ADAMS – The football practice fields at Southland High School in this southern Minnesota town are as picturesque as they come. Two grass fields are framed by a regiment of small trees to the south, and on the north is a freshly harvested cornfield. Beyond that is a farm where silos rise into the sky and cattle graze.
Riley Schmitz can’t see the farm, the silos or the livestock. Even though he has been practicing on these fields since he was a fifth-grade football player, clear vision for the Rebels senior extends no farther than the end of his arms. Those are two remarkable facts: Riley is a football player who is legally blind.
“His heart, his desire is tremendous,” said Southland coach Shawn Kennedy. “He is absolutely so passionate about football.”
Here’s another remarkable fact, one that speaks volumes about Riley’s love of the game and desire to be part of the team: He never plays in the games. He saw action in games as a center and nose guard (positions that allowed him to see the ball snapped) through eighth grade, but the dangers of a blind player in a high school game have kept him on the sidelines. That decision was made by school officials, and his mother Angie agrees.
“Now that they don’t let him play, I feel better,” she said. “I hated it when he played, but I also liked it.”
She liked it because she knew that’s what her son wanted. Riley takes part in some half-speed contact drills during practice, but not when the team scrimmages at full bore. Nonetheless, he is an inspiration to everyone who knows him.
“He definitely makes you think about being grateful for what you have and he’s definitely motivation out here,” said senior wide receiver Alex Ruechel. “You see him come out to practice every day and he knows he’s not going to play. But he comes out here, does everything we do 110 percent and never complains. He’s a role model to everybody. To be doing what he’s doing is amazing.”
Riley was born with a condition called Leber optic atrophy. It’s very rare and most people who have it are totally blind by Riley’s age. His eyesight was impaired from birth and Angie said it was difficult for Riley to realize that his vision was not like everyone else’s.
“It took him a long time. I remember when he accepted it and realized it, that was hard for him. He was in fifth grade.”
As the team huddled at the end of Monday’s practice, Kennedy talked to the players about Riley and the importance of what he demonstrates by joining them on the football team, as well as the school’s wrestling squad.
“That’s a special young man,” the coach said. “He shows us all that it doesn’t matter what cards you are dealt.”
After practice, Riley said the equation works both ways: The team supports him and he’s happy to provide motivation.
“My teammates are very supportive, and I think I motivate them by being out here every day and make them want to be better,” he said. “I really enjoy being part of it.”
During practice, Riley cracked jokes with his teammates. He took part in calisthenics before the workout and wind sprints afterwards … even though his running style is a bit gangly and slow.
Before every season, the Rebels go through a team-building exercise in which each player is asked to talk about something the others don’t know about him. Prior to this season, Riley was the last team member to speak.
“If anybody could pull the old ‘feel bad for me’ card, it would be him,” Kennedy said. “But he said, ‘As you guys know, I’d like to improve my running form, get faster and quicker.’ I had tears in my eyes, as did everybody else who was there.
“Riley is a total class act and the ultimate team player. He plays for the love of the game.”
Riley, who joined the wrestling team a couple of years ago, said he will probably compete at 152 pounds during the upcoming season. Wrestling with impaired vision is a bit easier than playing football, and wrestlers from other schools often don’t even realize that Riley does not have perfect vision.
Over the summer, some of the Southland wrestlers attended a camp at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. “When we’d tell people he was blind they were like, ‘No, he’s not.’ They didn’t believe us,” said senior Luke Stephens.
If he wasn’t out for the football team this fall, Riley said he would probably spend his after-school hours lifting weights and preparing for the wrestling season.
“I like football better as a sport but I like being able to participate in wrestling,” he said.
He plays football, he wrestles, he runs, he rides his bike around town and the surrounding area; there isn’t much he can’t do.
“He has strong determination,” Angie said. “It’s crazy to me. Being part of the team is very important to him.”
Ruechel said, “He’s a great kid and a good friend. It’s a cool experience to have him on the football team.”
Riley is looking at colleges in the hopes of studying kinesiology and finding a career related to sports, possibly as a personal trainer.
Don’t bet against him.
--To see photos from football practice at Southland, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 79
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 4,057
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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