Tuesday, March 24, 2009

College basketball player with multiple disabilities, Tiffara Steward, selected ABC's Person of the Week

From Farmingdale State University sports information. You can watch a video the story on the university Web site.

Farmingdale, N.Y. - Farmingdale State women's basketball junior co-captain Tiffara Steward was named ABC's Person of the Week on Friday, March 20 on ABC News with Charles Gibson.

Steward has drawn national media coverage all season, being seen in Newsday, USA Today, CNN Sports, The New York Times, and now ABC World News.

Tiffara has been tabbed in the Athletics Department as our "mini-celebrity". She is a remarkable young woman, a model student-athlete at Farmingdale State and an inspiration to everyone she meets.

Tiffara Steward stands just 4-foot-6 in her size one Air Jordans. At only 90 pounds, the 20-year-old is the star of her college basketball team at Farmingdale State College on Long Island, N.Y.

Though she may be the shortest college basketball player of all time, Steward rushes her opponents and runs rings around even the tallest girls.

"The other fans just can't believe how little she is, and the next thing you know she's knocking down shots or making a steal, or going in for a layup," said Coach Chris Mooney.

As starting point guard and a co-captain of the Farmingdale Rams, defense is her specialty.

"My favorite position is point guard. I like to dribble and bring up the ball a lot -- show off a couple moves, maybe," she said with a laugh. "It's a possibility, I'd be a secret weapon. "

Because of her size, Steward never thought she'd play basketball at the college level. Her own sister was turned down by a college team because she was too short at 5-foot-2.

Instead, Steward planned to study business at Syracuse University. Then she got the call from Farmingdale, which said she could study business and play basketball.

"The decision was kind of easy," she said. "I get to go to school and basketball? And it was cheaper too. I was like, 'Yeah, jackpot!'"

Steward has refused to let life's bad bounces keep her out of the game. Born three months premature, she weighed just over two pounds.

"The first thing that the doctors told me was that her cornea hadn't developed, which left her to be blind in that one eye," said her mother, Vanessa Jones-Steward. "By the time she was three, she had already had six surgeries."

Scoliosis left one leg shorter than the other. Some vertebrae didn't develop and she is missing a rib. She's blind in one eye, and partially deaf. But on the court, it all fades away.

"I didn't even know any of her disabilities ... when she came here the first day of practice," said Mooney. "I mean, I still didn't know. She told me she couldn't see in one eye."

"I honestly didn't even know she had a disability when I got here," said Steward's teammate, Kimberly Blakney. "I swear, I didn't know. I'm just like, 'Wow, all that, and I cry about a bruise. And she's playing with all these disabilities.'"

From the moment she touched a basketball, her parents said that Steward shined.

"It was, like, evident to everyone. She excelled. ... I think she's just a natural-born athlete," said her mother. "She has a lot of heart, a lot of determination. And we instilled in her that, you know, if you want something, you strive and you go out there and you get it. Don't let anything get in your way. Certainly [do] not let your height."

Steward's parents, both community league coaches, encouraged their daughter to try anything her brother and sister were doing.

"When we were little, we never took into account any of the disabilities that she had. We looked at her as a regular sibling, like a regular kid," said her older brother Greg Steward, 22, now a sports coach and teacher's assistant at their former high school.

Steward has proved her mettle on and off the court. At Farmingdale, she's branched out from sports -- exploring music and making close friends. She has a boyfriend -- who is 6'2".

While the Rams' season ended with a loss in the second round of the regional tournament, they showcased a champion nonetheless.

Steward looks up to NBA stars like Nate Robinson, the guard for the New York Knicks, who is the shortest player in the NBA this year. When she graduates, she said that she may become a coach, hoping to instill in others that anyone -- tall or short -- can dream big.

"A disability shouldn't be able to stop you from doing what you like or you love or you just want to do," she said. "Either you can try it and hopefully succeed in it. I mean, if you don't then try again."