Michael Spriggs, a 6-foot-3, 189-pound senior at C.H. Flowers High (Prince George's County, Maryland), listened intently as his coaches directed him in a wrestling match against Bladensburg (Md.) High's Marcus Bates last month.
Because Spriggs is blind, battling opponents with vision, the rules require that he and his opponent maintain contact throughout the match. They begin with both palms touching each other. When the whistle blows, Bates immediately dives for a shot at Spriggs' legs, takes him down and Spriggs ends up on his back. "Let's go Mike! Stay in control, circle left!" head coach Odist Felder yelled from the sidelines.
Despite this apparent disadvantage, Spriggs finished his second season with a 27-11 record. His humility and determination led him to become one of two team members to qualify for the state championships last weekend where he was defeated, 9-3, by reigning champion, Danny Miller, a junior at Stephen Decatur High (Ocean City, Md.).
"He has a lot of heart and courage," Miller said. "And if your opponent has a lot of heart you could easily find yourself on your back"
Born with cataracts and glaucoma, Spriggs was classified as legally blind after several surgeries by the time he was five months old. Still, he had limited vision and was able to see five fingers in front of his face, objects and shadows. But his vision continued to deteriorate. Undaunted, he devised systems to play childhood games that he loved like tag, basketball and touch football. He would double plastic grocery bags around footballs and listen as the ball whizzed through the air, catch it and then sprint straight on.
As his vision grew worse, he reluctantly entered the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore. Swimming was the first team sport he was allowed to participate in. During a meet in Philadelphia, as he was wading in the water, a teammate accidentally poked him in the same eye where five months prior he had received a corneal transplant -- a procedure where a disk is cut in the cornea that is cloudy and replaced with a clear cornea from a donor eye.
He remembers kicking the dashboard of his father's van, pleading in pain as his father took him to John Hopkins hospital. There, doctors told him that there was no salvaging the eye and that it would have to be removed and he would be fitted for a prosthetic eye. After that, he was completely blind.
When Spriggs went out for the wrestling team last year, his first at Flowers, the coaches made adjustments. Teammates hold on to him as he does drills, and the coaches have to get down on the mat to teach him new techniques.
"We were terrible at it at first, we would be like, 'Guys do this or look at this,' then halfway through, we would realize, Mike doesn't know what we're talking about," Felder says. "Mike would be like, 'Uh, coach, what do you want me to do?'"
This year Spriggs hopes to come out from under his older brother, Sam Young's, athletic shadow. They wrestle whenever he's home and ultimately the 6-foot-6, 220 pound Young, who is the leading scorer for University of Pittsburgh basketball team, ends up on his back.
The last time Young was home last September, he grabbed Spriggs in a bear hug and taunted, "Bet you can't break out of this one!" Spriggs deftly grabbed his wrist, used every muscle in his frame to break out of the hold, and put his older brother in a headlock.
"I said in my mind, this is my little brother I can't let him beat me. Then he got me on the floor and had his hands around my neck," Young says. "I told my mother, 'Ma, you better get him!' And everybody started laughing because of the way my voice came out because he had his hand around my neck."
Back at Bladensburg, Spriggs was equally as ruthless. With 53 seconds left in the third period, Spriggs was leading by six points and ultimately held on for the victory.
"He anticipated most of my moves," said Bates, who sat on the bleachers breathing heavily. "He was very patient. He waited for one of my mistakes."