Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blind teen top wrestler at his N.C. high school; he plans a life of independence

From The News & Observer:

APEX, N.C. -- In the fluorescent glow of a gymnasium at Apex High School, Tyler Forsythe (pictured) stood clutching a yellow rose against his yellow hoodie.

As his name rattled over a loudspeaker, he walked slowly across the wrestling mat. He grinned broadly as dozens of parents, friends and teammates applauded.

It was senior night, a pretty big deal for a school night.

For Tyler, it was so much more.

He has owned this gym for the past four years as a member of Apex's varsity wrestling team. He has posted a winning record each season - without ever seeing an opponent.

Tyler is blind. He has been that way since he was almost killed by a tiger.

Sabu the Bengal belonged to Tyler's father, who had been feeding the pet in the backyard of a home west of Apex on the afternoon of Thanksgiving 1995.

Tyler and his brothers watched. Tyler, who was 3 at the time, got too close.

The 300-pound jungle cat bit deep into his face, crushing the front of his skull and exposing his brain. He lost an eye. Nerve damage rendered the other useless.

"I would have never thought I'd see him standing here now, so grown-up, with so many accomplishments," said Annette Truelove-Forsythe, Tyler's mother. "I thank God for him. He's my angel."

The mauling made international news. It prompted policies on exotic pets. Even Ann Landers weighed in.

But the story since then is perhaps more noteworthy.

Tyler is just like any ordinary teenager. He goes fishing, shoots pool, plays video games and goes on awkward dates. He even shoots skeet.

His story strikes the extremes of ability and disability, good times and not-so-good times.

"I'm just like everyone else," says Tyler, 17. "I just can't see."

The lengths to which he has gone - and still goes - to be an average teenager are anything but average.

Tyler's brothers, Wren and Brent, were wrestlers at Apex. Tyler, the youngest, wanted to do the same. He became one of the top wrestlers in the region, finishing with more than 80 wins in his four-year career.

There were special rules: Opponents were required to stay in contact with Tyler for the full match. Breaking contact would leave Tyler defenseless to a "shot" - wrestling parlance for a dive to the ankles. The rules frustrated opponents; coaches complained about fairness.

"Technically, he can't see," Apex coach Russ Duncan said. "So it seems like you've got an advantage, too."

The rest was up to Tyler. He learned to anticipate opponents' moves with his ears and fingers. His hands latched onto foes' wrists, controlling where they'd go.

Duncan had his team wrestle blindfolded so they could understand how Tyler relied on instincts and fundamentals. At one practice, Tyler barked: "Hey coach, where's my blindfold?"

Fuquay-Varina's Evan Arredondo learned why Tyler's style became a model for others. Tyler beat Arredondo 11-1 this season. "He surprised me," Arredondo said.

Fourteen years earlier, Tyler was grappling for survival.

The tiger attacked at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 23, 1995, leaving Tyler in critical condition.

Sabu was put down.

A five-person medical team - including a pediatric trauma surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a plastic surgeon and an ophthalmologist - worked on his head and face for 14 hours.

Mark Forsythe lives in Apex now but is largely out of the picture.

After the attack, Mark Forsythe was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse - maximum sentence: community service and probation. He was ordered never to own another exotic animal. "Not even so much as a parakeet," Wake County District Court Judge Donald Overby told him.

"He should have received a stiffer penalty," Tyler wrote last month in an essay for a class on law and justice.

Mark Forsythe did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. Tyler's mother remarried.

Tyler said his father tried for years to shield him from accounts of the attack. Lately, he has been learning more about the incident. And he seems to want to make sense of what happened, if not to settle resentment toward his father.

"I can remember seeing the sky," he said recently, reflecting on life with functioning eyes. "But I don't know if that's true or a dream. I remember seeing a huge blue expanse, and I remember seeing the clouds."

Friends, coaches and family say Tyler's positive, indefatigable attitude have helped him accomplish the unexpected.

"Other blind people I know lean on people," Tyler says. "I want to be independent."

Tyler plays video games with the help of an 11-speaker surround-sound system.

"I can hear the zombies coming before they get there," he says, explaining the secret to his success in the game "Nazi Zombies."

He uses Braille to take notes, read textbooks and complete tests. He can hear and read five different things at once. With a different headphone in each ear, a hand in two different books and the surround sound on, Tyler's brain can absorb different channels of information.

When his family went hunting for sand dollars in Florida, everybody found a few, except Tyler. "Tyler came back with dozens of them," said Keith Adair, Tyler's stepfather. "He was the only one who was patient enough to dig under the sand."

With assistance, Tyler rides a four-wheeler through the woods. With his ears guiding him, he once shot 10 of 10 at a skeet range.

"He does anything anybody else can do," Adair said. "Most people think he can see."

Tyler uses a cane to guide where he walks. But only during school, because they say he has to. When he was in middle school, he got in trouble for running in the hallways, his mother said.

"It just made my heart do flip-flops," Truelove-Forsythe said. "Because I realized he's just a normal kid."

Being a normal kid isn't always easy for Tyler. But his determination, frankness and humor help.

While Tyler was fixing a broken mailbox, one of his brother's friends wondered aloud how he could do it. Tyler shot back: "I'm blind, not stupid."

When Tyler goes to the movies, he sometimes asks his date to fill in the blanks.

He has lost his glass eye in the ocean and on the wrestling mat.

After a wrestling opponent's elbow knocked out three of Tyler's teeth, he wore a padded mask. He then asked his coach if he could close the eye holes - to psych out opponents. "We told him he couldn't do that," Duncan said.

Meeting new friends can be difficult. "I often can't read how they're feeling," Tyler said. "It makes me nervous. It makes me lose my confidence.

"Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, there's a long pause and I feel nothing. I'm just standing there in the dark."

Sitting in his room with the lights off, just like he likes it, Tyler listens to his school assignments on a laptop. Near his bed are six wrestling medals and a trophy from a tournament in Austria, where he was named MVP.

Tyler wants to go to college, study history and become a lawyer. He can go to college with aid from the N.C. Services for the Blind if he keeps his grades up. And if he gets in.

He has a nonweighted GPA of 3.35, which puts him in the middle of his class. He was wait-listed by Appalachian State University. He still hasn't heard from UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State University.

He once told his stepfather that if given a choice, he wouldn't have his sight back.

But recently, Tyler offered an exception: "I just want to see my family."

Especially his brother Brent, Tyler's biggest role model. "Sometimes I can feel his face, actually touch it with my hands," Tyler says. "But I'd really love to see him."