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Rolling out to change his life
Rolling out to change his life
By Darryl Slater | email@example.com
Tennis season begins with all the usual sounds: sneakers shuffling on the cement courts, players grunting with each backhand return, the mid-March wind whistling through the nets at Deep Run High in suburban Richmond.
Jamestown's boys team makes the trip for a non-district match, and the mood quickly intensifies on both sides.
Some players' grunts turn to shouts when their shots sail long, missing the baseline by inches. They mutter to themselves between points, cursing under their breaths. They toss their heads back, perhaps wondering how some of their groundstrokes remain flawed despite hours of offseason private lessons.
On the other side of the courts, Jamestown sophomore Joey Daugherty prepares to play the first regular-season match of his career, a one-set exhibition against one of Deep Run's lowest-regarded players, freshman Sam Baker. Joey dresses the part. He wears Jamestown's green-and-white wind pants and a matching windbreaker. Underneath, he wears the team's short-sleeved uniform top, with his last name stitched on the left breast pocket. His black high-tops are shiny, no scuffs.
He has athletic gloves on his hands to help his grip. He has instant-warming packs tucked into his tube socks to promote circulation in his shins. Plastic braces wrap around his lower legs and curve around the bottom of his socks.
Inside his skull, he has a shunt, a tube with a valve that drains excess fluid from his brain. The tube extends down the right side of his body, through his neck, under his collarbone and into his bladder. Without the shunt, he would die in less than a week.
When the shunt breaks, as it did six years ago, his head feels like it's about to explode. His mouth tastes like metal. His eyes cross. He pukes a lot. Doctors have performed seven surgeries to repair or replace his shunt. His abdomen is crisscrossed with scars from these surgeries.
Underneath him, between his fanny and the tennis court, he has a wheelchair.
It is as much a part of his uniform as his socks or sneakers or windbreaker. He needs it now, and he will need it forever. He was born with spina bifida, which means his spinal cord did not form completely, leaving him with limited mobility in his legs. He walks only when he's at home, because his legs are weak and his knees bow inward. He feet are permanently numb.
A necessity in his life, the chair is a nuisance on the court.
Joey gets two bounces instead of one, as do all wheelchair-bound tennis players. But he must hold his racket in his right hand while steering toward the ball. Lateral movement is essentially impossible.
Most serves handcuff him or bounce out of reach. On one follow-through swing, he accidentally bops himself in the head. He loses 6-0 in a match that lasts about 15 minutes. He wheels off the court in silence, just as he played the entire match.
The kid with the most to complain about keeps his mouth shut.
VIRGINIA SPORTS HISTORY
Joey is believed to be the first Virginia high school athlete, in any sport, to play in a wheelchair against able-bodied competition, according to the Virginia High School League.
He plays in exhibition matches after the top six singles players finish. Through his first five one-set matches, he won three games, and his best result is a 6-2 defeat against Lafayette. In Jamestown's regular-season finale, May 14 at home against New Kent, he will play in the No. 6 singles spot - his first official, best-of- three-set match.
His participation seems profound to some people during the season's first two months. Joey shrugs it all off. He just wants to feel like part of something. He winds up finding new parts of himself: the assertiveness to participate in class, the desire to play through aches and failures, the passion to chatter endlessly to his parents about how his teammates played in that day's match.
"A different Joey," said his mother, Alma.
"I think he sees more meaning in his daily life as a person with a handicap," said his father, Ray.
Joey's introduction to the sport began with a random encounter. Jamestown coach Bob Artis, who is a substitute teacher and security officer at the high school, approached Joey in the hallway last spring and asked him if he wanted to play on the team.
Artis saw shades of his former self in Joey, who rolls through most school days in silence. Growing up in wealthy Northern Virginia, Artis was the poor kid at school, the son of government civil-service workers. His mother made his shirts until he was 13, and he owned two pairs of jeans.
Sports yanked him out of his shell. Now he talks to anyone about anything, whether he is debating his players about which Mighty Morphin Power Ranger was the best, or asking a kid in a wheelchair who never picked up a tennis racket to join his team, one of the area's best.
Joey felt stunned. He knew people would stare at him. That's what he hated most as a child, those eyes following him when he walked, teetering back and forth like a bowling pin about to tip because his feet pointed 90 degrees inward.
Around school, he tries his best to remain anonymous. "If somebody talks to me, I'll talk to them," he said. "Other than that, I'll keep to myself. That's just the way I am."
You might guess that Joey joined the team because he wanted to feel normal. But normal doesn't exist at most American public high schools, and Jamestown is no different.
For the most part, kids clump their peers into groups based on their most identifiable characteristic. The standard-issue jocks. The preppy boys with their mop hair and country-club fleeces.
The rebels who, according to cafeteria whispers, sneak outside during lunch to smoke. The skater/emo kids with their Vans sneakers and messages like "Kill capitalism before it kills you!" scrawled on their folders.
High school in 2007 isn't about being normal. It's about finding a niche.
Joey lives outside of a group, infrequently crossing paths with other students. He rides a special bus to school. He leaves class early, so he doesn't get tangled in hallway traffic. He often eats lunch alone in the nurse's office because noise in the cafeteria bothers his sensitive ears - a byproduct of spina bifida. Most days before he started playing tennis, he went home after school and fired up his PlayStation.
Many Jamestown students seem to make a point of not staring at Joey, and in doing so, end up ignoring him. During one school day in late February, just a few of the kids even said hello to him.
One was Jacob Braig, a senior whom Joey admires. Braig is the tennis team's captain and best player. He drives a sweet red Mustang. Early in the season, he reaches out to Joey. He chats with him about movies during the trip to Deep Run and offers him a seat on a Gatorade jug when they get off the bus.
Three weeks earlier, on the first day of practice, Braig grasped the reality of Joey's tennis experience. "All these people are gonna beat him, and he's still gonna stick with it," he said.
When kids in wheelchairs do things like play tennis, we naturally make it more complicated than that. We tell ourselves that such heroism puts it all in perspective, that we should feel motivated now to work harder.
"If this is too tough for you, I'll let you get in Joey's chair, and you'll see this is a lot harder without legs!" Artis says to his players as they wheezed through sprints one day in practice.
Several teammates during the season tried to play in the wheelchair. "He actually makes it look easier than it is," junior Ben Gallis said. "It takes a really long time to stop moving in one direction and start moving in another direction."
Joey doesn't worry about putting things in perspective for everyone else.
He is 16 years old, and his worldview is simple.
He thinks English class is boring. He thinks Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon's head at "WrestleMania" was cool. He wants to be a veterinarian.
He wants his driver's license so he can convince his parents to buy him a sports car with hand controls - maybe one with some giddy-up, like his dad's cherry-red Dodge Charger. He grins when his dad revs the Hemi engine and does 80 on I-64. He likes the new Evanescence CD and Spider-man and Batman.
He loves playing tennis.
LEARNING THE GAME
The lessons started with basic stuff. "This is how you hold a racket," Artis said, recounting his instructions to Joey. "This is what a volley is. This is what a serve is."
Artis last spring started working with Joey twice a week after school for an hour and a half. To teach Joey how to chase a ball, he bounced it five feet in front of him, forcing him to crank his wheels in pursuit. To teach Joey that tennis balls don't hurt, Artis stood five feet away and threw them at his chest.
It must have tickled compared to that time seven years ago when doctors sawed off the bones in his lower legs. They detached his tibia and fibula and shifted them so his feet pointed forward rather than 90 degrees inward. This helped him walk more normally.
Artis' early sessions stuck with Joey, if only because he'd wake up the next day with a sore back from all the reaching and swinging - and he still couldn't return those darn serves.
"One of the hardest things I probably ever had to learn how to do," Joey said, "was how to move and just learn to anticipate where the ball's gonna go, so that I could get to the ball in time."
But Artis never heard him whine. No, Joey is long past that.
He's been in a chair for the past 11 years, and he's so used to it that when he dreams, he sits in it. Once, he dreamed he could walk. He was at Disney World and got on a roller coaster. When the coaster stopped, everything went black, and he started falling. He woke up terrified.
He used to ask God to let him walk. He was 5 and hadn't become comfortable on his feet. Now that he is, he still sometimes prays to open his eyes in the morning and see a healthy pair of legs under the covers, the wretched disability exorcised from him forever.
"Probably because I'm used to having a condition for so long, I've gotten over it," Joey said. "That's probably why I'm so patient."
His new teammates need time to get as comfortable with Joey's disability. On the first day of practice, Joey joins them in warmups, wheeling along as they jog or shuffle, with Braig calling out the next exercise.
Before one exercise, Braig finds himself in an awkward moment. He pauses and turns to Artis. "How do you want me to do butt kicks?" Braig asks. Like normal, Artis says, and off the 12 players run, kicking their butts with their heels, with Joey alongside, spinning his wheels forward.
Later, the first teammate to serve to Joey in a drill, Nathan Yowell, is so nervous that he forgets the drill's rules. Artis ribs Yowell, lightening the mood.
During practice, Artis is part coach, part court jester.
He wants to teach Joey in the first week to aim high on serves. So he gives him a bucket of old rackets and stands six feet in front of him, between him and the net.
Throw the racket over my head and over the net, Artis tells him, ignoring the chance that a stray toss could break his nose. "I trust you," Artis says. Joey flings racket after racket in a perfect arc, safely above Artis' head.
Artis tags his players with nicknames: Braig is Splinter, because his serve will do that to your racket; Johannes Grow is Autobahn, because he's from Germany; Andrew Koch is Chef, because his last name is pronounced "cook." Now it's Joey's turn. "Who's the guy who does 'Pimp My Ride'?!" Artis said, about to answer his own question and butcher the name of a popular MTV host. "Ex-zee-bit. We're gonna pimp his ride."
In fact, Joey's teammates and their parents already had started a campaign to score him a new ride. His regular wheelchair moved too slowly on the court, so they raised money around Williamsburg to buy a $2,000 athletic chair with angled wheels and a shorter back support.
They requested a grant from the United States Tennis Association's Virginia branch. One of the branch's board members, Kathy Stroop, took notice. She coaches tennis at The Madeira School, an all-girls boarding school in McLean. As a child, she played tennis in her driveway with her mother, who was stricken with polio and in a wheelchair.
Stroop talked to Madeira faculty about Joey, and she ended up with $1,600 in donations. USTA Virginia chipped in the other $400. (Jamestown's tennis players gave their donations to the Special Olympics.) Joey's new ride - complete with two rollerblade-style front wheels that light up when they spin - arrives before the April 13 match at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy.
He wins his first game of the season that day but loses 6-1. The next match, three days later at Lafayette, he loses 6-2. His new chair lets him get to shots quicker. He no longer needs a teammate to fetch stray balls during matches. His diligence in practice flattens his high-arcing serve and makes his matches more competitive.
His opponents also show the courtesy of easing up on their serves so he has an opportunity to return a few shots.
"I was thinking, 'Should I do my best serve? Or should I let up and hit my second serve?' " said Baker, the Deep Run freshman.
He tries his first serve, and when it sails past Joey, he switches to his second, one with less pace. "I was kinda surprised because he actually did return some of my shots," Baker said. "It's better for him to play than not play at all."
Joey's Lafayette opponent, freshman Jonathon Marioneaux, uses a similar strategy. "Should I kick his butt or take it easy on him?" Marioneaux said he wondered before the match. "I took it easy on him. ... I didn't get any satisfaction from beating him. I don't like it when I clobber people like that, especially when they're in a wheelchair."
'I'M MORE OUTGOING'
Joey shakes hands with Marioneaux after the match and leaves the court to start chatting with a few teammates - Braig, Koch and Wills FauntLeRoy.
Koch helps him dismantle the athletic chair so it fits through the gate in the courtside fence. Joey might've just gotten clobbered, but he smiles as he talks to the guys about his match.
"His head is more straight up," his dad says. "He's looking at people when he's talking to them."
Joey never shows this much enthusiasm for an outdoor activity, his parents say. The basketball hoop in the yard and the remote-control airplanes? He quickly tired of those.
Ask Joey what makes tennis different, how it changed him, what he'll take from it, and he won't talk about flatter serves or better volleys.
He'll talk about how surprised everyone looked when he raised his hand in class and opened his mouth.
"That's the only thing, that I'm more outgoing," he said.
He is his usual quiet self after the season's first match, at Deep Run. On the car ride home with his parents, he sits in the back seat and washes down an Aleve with a sip of McDonald's orange drink.
The dashboard clock reads 9:25, and this has been a long and momentous day. At school, he received the class ring he ordered a month ago. Some of Jamestown's sophomores got them at a special dance the previous Saturday, but Joey's not big on those kind of things - at least not yet.
Just the same, anyway. His ring is as shiny as everyone else's - a memento that will remind him, years from now, what he accomplished in high school and where he fit into the mosaic.
Etched on the side of the ring, crossed at their handles, are two tennis rackets.
HRvarsity administrator / firstname.lastname@example.org
Re: Rolling out to change his life
Well done Joey!
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