Legally blind football player has a vision for his future

A defensive lineman on Prairie's freshman football team isn't stopped by blindness

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

Published:

 
photoAnh Le (91) in action against Fort Vancouver.

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Anh Le has picked up a genuine feel for the game of football.

"I try to drive the guy in front of me as far back as I can and try to get back there and disrupt things," said Le, a defensive tackle.

Every once in a while, a ball carrier comes his way.

"I just pull and drag and cause as much chaos as I can," Le explained.

It hardly matters that Le, who plays on the Prairie High School freshman team, cannot really see the mayhem he has created.

Born with Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, a rare, hereditary eye disease, Le's vision is limited to 6 to 8 inches.

"I can see the guy in front of me on the other team. But I don't know if the guy is bigger than me or smaller than me until I go against him," Le said.

His presence on the football field is an inspiration to his teammates, who take pride in taking their turn helping Le.

In practice, Le might put a hand on a teammate's shoulder and the two run together during conditioning drills. In games, after every play, one of his teammates tugs a bit on Le's jersey and steers him in the right direction. Le is then positioned in his gap, close to the ball, with his teammates ensuring he is onside before the ball in snapped.

"Football is kind of like an extended family for me," Le said. "We all need to stay close. They're all like brothers to me. I have 36 other brothers."

It is a family party when Le makes a big play.

"They run over, grab me, pull me up, and we're going crazy," Le said. "When I make a tackle, everyone is a little more pumped up."

From his starting position on the line, he usually can see the ball, even if not clearly. But once it is snapped he has no idea where it is, or who has the ball. That is why his job is just to get in the backfield in an effort to mess up the offense's play. If someone tries to run past him, Le assumes it is the ball carrier and tries to take him down.

Which makes it all the more special when he does get a tackle.

Other than that, though, he just thinks of himself as any other athlete.

"I figured out that I kind of like hurting people," Le said with a laugh, noting he also is planning to wrestle for the first time this winter.

Contact sports, he said, allow him to use that aggression "without getting in trouble."

Learning the game

This is Le's third year of football. Watching on TV his whole life -- he is a Dallas Cowboys fan -- he went to a friend's Clark County Youth Football game as a sixth-grader. The sounds of the sport from the sideline enticed Le.

"It seemed really fun. I wasn't sure if I could do it or not, so I asked my friend," Le recalled. "He said, 'Of course you can do it.'"

Koty Keyt, now the quarterback for the freshman team, remembers the conversation.

"The kid has heart," Keyt said.

The next year, Le and Keyt were teammates.

"The first couple of weeks, I was nervous for him," Keyt said. "I didn't know how he was going to do."

After those initial practices, Keyt said all of the players knew they were going to be part of something special.

"They saw how good he can be," Keyt said.

The first few weeks were the toughest, Le said, trying to find a position for him and his abilities. He tried offensive line, but he did not like having to memorize plays. Then he was put on the defensive line and found his calling.

"He's no different than any other player," Prairie freshman coach Shane Wooldridge said. "We don't have to slow down practice for him to keep up, and he wouldn't want us to."

There are some things that are out of the ordinary regarding Le's condition. Wooldridge has to remind game officials to watch out for Le. Not that Le needs more protection than any other player; it's just that with not being able to follow the ball, he might continue to drive his opponent back and maintain contact with the offensive lineman long after the ball is 25 yards downfield, for example.

"I've almost knocked over a referee a couple of times," Le said.

Family support

Anh Le's parents, Ron Le and Anna Pham, have supported their son's efforts since he inquired about playing. Ron said he is no more worried about his son getting injured than any other athlete in a collision sport.

There might be another football player in the family one day. Anthony Le, a first-grader, also has LCA. But he has told Anh that he plans on playing the game, just like his big brother.

Anh and Anthony have a sister, as well. Chelsea is a seventh-grader.

"She's the lucky one," Anh said, noting that Chelsea has her sight.

Not that Anh feels unlucky. While there are medical breakthroughs concerning LCA, his particular version of the disease makes it difficult to be optimistic for much improvement. He said he assumes his sight will be like this for the rest of his life.

Not that it slows him down.

"I'm really an outgoing person," Le said. "I'm always doing something. I like to live life to the fullest. I can ride a bike. I can longboard. My friends help me. All of my friends are very understanding."

Just like his friends on the football field.

"It's the most incredible team unity and sense of family I've ever seen," said Terry Hyde, head coach for the Prairie program. "It's amazing, those kids from a character standpoint, to watch what they do."

Wooldridge said he and his assistants have been reinvigorated as coaches.

Tyler Hake, another defensive lineman, is often the guy getting Le in the right spot before snaps. He takes pride in that extra duty because Le means so much to all of the Falcons.

"That a kid with such a disability is out here, giving his heart to the game, he's a big inspiration," Hake said.

Le intends to play football all four seasons at Prairie. He wants to set records for tackles or sacks. He joked that he does not think he will ever get the record for most fumble recoveries.

He has high expectations for his schooling, too. Le said he is getting A's and B's with one C, reading Braille to complete most of his studies, and he is interested in business.

"I'd like to start my own company one day," he said. "I just know I want to be in charge, be the boss one day."

Le is getting excellent training for that right now. He has people he can trust, who are working for him, who are inspired by him.

It turns out, Anh Le can see so much.