On a picture postcard perfect day, the big-as-a-mountain pitcher strode to the mound. This was his moment. Electricity was in the air, the nervous buzzing of the crowd adding to the tension of the moment. Despite the monumental task ahead of him, however, he was the epitome of cool – a mighty warrior ready to go to battle. He stood at the center of the field, oblivious to the distractions, and sized up the foe who faced him.
His opponent did not wear a uniform, wield a mighty bat or crowd the plate.
His foe was expectation.
The pitcher was blind. Newly blind to be precise; an Iraq War veteran who had lost his sight only a couple of years before. He was expected to be needy, to become one of the victims who required our support and attracted our pity. School – especially math – would be too hard. English would be equally difficult because he didn’t know braille. He was expected to stay home and live off the crumbs from our tables.
His name is James Nealey, and he would have none of that. He went to school, learned math and studied hard. He got an A in math, and another in English. His cumulative grade point average was an astounding 3.81, the highest of all other veterans in the Wyakin Warrior program. It was because of that that he was chosen to throw out the ceremonial pitch at the Boise Hawks baseball game, one night after the first home game of the season.
A blind man throwing a ball? How could he do that?
By attacking the challenge head on, as he had the other obstacles thrown in his path. So he practiced. He had friends march off the 55 feet (ceremonial pitches are thrown in front of the mound) to get a feel for the distance. He used verbal cues to adjust his aim.
Game time was officially set at 7:15, but for James and everyone there, it really began at 7:01, the official time set for the ceremonial pitch. He was escorted to the mound by the owner of the Hawks and his Program Director who would fine tune his aim. To anyone, the honor of throwing out the first pitch is a special, rare opportunity to announce to the world that you matter. That you are something special. I could not help but think of the President throwing out the first pitch at the 2001 World Series as the country still reeled from the attacks.
Earlier in the day, James and his fellow Wyakin Warriors – the Pathfinders – welcomed the second class of six into the program on the steps of the Capitol.
He and the others in the first class knew that they were now role models for those who would follow. His work ethic, his study habits, his attitude would all be seen and emulated. He and his classmates would blaze the trail.
And so it was on that perfect evening, standing at the mound in front of friends, fans, and the other Wyakin Warriors. He was blazing a new path, showing the world that physical challenges are obstacles that can be overcome, and that if the will is strong, the way can be found. Facing him were the memories – the war, the fading vision, the frustration, and the emotional turmoil that understandably comes with sudden blindness. But mostly it was the degradation of low expectations that stared at him, fifty-five feet away.
He reared back and fired.
The pitch was low and outside, with some zip on it. As the crowd roared its approval, the catcher trotted up to him and handed him the ball. One day it will sit in his trophy case as a testament to his conquest of vanquished enemies.
It will be the first of many.