Getting others to see beyond his blindness

High school wrestler takes down obstacles in sports and everyday life

Achievement

April 06, 2008|By Ericka Blount Danois | Ericka Blount Danois,Special to The Sun

Michael Spriggs listens and waits for cars to pass one night at the intersection of Taylor Avenue and Old Harford Road in Parkville.

Wearing thick glasses held on by a band, he's a short, slightly chubby, willful 11-year-old who's being told that he must learn to cross the street. Kelly Hamburg, his mobility and orientation coach, is there to guide him.

Every day Spriggs' vision gets worse; every day he denies the inevitable - that he will one day be blind.

As he steps off the curb, surrendering his trust to Hamburg, he turns his head to the left, and as he comes to the middle of the street, he turns his head to the right. He sees nothing but darkness.

Learning to get across a busy street was the first in a series of tasks that Spriggs would have to master so he could do everyday tasks independently.

Seven years later, Spriggs has excelled beyond what Hamburg, his former instructor at Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore County, and anyone who knew him in his younger years would have ever expected.

He is now a star wrestler and musician. He is also is fluent in French and speaks other languages.

"I have been able to accept my visual impairment and embrace it," said the 18-year-old recently. I am doing things that I thought were for `blind people' ... I am accepting who I am."

His acceptance came with a lot of life lessons.

Spriggs, of Largo, was born with cataracts and glaucoma. By the time he was 3 months old, he had had two surgeries on each eye to remove cataracts. But the glaucoma rendered him legally blind, and he was fitted with thick eyeglasses that only slightly improved his limited vision.

When Spriggs was 9, he would strain to read because the glaucoma had caused his vision to deteriorate. After teachers required that he repeat a grade, they suggested that he would do better in a school that would serve his increasing needs.

Reluctantly, he entered the Maryland School for the Blind, a residential school. He stayed there during the week and returned to Washington on weekends.

"It was very hard," said his mother, Marquet Craig, of the decision to let her son go. "I was reluctant to send him there because I didn't know what to expect, what was going to happen, who was going to take care of him."

When Spriggs arrived at the new school he refused to learn Braille or to use a cane. Hamburg had to fight his stubbornness to teach him how to get around independently in a residential neighborhood.

He memorized landmarks so he would know where to turn, she said. She tested him by dropping him off in a strange neighborhood and having him figure his way back to the school - using orientation skills.

After a year, Spriggs finally learned to use his cane and to read Braille. The school rewarded his efforts, giving him the opportunity to participate in sports - basketball, football and swimming, his first team sport.

When Spriggs was 11, he had only some light perception and could see shadows and five fingers in front of his face. Undaunted and determined to fit in with other children, he would devise systems to play with them.

One day, he got the idea to put plastic grocery bags around a football and listen to the ball as it whizzed through the air, he said. He played with the neighborhood kids and his cousins this way, listening to the ball, catching it and then either running straight on or running a pattern.

He would play basketball and wrestle with his brother, Sam Young, who is four years older than he.

"I was rough with him," said Young, a forward on the University of Pittsburgh's basketball team. "He wasn't as outgoing as he is now when he was a kid. He was kind of shy. I think I kind of toughened him up."

At age 13, Spriggs went completely blind.

Now a senior at C.H. Flowers High School in Springdale, Spriggs is a brawny wrestler on the school's team. In March, he was one of two wrestlers from Flowers to go to the state championships at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House in College Park.

He faced last year's champion in the heavyweight division - 17-year-old Danny Miller from Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin.

Because Spriggs is blind, tournament rules required that he and his opponent maintain contact throughout the match. Spriggs and Miller started with their palms touching.

Spriggs was able to escape from many of Miller's holds during the match, but Miller ended up having more takedowns, and the victory was his.

"He has a lot of heart and courage. He does things that most heavyweights can't do," said Miller.

This year, Spriggs finished the wrestling season with a 27-11 record.

"I just want people to say - not necessarily that I was just the blind guy, but that I was successful and I did something worthwhile," Spriggs said. "It's not just me being a blind wrestler, it's me being an athlete, and I am just as good as anybody else."

Spriggs is comfortable with himself, and he has won over his classmates.

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