Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Idaho, legally blind soccer player challenges notion of who can play sports

From The Times-News in Idaho:

GOODING, Idaho — Talk to him for a few minutes, and you almost forget Jeremiah Silva’s legally blind.

That’s the way the 18-year-old student (pictured) at the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind prefers it. But at the same time he doesn’t much mind being known as the blind kid on Gooding’s boys soccer team. He knows you’ll think there’s no way he can play soccer, or that even if he can, he’ll never get into the game.

Go ahead and think that. All it does is motivate him.

“When I was little the doctors listed a bunch of things I wouldn’t be able to do,” Silva said. “I proved them wrong then, and I’m still proving people wrong now.”

Including on the soccer field.

“I just look for the ball and follow it. I can see OK far away, but when it gets closer it takes some time to focus,” he said. “A sighted person can just stare down the field and pretty much see all of it, while I have to scan it.”

Silva was born with what Gooding coach Roger Johnson termed fatty tumors in his brain that put pressure on his optic nerve. Because of their proximity, the tumors are inoperable.

Fully sighted at birth, Silva completely lost the vision in his left eye before he turned 2 and his right possesses 20/70 vision at best. He doesn’t know whether he’ll lose his sight completely one day.

“I hope I don’t, and I don’t think I will,” he said. “But it’s not that big of a deal.”

It became a big deal for a few moments on Monday when Silva was hit flush in the right eye with a ball during a game with Filer, leaving bruises and causing temporarily-worsened vision.

“He was so scared,” Johnson said. “But the referees blew play dead as soon as they saw who it was and we got him out of there and tended to.”

While it presents a unique situation for opponents and referees, including ISDB kids on the Gooding team is nothing new for Johnson. In his time at Gooding he’s coached nearly three dozen deaf players. Silva is his second blind player.

Coaching so many deaf players has made Silva’s integration into the team easier, Johnson said.

“He’s able to hear your instructions and adjust to what you’re telling him. We don’t feel like this is a handicap (for soccer),” Johnson said. “It’s really great to be a part of the program the way we’ve set it up. It’s been a blessing and an honor.”

This isn’t Silva’s first time playing sports. He’s been a member of ISDB’s basketball team for several years, but tried soccer for the first time this fall. Conditioning for soccer shape was an uphill task, but eventually he caught up to the rest of his teammates during running drills.

Johnson tries to get Silva around 15 minutes a game if he can, usually playing him on the wide side of midfield. He plays right or left side, depending on which way the team is going — always on the side closest to the benches so he can hear Johnson’s instructions.

Johnson won’t risk him against bigger, more physical teams, as that presents a greater danger of getting hurt. Against the Community School earlier in the season, Silva played more than 35 minutes.

When he’s in, a clean kick of the ball earns a bigger cheer than when the Senators score a goal — something they do with regularity.

“I can’t always see it, but I can hear when guys are getting close,” Silva said. “I just know I need to get rid of the ball quicker.”

Johnson paused the interview at that moment, turning to the rest of his team. “I want you to listen to this. You need to get rid of it quicker,” he quipped. In handing his charges a lesson, he underscored the bond the team shares — they all laughed in return, before Johnson burst into a smile.

“We have fun here,” Johnson said. “I don’t want them out here if they’re not going to have fun. … It’s like Jeremiah’s got 19 brothers now.”

Silva’s enjoying every minute of his soccer experience. He’s still in search of his first goal — though an assist would do, he said. He wants to earn whatever he gets, though, and not have it handed to him.

But regardless of whether he gets on the score sheet in any capacity, Silva has already made his point.

“A lot of times people say you can’t do something because you’re blind. I just want to prove to the community that a blind person can do anything they put their mind to,” he said. “Sometimes we just have to do it in different ways.”