For Jonesboro wrestler Rice, not seeing is believing

Photo by Darryl Maxie
Just as they did last Saturday, after Lucas Rice (top) secured his spot in this upcoming weekend’s sectional tournament, Jonesboro wrestlers hoist the freshman fireball again. From left, they are Jermaine Millens, Scott Coleman, Jalaal Malik, Calvin Coleman, Joshua Docks and Avery Kennedy, a fifth-grader at Jackson Elementary across the street from the high school, who learns from the big kids.

Photo by Darryl Maxie Just as they did last Saturday, after Lucas Rice (top) secured his spot in this upcoming weekend’s sectional tournament, Jonesboro wrestlers hoist the freshman fireball again. From left, they are Jermaine Millens, Scott Coleman, Jalaal Malik, Calvin Coleman, Joshua Docks and Avery Kennedy, a fifth-grader at Jackson Elementary across the street from the high school, who learns from the big kids.

Only three months ago, Lucas Rice discovered wrestling. Soccer, football and basketball all sounded nice, but the diminutive Jonesboro freshman didn’t think he could be any good at them.

Wrestling, however, was different. From the time he got on the mat and started learning the moves, Rice showed an immediate promise that was realized this past weekend in the Area 4-AAAA traditional tournament at Mount Zion.

Seldom do teams rush to carry a bronze-medal contender on a victory lap around the gym while the crowd and even rival teams go into a frenzied standing ovation. But that’s what happened to Rice last Saturday, after he assured himself a spot in the 113-pound weight class for this upcoming weekend’s Class AAAA West sectionals at Northside-Columbus.

“He didn’t know whether to cry or be happy,” teammate Scott Coleman said. “I almost shed a tear. It was an emotional day for Jonesboro.”

Fans couldn’t believe what they saw. Even Rice himself said he didn’t see success coming this quickly. In fact, he didn’t see it at all.

He’s blind.

‘Get used to it’

The sport that introduced Kyle Maynard, the congenital amputee from Collins Hill who lacked full arms and legs, now introduces Lucas Rice, the Jonesboro fireball who doesn’t have to see you to beat you.

“No one wants to lose to the blind person,” Rice said. “It’s almost like no guy wants to lose to a girl. But they’re going to get used to it.”

It’s a long journey from poverty in Ethiopia to adoption in Jonesboro, a trek completed in September 2003, when he was 8. The path has taken Lucas Rice from knowing only six English words then — “yes,” “no,” “more,” “please” and “thank you” — to fluently vowing that others will taste defeat at the hands of the blind wrestler his teammates affectionately call “Luke Luke.”

How does Rice do it?

He feels his way through a match — literally. Rice’s opponents are required to maintain physical contact with him at all times, according to a provision for sight-impaired wrestlers in the national rulebook. Sighted wrestlers don’t have to do that when facing each other, but a few of Rice’s opponents let go, if only for a fraction of a second, trying to quickly take advantage of Rice’s inability to see them coming at him or the referee’s ability to catch them cheating.

“There’s been one or two occasions when that has gone unrecognized,” said Lt. Col. Wil Richardson, the Jonesboro JROTC senior instructor who serves the team more as a mentor than an assistant coach.

‘He can probably hear us right now’

As Rice practices moves on a mat half a room away, Richardson quietly marvels at the Jonesboro freshman, and reaches for a blind comic book hero portrayed by Ben Affleck as a point of comparison.

“He probably can hear us right now,” Richardson said softly. “He’s a mini-Daredevil. For his size, he’s cock-strong.”

Many blind people have finely honed other senses that compensate for their lack of sight. Strength, touch and anticipation are Rice’s most valuable tools.

“When I’m in contact with my opponent,” Rice said, “I can tell what he’s about to do by the movement of his arm.”

For instance, when Rice feels his opponent’s hands coming forward, he knows that his foe is about to attempt to take his legs out. And he has a keen sense of when his opponent is wobbly.

“I can sometimes tell when my opponent is off-balance and push them in the direction they’re going,” Rice said. “That gives me the edge.”

That hardly surprises Jonesboro head coach Gene Johnson. “A lot of wrestling is more about feel, not by sight,” he said. “I think that’s where he gets his advantage. Blindness aside, he’s an athlete. He’s naturally strong, has great endurance, good reflexes and agility.”

The tools at work

All of the above aided him against Banneker’s Destin Mizelle, the match that ensured that he would go to sectionals.

“I was surprised when the guy went down,” Rice said. “That guy was exhausted, but I still had energy. I was like, ‘You’re already tired?’ ”

Sensing his opportunity, Rice pinned Mizelle.

“Whooo! It felt great,” he said. “To tell the truth, I didn’t expect it. I was happy. I wanted it badly. When I came off the mat, I was so happy.”

When he came off the mat, Rice wasn’t walking. He rode the shoulders of jubilant teammates.

“When I won,” Rice said, “they felt like they won the match, too.”

Those watching the victory develop couldn’t believe what they were seeing Rice do, but he’d already won a medal at the county meet weeks before.

“He threw a kid and the whole place went bananas,” Lovejoy coach Kevin Jones said. “He was fighting like a Greek god. And the kid he’s wrestling is pretty good. He’s not wrestling a beginner.”

It was an opportunity for Jones to challenge his own team.

The will to win

“I was chewing my kids out,” he said. “Look at the fight in this kid, look at the tenacity, look at the will to win. Those are the things we need to be doing. We’re looking at this kid (and we’re) smiling and laughing, but he’s putting on a show. His will to win is greater than that of the kid who can see.”

Rice followed that with a 3-1 victory over Forest Park’s Baldo Alaniz in overtime, earning third place instead of fourth.

At 17, Rice is older than the average freshman — the result of entering school two years late because of his emigration from Ethiopia. Other than getting his school work translated into Braille, and using an electronic device to complete papers, Rice does his work like any other student.

On the mat, whatever advantage he has in age doesn’t outweigh the disadvantages caused by blindness or by wrestling in a weight class seven pounds above his actual weight. Sheer determination does that.

“He has a lot of heart,” said teammate Joshua Docks, who wrestles at 160 pounds. “I’ve seen football players quit this sport. He’s a hard worker.”

“He’s a fast learner,” said Calvin Coleman, Scott’s brother, who qualified for sectionals at 120, placing second.

“He’s always looking for a partner to push him harder,” said Jermaine Millens, who qualified for sectionals at 138, placing third at area.

“He never complains,” said Scott Coleman, Jonesboro’s area champion at 126 pounds.

“He doesn’t let his disabilities get in his mind in his matches,” Malik said.

Defying the limitations

Malik wrestles at 106 for Jonesboro, a team which has eight wrestlers in a sport where there’s 14 weight classes. Jonesboro doesn’t have anybody at 132, 145, 152, 170, 182 or 220, so it often forfeits points against teams that have a full complement. To avoid further forfeits, Rice wrestles at 113, even though he actually weighs only 106.

Though he never concedes to his disabilities, Rice is realistic about them. There are times he comes off the mat after a tough loss and tells Richardson, “If I was sighted, I would’ve won that match.”

Said Rice, “There are some matches I’m so close to winning. … The only thing that stopped me is not being able to see something. But as I get more experience, it’s going to be harder to do moves on me that I haven’t experienced.”

Because Rice and Malik are close in weight, they spend a good deal of time sparring in practice. Malik even tried to approximate what Rice experiences, closing his eyes while grappling with Rice.

“I tried that — once,” he said. “It’s very tough. I quickly opened them.”

Even though he’s part of a big family — his five brothers and two sisters also are adopted — being part of a team was new to Rice.

“I never had that experience,” he said. “It feels great, feels good. It’s almost like a family. There’s a lot of joking, but there’s also a time to be serious. Right before a match, I’m nervous, but I think everybody feels that. There’s going to be a lot of people watching and you’re either going to be pinned, or winning.”

He’s certain that if he was still in Ethiopia that he probably would not be wrestling.

“Down there, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have here,” he said.

Kids look up to him

Rice has had an impact, not just on Jonesboro, but on the elementary school across the street from the school. Avery Kennedy, a fifth-grader at Jackson Elementary who wrestles with the Southside Vipers — the only youth wrestling club in Clayton County — often goes over to the high school to learn from the big kids.

“Usually, me and him play around,” Kennedy said. “The first time I met him, I didn’t know about him. Me and him were talking and the first thing I found out was his disability to see. But I just acted like he was a regular wrestler. He taught me never to give up. … When he wrestles, he’s always got recharge strength.”

Rice will put that strength to the test Friday against Kalob Willis of Northside-Warner Robins. His chances of reaching the state tournament the following weekend at the Gwinnett Arena are even better than his chances were in the area tournament because the top eight wrestlers from the sectionals advance, as opposed to the top four in area.

Whatever happens, Rice is already planning for summer wrestling camps. Now that he’s found his niche, he wants to perfect his technique.

“It was one of the few sports I could actually do,” Rice said. “I imagine sports I can’t play — football or soccer. I wanted a sport that would make me work, be challenging.”

Whatever happens, Rice has done what many never saw a blind kid do.

“In 20 years (of coaching), never in my life have I seen this,” Jones said. “I’ve seen girls win matches. I saw Kyle Maynard win matches. My eyes witnessed a blind kid win not one but two matches. It gives me goose bumps just talking about it. It couldn’t have been written any other way.”