. But Wilks, grandson of former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Al Reynolds, said he wants to be considered a football player.

I want people to remember that disabilities aren’t things that get in your way. If you use them right, disabilities can be your greatest ability. It’s like if you imagine a disability as a crutch, don’t use the disability as a crutch, you should use the disability as a leg and start running.

In Olivia’s situation, eventually we all forgot, in the heat of the game, that she was in remission for leukemia. Sick or not, she was one of our team’s best pitchers. I didn’t know until after the season was over that there were days she would come straight from therapy to the game. In retrospect, for Olivia being out on the field was a sense of normalcy, a sense that she wasn’t just a sick kid. By season’s end, she had legitimately earned her way to another all-star berth — not because she was an inspiration. Though she was.


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    About Me

    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

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