Athlete's blind ambition Preps: Through his fuzzy window of a world, Brad Boggs, 14, sees his way clear to compete, and even excel, in sports.

September 23, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Sprinting to finish the cross country race, Bradley Boggs never saw the hole in his path. How could he? Boggs is blind.

He hit the dip, fell and lay there -- for a second. Then the high school freshman was gone. "Other kids would have risen and given you 'the varsity limp,' but not Brad," said Russ Lingner, his coach at Sparrows Point High. "He bounced up in a dead sprint to catch the guy he was chasing."

Boggs, 14, takes his disability in stride. He runs cross country and plays saxophone in the school's jazz and marching bands. He roller-blades, rides bicycles and plays tennis with bright-colored balls.

Boggs does all this, though sightless in his right eye and partially blind in the left since birth. What vision he has is distorted -- like peering out a dirty window. That makes him legally blind, or with less than 10 percent normal vision.

Last summer, Boggs went parasailing high above the beach at Ocean City. He calls parasailing the great equalizer:

"Up there, things look fuzzy to everyone."

Doctors marvel at his deeds, given Boggs' beginnings.

"This was a child born so premature [at 26 weeks] that he had a 50-50 chance of making it," said his pediatrician, Dr. Manuel Machiran, of Fullerton. "He weighed barely 1 1/2 pounds; I could literally put him in one hand and move him like a doll. But from Day One he was kicking like a fighter, and his success has borne that out.

"At the rate he's going, I wouldn't be surprised to see his name in lights."

Besides the visual defects, Boggs was born with severe respiratory problems and congenital heart disease. At the hospital, he stopped breathing several times. At two weeks, surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital repaired his damaged heart.

Boggs also had orthopedic difficulties -- "a misalignment of his feet," said Machiran. The infant's legs were placed in casts for several months; as a toddler, he wore corrective shoes.

Today, those other ailments are gone. To improve his sight, he wears custom-made bifocals, but little can be done to correct damage caused by the partially detached retina he has had since birth. Shapes are blurred, objects ill-defined. Yet Boggs races on.

Since starting cross country in August, he has walked the course before each meet with a teammate -- memorizing the terrain, counting the strides between landmarks, remembering trees and slopes and turns. Never mind the hole that tripped him recently at Towson High. Boggs completed the 2-mile junior varsity race in a personal-best 17 minutes, 31 seconds. (The winning time was a fast 12: 53.)

Often, Boggs runs with Brandon Benny, a ninth-grader who serves as his eyes during a meet. But Boggs has begun to take charge of late.

"Twice, during races, I've asked Brad to slow down, so I could catch my breath," Benny said. "He kept saying, 'Not yet.' "

What must it be like for Boggs, running full tilt in a fuzzy world? "I closed my eyes and tried. It's eerie," said Lingner, his coach. "You worry what's out there."

Not Boggs. "His intense desire to play sports allows Brad to accomplish tasks that many visually limited children wouldn't think of trying," said his ophthalmologist, Dr. Stuart Dankner of Baltimore. "He is a role model for all disabled youngsters."

Blindness could have left him embittered, Boggs said.

"I can't change it, so why be mad?" he said. "I'd rather run into a brick wall than just sit around."

Walls, doors, fences -- Boggs has hit them all. In fifth grade, he slammed his bicycle into a brick wall, injuring his knee and wrecking the bike. Once, at his aunt's house, he charged into a sliding glass door while running toward the swimming pool.

The accidents have subsided, said Boggs' sister, Amanda, 16. "Lately, he's been busy with school and hasn't had the opportunity to hit a wall."

Her brother's jaw dropped. "Thanks for your faith in me," he said, rolling his eye in mock disgust.

"People think we're crazy to let Brad do these things," said his mother, Belinda. "But you can't make him sit in a corner all his life. I would love to have kept him home and protected him, but he had to be as much of a kid as he could."

Boggs attends classes like an ordinary student, although he uses a talking calculator and a Braille ruler, and reads from large-print texts the size of atlases. He takes notes on a laptop computer on loan from the Baltimore County school system.

At Sparrows Point Middle School, Boggs began running in earnest. Denied the chance to play contact sports (doctor's orders), he started jogging during gym class.

"Running gave him a sense of belonging," said Bob Hallet, his former physical education instructor. When Hallet wasn't looking, Boggs tried to sneak into a soccer or basketball game with his classmates. "Keeping Brad out of events was a job in itself," Hallet said. "I threatened to put a beeper on him.

"This kid has fire inside. He'll be jumping out of an airplane soon."

Boggs' parents nixed his bid to go bungee-jumping. Instead, last week, he began lessons to learn to play the keyboard, reading large-type sheet music.

"There are few challenges that Brad can't conquer in his own way," said Machiran, his doctor. "He may take a detour to get there, but he will get there."

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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