Joel Ramos, who at 14 has had to adjust suddenly to being blind, is preoccupied almost completely with wrestling. It makes his world seem not so dark.
"That's when I feel the best, when I'm wrestling," said Ramos, a student at John Glenn High School in Norwalk who fell and suffered a detached retina in his left eye 20 months ago. That eye detects only shadows and light. His right eye, injured permanently when he was a child, detects nothing.
The freshman's goal, now that he has come out from a period of seclusion, is to be a Suburban League junior varsity champion.
But first, Coach Ralph Valle keeps telling him, he has to make the JV team.
Each afternoon, the 155-pound Ramos takes high hopes and courage into the school's stuffy wrestling room, which is furnished with only a red mat, a radio and a scale. There he is treated the way he wants to be--like everyone else.
He appeared stunned after getting dumped last week by 240-pound Steve Rosales, on whom he had been attempting an inside half-cradle.
"What's the matter, Joel?" asked Valle, who has a crew cut and a build that attests to the fact that he once was a wrestler.
Ramos did not answer, so the coach asked Rosales: "Did you hurt my baby?"
"He hurts me more than I hurt him," Rosales said.
As Ramos wrestled, assistant coach Fo Dominguez told him where his opponent's arms were. "Joel has good potential," Dominguez said. "He has a sense of feeling where the other guy is. Wrestling's all in the heart and mind, and what you feel."
Practice was grueling. Ramos, his face sweaty, ran laps around the room, holding onto a teammate's shoulder. Skipping came next; Ramos tried, but the other wrestlers yelled, "Come on, Joel, do it right."
When displeased with his team, Valle orders push-ups. Ramos cannot always keep up with the pace.
"What are you waiting for, Joel?" Valle said. "Want me to ask you personally? Please do a push-up, Joel."
The coach rides the other wrestlers in much the same way, which makes Ramos feel that he is one of them. But there are melancholy moments, too.
"Can you see this?" Valle asked the team while demonstrating a move. While his teammates gathered around Valle, all Ramos could do was recline on his elbows alone at the edge of the mat.
While Ramos wants to be on the JV team, Valle said, "I don't know how realistic that is. We're loaded." The Eagles won the league varsity and JV titles last year, and almost all of those wrestlers have returned. If Ramos does not make the JV team, he can still compete in tournaments, such as Saturday's JV Invitational at Gahr High School in Cerritos.
Valle does not sugarcoat his evaluation of Ramos: "He's a pretty tough kid when he stops feeling sorry for himself. He's got talent. He's naturally strong and is stubborn as hell--that's a good thing to be when you're wrestling because you don't want to quit. He still lacks the confidence to be successful in a match, but he's a freshman. He tends to be lazy sometimes. He will have to work hard."
Ramos, who had poor vision since birth, lost the sight in his right eye when he fell and struck it on a table when he was 5. He is not sure what caused the detachment in his left eye, but believes it happened when he fell on his head while playing football in the street.
Shortly afterward he began to see spots. "I ignored it at first, then I started losing vision and I told my parents about it," Ramos said. "Then the doctor told me and I got scared."
The retina was too badly torn to be repaired, although three operations were attempted. "He had hereditary retinal degeneration," said Edgar Thomas, an ophthalmologist with Retina Vitreous Associates in Los Angeles. "Trauma may or may not have caused (the detachment)."
Atop the living-room TV in the Ramos home near Norwalk Boulevard is a photo of Joel taken two years ago. In it he wears glasses as thick as the ones his father, Jose Jesus Ramos, now wears. Jose Ramos, a former truck driver, is blind in one eye and even with his glasses must use a magnifying glass to read out of the other one.
Jose sat on a couch on a recent afternoon while his wife, Leticia, lay on a matching one, nursing a head bump she suffered when her car hit a fence while she was learning to drive.
"Hard times? You can say that again," Jose said. "We just look ahead."
Jose Ramos said Joel suffered a lot when he first lost his sight. "He didn't want to see nobody, just wanted to stay in his room," he said. "Now everything is a challenge. He's learning Braille. He's been more social with us and his friends."
The Ramoses worry about their son's wrestling, although Thomas said the worst the wrestler could suffer would be a sore eye.
"I try not to encourage it," Jose Ramos said. "He always liked football. We were afraid of his playing in the street so we converted a small place to play basketball."
He walked out to the back yard and looked at the hoop.
"He and his friends would play," he said, "but now, no more."