This is a story that should have been included in WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING…but wasn’t. WINNING… can be purchased at goo.gl/dO1hcX
“Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness
Oh, sweet blindness, all over me”
“Sweet Blindness”-The Fifth Dimension
He stood with arms raised in triumph, the sweat of his exertion dripping onto the wrestling mat that he stood upon while his mouth curled into a slight smile. He had just won the Upper State Wrestling Championship in his weight class and was in the process of receiving a standing ovation from everyone in the gym, regardless of school affiliation. Well maybe not everyone, I doubt the friends and family of his vanquished foe were standing but you never know. As I stood and applauded, his coach sprinted to the mat and hoisted him into the air and I suddenly had a clarifying thought and felt more than just a little bit sad. Never having considered myself to be an emotional old softy, I still could not stanch the flow of tears that rolled down my cheeks.
In the middle 1980’s Greenville High School in upper state South Carolina had a large and modern gymnasium. The gym, named for the legendary Red Raider football coach James “Slick” Moore, had a problem. There were too many entrances and “hidey holes” that provided opportunities for many forms of teenage activities – the kind which were frowned upon by educators. I’ll let the reader fill in those blanks. Because of its seating capacity and configuration, the “double-decker” gym was host to many events including the Upper State Wrestling Championship. With upper deck seating and enough room for three wrestling mats on the main floor, James “Slick” Moore Gymnasium was perfect to host such an event. As the athletic director in charge of this facility, I found it to be imperfect because I had to administrate the whole shebang from the weigh-ins at dawn’s early light to the final heavy weight tussle at dark thirty. Thankfully, the area wrestling coaches were responsible for setting up and taking down the mats along with the other equipment needed to accomplish this event. I did make myself available for the pre-match set-up and post-match take-down drinks and “lie telling” at a local watering hole.
I first noticed the young wrestler at weigh-ins. I don’t know his name so I am going to invent one because he deserves to be referred to as something else other than “the young wrestler.” I’ll call him Marcus. Marcus wrestled in one of the one-seventy-something pound middle weight classes, traditionally one of the tougher weights to compete in. He looked just like the rest of the “ripped,” zero percent body weight wrestlers…except for the sunglasses that he wore in the pre-dawn light. He acted like the rest of the teenagers around him…except that his arm rested on top of his coach’s arm as he made his way to the scales. He wore the sunglasses and steadied himself on his coach’s arm because he was blind. Not totally blind, as I found out from his coach later. He could see changes in light but that was all. Wow, he could see if it was daylight or dark. I wondered if he could become confused if it was cloudy. I noticed that when he took his sunglasses off, his irises were not the dark brown that I would have expected but were light brown with bright yellow flakes that gave Marcus the look of a wild canine predator. I also noticed that Marcus’s eyes seemed to wander around without settling on anything. I suppose that when you are blind there is nothing to settle on. As he held out his glasses to be taken by his coach, I saw that the side pieces of his glasses had built-in hearing aids. Blind and, at best, he was hearing impaired. Even with these impairments he had a ready smile that made his yellow-flaked eyes become as bright as sunbursts. I use the word impairment instead of disability because he was, at least on a wrestling mat, anything but disabled.
Marcus represented the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. He was the only wrestler representing the small Spartanburg-based school. In fact, he was the first of its students with whom I had had any interaction and he was the first student from SCSDB whom I considered NOT to be disabled. I had a great uncle who was both deaf and mute. A “dummy” was the term used to describe Claude’s impairment but, as we have become more aware of what is socially acceptable, thankfully, that description is no longer used. Later when I coached track at Landrum we competed against SCSDB and “Land O’ Goshen,” I found them to be as normal as any other teenager is capable of being. While standing next to a group of SCSDB track members cheering on a hearing impaired team mate, one black youth exclaimed in his best ghettoese, “Man, look at that N$%%@r run!” The youngster next to him said, “Now you know I’m blind and can’t see s@#t and neither can you!” Both of them just cackled over their joke along with everyone standing around them.
I don’t remember how many qualifiers were competing that day but, because of Marcus’s weight class, I know that he had to wrestle the full complement of “winner advances-loser goes home” matches before reaching the Upper State Finals. I know this because he was in the middle weights where all of the wrestling studs reside. As he advanced, the number of fans pulling for him increased as the word got around that he was almost totally blind and nearly totally deaf. Well, there is that saying that “everyone loves a winner.” I should point out that being blind is not necessarily a hindrance in wrestling. No really, by rule, when wrestling a blind person, physical contact must be maintained throughout the match. For Marcus it was almost an unfair advantage. In the first of three possible rounds, wrestlers face each other on their feet and work for what is called a “take down.” Because Marcus was blind, the wrestlers faced each other but with the palms of their hands touching, one palm up and one palm down. Marcus had perfected the art of grabbing his competitor’s wrist and when he came up with your wrist, the match was, for all practical purposes, over. None of Marcus’s matches had gone past the first period; most had not made it even into the second minute of the three-minute first round.
His final match would be taxing with both wrestlers evenly matched in desire, ability, strength and conditioning. Much to the delight of his cheering fans, early in the third period, Marcus reversed and held on to a victory by just a point or two. Who were his cheering fans? That would be everyone in the gym except for the opposing wrestler’s parents and girlfriend and I am quite sure they wanted to applaud for Marcus themselves. Both wrestlers hugged each other out of respect and admiration. As Marcus had his hand raised over his head in victory, the gym again exploded into even more applause and cheering. I suddenly had a thought that would cause chills to run up my back and explode onto the back of my head. Causing tears to form in my eyes, my thought was that because of his impairment Marcus would never experience the rush of emotions created by the applause and cheering – the same emotions that I was feeling for him. I know his coach’s embrace clarified his victory, however, I hoped that he could feel the vibrations and could somehow translate them into what a seeing and hearing person might experience. I questioned what he really felt until he walked off the mat and walked into the stands where people just reached out to touch him. At that moment, I knew he knew.
Again, though, his eyes found nothing to focus on and I found it impossible not to draw comparisons to Stevie Wonder. Marcus’s head had the Stevie Wonder “bobble” but he also had that huge Stevie Wonder grin. I decided that while we processed stimuli differently, Marcus had processed it his way and was both proud and happy. He would go on to win the state in his weight class. I am sure that there was plenty of applause and cheering that day, also. I hope and pray that there was “a little magic, a little kindness, Oh, sweet blindness, all over” Marcus at that moment and throughout the rest of his days.