Anthony Ferraro has a lot of ability for a guy with a disability. He surfs and rides a skateboard. He's an accomplished guitarist. Once upon a time he played basketball and soccer. He reveals these facts without emotion. He's not asking anyone to be impressed. The point he would like to make is both blunt and honest: He doesn't know any different, so none of this is a big deal to him.
He can be a bit of a wise guy, in a good way, like most high school seniors. Sometimes people will come up to him and say, "It's amazing that you're blind and you do this."
"Wait," he'll say. "I'm blind? I didn't know that."
His ability to disarm might be his most remarkable quality. He is an inspiration -- and he knows it -- but the weird thing about being an inspiration is that he has no control over it. He's just doing what he does; the inspiration part is up to you.
You can practically hear the shrug on the other end of the phone as he says: "I don't know anything else. I didn't know I was not supposed to do things, you know? I thought I was just supposed to do what everybody else does."
That included playing pee-wee basketball and soccer with sighted kids. (Anthony is completely blind in one eye and sees shadows -- shadows through a pinhole -- in the other.) He has four brothers and sisters and 55 cousins in the immediate area, so he just went about doing what everyone else did. Soccer? Why not? Basketball? Sure thing. Typically deadpan, he says, "It didn't take me long to realize I couldn't keep playing soccer and basketball. Reality started hitting me. It really wasn't working."
Right now, less than a week after a heartbreaking ending to his high school wrestling career, he's having a hard time concentrating on the big picture. Competing at 160 pounds, he finished fourth in his wrestling-mad region of New Jersey for the second straight year. His goal was top three, which means a trip to the state meet, but a 3-2 loss in the third-place match Saturday -- after two triple-OT matches in two days -- ended his career.
"He spilled his guts, and he was crushed," says Pat Smith, Ferraro's coach at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel. "But fourth or first, he's our champ."
Ferraro was wrestling to be the first blind state-meet qualifier since 1984. Throughout his career, he had beaten all three of the wrestlers who finished ahead of him. "Hopefully some good will come out of it," he says, not sounding entirely convinced.
We're always looking for stories that transcend sports. We want someone to show us that what happens in an athletic endeavor can jump off the court or the mat to stand for something bigger, something that rises above cynicism and commerce.
Ferraro's is one of those stories. He says wrestling changed his life, turning him from an overweight middle-schooler who absorbed too much TV and ate too much junk food into a dedicated athlete with -- if he chooses -- a future as a college wrestler.
"I don't look at it from a wrestling standpoint," Ferraro says. "I look at it from a life standpoint. The lifestyle you develop from wrestling, the training and discipline, will help out in the real world. Just knowing you have to get up and work out -- down the line, if you have obstacles with a job, you'll know you've been there before. Wrestling has helped me develop a life."
There have been sacrifices. His mother, Susan, spent two academic years living with Anthony in a one-bedroom apartment during the week so he could attend an elementary school for the blind in Philadelphia. Later, he was able to take a van back and forth -- two hours each way. "That's when I got fat," he says. "I'd come home and sit in front of the TV and eat junk food."
He transferred to a public school in seventh grade and began wrestling, with modest goals. "I wanted to get a point," he says. "I was getting pinned every match." He found he liked the discipline and the work, the idea of pushing himself past comfort. "Once I scored a point, I figured I'd set out to win a match."
Ferraro's wrestling career is closely watched at his old school in Philadelphia. "Everybody says, 'He's such an inspiration to the blind kids in the school in Philadelphia,'" Smith says. "Yes, that's true, but he's an inspiration to everybody. He's an inspiration to me in my private life."
During Anthony's freshman year at St. John Vianney, students in Christian Service class delivered Braille materials to each of his classrooms throughout the day. "It's taken a village to get Anthony to this point," says Smith, who also teaches theology at St. John Vianney. "Once he got comfortable, he kind of understood it was time to start giving back, if that makes sense. He felt a responsibility to do the best he could."
What's Ferraro's key to success? Fierce independence, for one thing. He refuses to use a cane except at night; he navigates the hallways and classrooms of St. John Vianney by memory. "I'm very good at adapting to places," he says. "If I get the layout of a place, within two or three times I have it memorized."
When he was younger, his independence veered toward defiance. "I used to try to fool myself that I wasn't blind," Anthony says. "I'd hide my cane and scream 'I'm not blind!' and generally freak out about it. I just didn't want to be different."
Between eighth grade and his freshman year, Ferraro and the St. John Vianney wrestling team went to a camp at Penn State. Smith called ahead to make sure his team's rooms were on the first floor. Wherever they went, Smith asked Anthony to hold his arm. "I was doting on him too much," Smith says. One day they were approaching a staircase, and Ferraro refused help. Smith backed off and Ferraro walked groin-first into a railing in the center of the staircase.
On the ground, moaning, Ferraro laughed and yelled, "I saw that! I saw that!"
Sometimes his friends will move desks around in a classroom or set up an obstacle that doesn't conform to Anthony's mental schematic. Hey, it's high school, and as Smith says, "Ant dishes it out more than he takes it." Pressed for specifics, Smith laughs and says, "He's got an incredible sense of humor, and he's all boy -- I'll just leave it at that."
Ferraro's being recruited to wrestle at a number of colleges, including Division I Rider and D-III The College of New Jersey, which has a commitment to providing accommodations for students with special needs. Not surprisingly, he has a mature approach to that, too: He might wrestle, he might not -- the first order of business is to find the right school, not the right wrestling program.
"People tell me I inspire them, and when someone tells you that, it's the best feeling in the world," Ferraro says. "If I do inspire people, that's the best thing I could ever hear. I never thought anyone would care about me and my wrestling, but now I see that I can help kids. To be honest, I don't always want to do interviews, but if I can help one kid like me, that's a big accomplishment. I get that part of it, but the last thing I want is sympathy."