What do you think about the prospect of a blind football player?


1 Response to “What do you think about the prospect of a blind football player?”

  1. October 24, 2009 at 1:41 PM

    ADAMS, Minn. — At 5-foot-2 and about 110 pounds, Riley Schmitz was not among the bigger boys on the Southland eighth-grade football team this season.

    “Every game, he gets planted at least once,” said Southland eighth-grader Dylan Henaman.

    It could be doubly painful for Dylan to witness, because he and Riley are not only teammates and linemates on the offensive line, but also cousins.

    “Yes, I do worry about Riley; I don’t want him to get hurt,” Dylan said Monday, after their team’s last game of the season.

    Riley Schmitz’s small stature isn’t his only handicap, or his most limiting one. The 13-year-old Adams boy has been legally blind since birth, with virtually no peripheral vision, and the ability to see only a few feet in front of himself.

    The older of Angie and Charlie Schmitz’s two children, Riley has a condition called Leber optic atrophy, a genetic disorder that sometimes results in total blindness. His 8-year-old sister, Peyton, has normal vision.

    Riley has 20-800 vision in one eye and 20-600 in the other. When he was small his parents were warned that he may become totally blind by puberty, but now doctors believe he can retain what vision he has.

    “There are worse things out there that children and families deal with,” said Angie Schmitz. “This hasn’t been a huge hindrance on us at all.”

    And it hasn’t kept Riley from pursuing his favorite sport. With the consent of his parents, the caring approach of coaches, and the helping hand of teammates, he has played football the last four seasons.

    “You bet I was pretty nervous about letting Riley play this season; he can’t see when he’s out there,” said Bill Feuchtenberger, athletic director at Southland High School and coach of the eighth-grade football team.

    “If he’s in the wrong spot at the wrong time, he could take a big hit and really get hurt.”

    Feuchtenberger had a sense of relief following Monday’s game against visiting Kingsland, because the season was over and Riley made it through without a serious injury.

    “Riley is a tough kid, and he does know his blocking assignments,” Feuchtenberger noted. “I wish every kid had his determination and work ethic.”

    His teammates help him out.

    “Huddle up!” Riley shouts out, with both arms upraised. For several moments in each game, Riley is in complete control, exercising his duty as the center to dictate where his offense’s huddle will form.

    But from the moment the huddle breaks Riley becomes reliant on his teammates, to get him to the line of scrimmage, to let him know where the rush is coming from, to keep him from getting crushed.

    Dylan Henaman played right guard this season and lined up next to his cousin Riley. “Every now and then our tackle will move over and help block my guy, so I can move over and help Riley,” Dylan explained. “We do our best to help him.”

    Coach Feuchtenberger designed the blocking schemes so that Riley would always be moving away from the fray.

    “If the play was going to his right, we would have him block the guy to his left; we always had him go the opposite way,” he explained.

    Assessing Riley’s blocking ability honestly, Feuchtenberger said, “he’d slow ’em up if they were in front of him, but he wasn’t going to go out and get a linebacker.”

    Feuchtenberger would point out Riley’s visual impairment to opposing coaches before each game, in the interest of full disclosure, and in the hope of a heightened level of sportsmanship.

    “He’s never taken a cheap shot, and I’ve been thankful about that,” the coach said.

    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.

    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.

    “Actually I would be upset if the coach tells me I can’t play any more,” he said. “I’d like to stick with it, all the way through my varsity career, if they let me. I have confidence in myself.”

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