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JIM MURRAY

'Not Handicapped, He Just Can't See'

September 04, 1997|JIM MURRAY

Ted Williams could hit a 90-mph fastball.

Big deal. Williams had 20/15 vision.

Rick Boggs once got a bat on a hanging curveball. Big deal? You bet! Rick's got 0/0 vision.

Last time I looked, Shaquille O'Neal was, like, a 40% free-thrower. Shame on him. Rick Boggs once made seven of 10 from the line.

Maybe all those guys waving white balloons behind the basket bother O'Neal. They wouldn't bother Rick Boggs. He can't see 'em. In fact, he can't even see the backboard. He makes his free throws by feel.

Tom Watson can't make a four-foot putt any more. Rick Boggs can. Of course, you have to rattle the pin in the cup for him.

You think you've got it tough in this life? The world picking on you?

What if you had to spend your life in a dark box? What if the world was just a rumor to you? Sounds in the night. What if you couldn't cross a street without help?

Rick Boggs probably can do everything you can except play cards. And if you raised the pips on them so you could tell a heart from a club and an ace from a deuce, he'd probably beat you at that.

Blindness to me is the ultimate affliction. But, Rick Boggs points out, it afflicts only the body, not the spirit. He is convinced there is more to a man than the sum of his parts, even when the parts are vital organs.

Boggs hasn't been blind all his life, only the last 29 years. Since he was 6.

The agent was a bodily disorder of the connective tissue that assailed the retinas. Seven operations failed to reconnect them.

The last sight he would remember is not a tree, an ocean, a sunset. It is a little boy's tiny stuffed toy, which he remembers he got dirty by rubbing it onto the banister of the stair he was climbing on the way to the hospital.

Boggs did not have time to feel sorry for himself. He did not retreat into a fantasy world or cut himself off from his contemporaries. His mother wouldn't let him. She wouldn't let the school district put him in a handicapped student school. "He's not handicapped," she told them. "He just can't see."

Boggs didn't go out for varsity football or the soccer team. But he did pitch in Little League. He actually played quarterback in flag football where he was not noticeably worse than Jeff George at finding the open man. "The defense had no idea where I was going to throw it," he grins.

To be sure, they made special rules to accommodate the sightless athlete. But defenders would have sacked Boggs as enthusiastically as they do Dan Marino.

Boggs, who is studying music at UCLA, gives motivational speeches and has done some acting, says it is a misconception that the sightless develop a special keenness of hearing to compensate. "No," he says, "your hearing is not any better than anyone else's. It's your ability to listen that improves. You hear the same things everyone else does, but you put them in a context which will help you. You pay more attention to the telltale noises around you. It's amazing what you can do when you react to what you hear."

Boggs never flew an airplane. But he skydived out of one. He never entered the Tour de France. But he rode bike races against his sister on city streets. He never tackled the sheer walls of Everest. But he did climb 10,000-foot Mt. San Jacinto. He won't take on Evander Holyfield. But when the kids in his sixth-grade class tormented him on his blindness (kids, alas, do that), he waded in. He wasn't the flyweight champion of the school, but he was a contender.

Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds become the best athletes, usually. It's hard to imagine a more disadvantaged one than Boggs'. Big-time athletics rely heavily on hand-eye coordination. And Rick came up 50% short on that.

But he didn't quit in his corner like some more favored athletes have. He carried the fight to his opponent like a hurt Marciano with his nose split. And it was his unwillingness to give in that caught the eye, so to speak, of AirTouch Communications, the cellular phone conglomerate. AirTouch went right by 50-point-a-night NBA stars, second-generation home run hitters, Heisman Trophy winners and Wimbledon finalists and hit on a young man who, in their view, goes up against a 90-mph fastball, a zone defense or a cannonball serve every day. As an athlete he's limited, but as a role model he sure beats anything in green-purple hair.

What I like about this athlete is, he's more than happy to serve as a role model. Where some more-favored athlete might stormily and sneeringly reject the role, Boggs is only too eager to show youngsters that life can be lived with success without sight. Anybody can be great if he has two eyes, two legs, two hands, is 7 feet 2 inches, or weighs 220 and comes from a long line of perfect physical specimens. It's the guys that God short-changed, guys who have to play a hand without aces in it that give us inspiration. A real role to model.

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