NEW ORLEANS—Whenever someone wonders what it feels like to be Aaron Golub, the Tulane sophomore long snapper hands them a pair of goggles. The special, innovative eyewear provides a glimpse of what it’s like to go through life legally blind.
“Aaron keeps them in his backpack and pulls them out for people when he comes to my (special teams) camps,” former UCLA long snapper Chris Rubio says. “The right side is completely blackened out, and the left side has an opening that’s about one-tenth (of the circumference) of what a normal person sees. It really gives you that ‘wow’ factor and it makes me say, ‘How can Aaron do this?’”
Golub was born with Peter’s Anomaly, a genetic condition that has rendered him blind in his right eye and significantly clouds the peripheral vision in his left. In spite of his limited visibility, Golub could appear in a few games for the Green Wave as early as next season. In doing so, he could become the first known legally blind athlete to start on a Division I football team.
“D-I football is a whole new frontier and presents a host of challenges that individual sport does not,” says Matt Simpson, membership and outreach coordinator for the United States Association of Blind Athletes. “This would be an incredible accomplishment (for Golub) and would help push the boundaries and demonstrate to people (blind and sighted alike) what is possible for someone with a disability.”
Golub isn’t concerned about making history or being a role model. He continues to see himself as one of the guys and doesn’t seek special treatment. He eschews any notion that his disability is a major setback. He doesn’t need an excuse.
Former New York Giants star Michael Strahan discovered that last May during a segment for Good Morning America. The NFL’s single-season record holder for sacks lined up a short distance behind Golub to catch one of his snaps. “I’ve heard you’re very powerful, and I am scared,” he told Golub with a nervous grin. “I was not known as a guy who could catch the football. That’s why I tackled people. So, are you going to be gentle?”
Golup launched a rocket that hit Strahan in the gut, causing him to crumple over in pain before he eventually shook it off with a laugh. Had it landed a few inches lower, footage would have made it into the pantheon of groin shots on America’s Funniest Home Videos.
“Aaron can really snap," Tulane coach Curtis Johnson says. “He puts a lot of velocity on the ball and I think he’s getting stronger and better. He’s not there yet, but one day I think he could help us win some games.”
Dawn Colsia always reminded Golub that he could accomplish anything in life, with the exception of driving a car or flying a plane. That’s why shortly after enrolling her son in ski school at age 3 through the New England Handicapped Sports Association (NEHSA), she wasn’t surprised to see him fly down the powdery slopes of Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire. It was only a matter of time before he was even shredding black diamond trails.
The skis were soon replaced with a snowboard and Golub searched for terrain parks with sharp rails and ominous-looking jumps. He was an intrepid thrill-seeker and it left Colsia and Golub's father, Bob, feeling anxious at times, even though they marveled that his disability wasn’t standing in the way of his interests. “I taught Aaron he should focus on the things he can do,” Colsia says. “When he sets his mind to something, he is incredibly driven to achieve the result he wants.”
School also presented a series of hurdles, but Golub adapted and maintained a B average. After initially struggling to decipher textbooks with small print, he used the zoom tool on his computer to read assignments and listened to audio books on CD. “My hearing probably isn’t any better than anyone else’s, but I have to rely on it,” Golub says. “I pay attention with it more and hear things others might not.”
Through it all, his parents refused to cater to his visual deficiencies and Golub’s childhood was relatively ordinary. He played video games on his Xbox. He was required to do household chores. He was quick-witted and, as is the case with many younger siblings, could sometimes annoy his older half-brother Michael (now 36) and sister Rayna (now 20).
Nevertheless, signs of maturity commenced just before Golub entered the seventh grade, and he opted to trade the terrain parks for the gridiron. Football was a passion, a sport that connected him to his father each autumn Sunday when they huddled around the TV to watch the New England Patriots. He was feeling the pull to be a part of a team, and an injury on his snowboard might derail those plans.
Late that summer, Golub tried out for his middle school football team and made the roster as a lineman. He would alternate between lineman and center through his sophomore season at Newton South High.
“Thank goodness he got away from those (terrain parks) because they’re pretty dangerous,” Bob Golub says with a laugh. “His mother and I were concerned about him (playing football) at first, wondering how he would be able to play since his vision is so limited. The concern (for injury) was always there, but Aaron is an incredibly determined kid. Part of him wants to prove people wrong. He wants to tell them, Just watch me.”
Golub suffered a concussion during a JV game early in his sophomore year. He doesn’t recall the hit, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. However, Golub knew that if he wanted to keep playing, he would need to explore options that would minimize chances of absorbing another serious injury.
The solution eventually became obvious. “I realized that if I got good enough as a long snapper, I could keep playing past high school,” he says.
That winter, Golub informed his coaches that he was going to learn a new position and signed up for a camp run by Rubio, a nationally renowned long-snapping guru. Many of Rubio’s campers are evaluated and trained to become long snappers at the collegiate level.
Golub is blunt when assessing his first visit. “I was just horrible,” he admits. “I was probably the worst one out there.”
But he was the hungriest to learn. After leaving, Golub recorded daily videos of himself snapping footballs in his backyard and emailed them Rubio, devouring every critique. “Aaron was never naturally talented, but he was more driven than anyone I had ever coached,” Rubio says. “If I told him to tweak something a quarter of an inch, he would do it. He would chew on my words and swallow them. He’d soak in everything.”
That persistence paid off during his junior and senior seasons at Newton South. Dogged determination and a feverish work ethic helped him develop power, precision mechanics and sniper-scope accuracy. Golub made obsessive efforts to perfect his motion, the way a PGA golfer perfects a swing, and produced only one bad snap in two years. “My coaches thought I was good as a junior, but I wasn’t good by my standards,” he says. “I was much better as a senior.”
Golub graduated as the No. 12-ranked long snapper in the nation, according to 247sports.com, and became the No. 19-ranked prep recruit in Massachusetts. He was courted by numerous colleges and spurned a Division I offer from Illinois before announcing his intent to join the Green Wave as a preferred walk-on last spring. The decision was easy. “(Tulane) is a great academic school and it’s in a great city,” he says. “It’s also a great size for me.”
“Snapping-wise, Aaron won’t have a problem adjusting to the Division I level,” Rubio says. “He is mentally strong and will be able to handle the pressure. He has a good frame, good muscle-definition and can still put on some more weight. And the big thing about him is he never stops improving.”
Golub didn’t have much time to settle into college life before he was called upon to display his talent for Tulane’s special teams unit. With poise and confidence that belied a fledgling freshman a few weeks into his rookie season, he walked on to the field at Yulman Stadium and calmly lined up in front of punter Peter Picerelli.
Then he pulled out his iPhone and hit play.
“Aaron, with a backup instrumental, sang a two-minute country song that he wrote on his own, right in the middle of practice,” Picerelli quips. “We had told him he had to write and sing his own song for us. We did it as a joke and didn’t take it seriously, but lo and behold, one week later, he came ready.”
Golub feels even more ready to perform in a game. Although it’s unlikely he’ll be worked into a spread punt formation, which requires snappers to chase down returners in the open field, Picerelli says that Golub could appear in a pro-style formation, which requires the snapper to focus on blocking the man in front of him.
Golub’s consistency would be a welcome addition to a Green Wave team that finished 2-6 in the American Athletic Conference and 3-9 overall a year after making an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl. “I think Aaron has a great shot to (start),” Tulane place kicker Casey Spinelli says. “Our coaches want the most talented guy on the field and if he is the best (snapper), he’ll play no matter what.”
If that happens, Golub will etch his name in the annals of NCAA history. Former Washington Huskies quarterback Bob Schloredt was blind in his left eye and former Miami Dolphins and Purdue quarterback Bob Griese was blind in his right, but both could see in their other eyes. Jake Olson, a high school senior who lost both eyes due to retinal cancer, hopes to join the USC football team next fall as a preferred walk-on long snapper.
Should Golub start before Olson, he would become a trailblazer. He’s aware such prodigious feats don’t go unnoticed by the media and he’d probably be probed to re-tell his entire narrative. Golub will take a deep breath and cooperate; he’s familiar with the drill.
In the meantime, Golub plans to continue making the most of his college experience. He decided on a major (business), made a few trips to the French Quarter with his new friends and enjoyed his first Mardi Gras parade in February. He appreciates relative anonymity, even if it might only be temporary. "Aaron really just wants to be part of the crowd and doesn’t like to be treated differently," Colsia says. "But I think Aaron also understands that people are interested in him and want to know his story.”
Golub shares it most poignantly by letting people peek through his goggles. They provide a window into the challenges he confronts as a legally blind athlete and reveal the determination required to be one.
But his approach in overcoming these challenges can best be seen in the way he chooses to tackle them. “If you want to do something in life, you can’t let anything stop you,” he says. “I decided that I really wanted to keep playing football after high school, even if my sight got in the way. And now, I want to earn a starting job and will do whatever it takes to get it.”
Chris Scarnati is a New Orleans-area sportswriter.