One-legged player excels in soccer in Massachusetts

Sep 29 2012 - 11:54pm

CONCORD, Mass. -- Nicolai Calabria stands draped in the cardinal colors of his Concord-Carlisle soccer uniform, intently absorbing the fluid motions of his teammates.

His glare and his focus never waver as he watches from the sidelines, waiting for the call to help contribute in any way that he can. Just being part of one of the most dominant Division 2 soccer programs in the state over the past decade is an accomplishment in itself for any soccer player in the Concord area, but Calabria's resume goes way deeper than that.

The 17-year-old has already become one of the best 106-pound wrestlers in the state. He has successfully climbed to the top of the highest mountain in Africa, and, most importantly, he's changed the viewpoint of any able-bodied person who watches him compete.

Nico Calabria has one leg. He was born that way, but his goal is to show it's not the one thing that defines him. He would also be the first one to tell you in his straightforward, to-the-point manner that he just wants to prove to others and himself that he's just like another normal teenager. Just like another athlete on the field.

"That is the goal," Calabria said. "Basically I've lived my entire life knowing that I'm completely capable of anything."

Calabria was born without his right leg. When he was young, his parents, Carl and Jeanine, tried different prosthetics to find out what was most comfortable for their son as he tried to keep up with a family for whom athletics was a mainstay in the bloodlines.

Initially, the Calabrias had their middle child in a prosthetic that looked and functioned like a "real" leg, but decided to go a different path when it restricted his movement.

"It made him look normal, but it didn't allow him to be what he could be athletically," Carl Calabria said.

The family moved him to arm crutches and from there a new burst of energy was found.

"The second I got my forearm crutches my parents said it looked like I started flying away," Calabria said. "When I got the crutches I essentially just took off."

Getting others to believe that he could take off on the soccer field took a little bit longer. When the Calabrias moved to Concord from Indianapolis they initially had a hard time convincing the town soccer program to allow a child with crutches to compete with able-bodied kids.

"When people see crutches, what they see is a stick or a club," Carl Calabria said. "They want to take their imagination to the worst place it could go."

After months and months of debates and meetings, the family received the answer it was looking for. Since then, witnessing a young man on crutches compete against those with two legs has become a fixture in the Concord community.

"At the time I had nothing but frustration working with the soccer community and now I have nothing but admiration for the fact that he's been allowed to play, and people see that he adds value to the game," Carl Calabria said. "I just think it's a great outcome."

If anyone had any lingering doubts about Nico Calabria's athletic abilities and determination, those would be answered in the next chapter in his life.

According to reports, nearly 25,000 people attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro every year.

Calabria became a part of those statistics when he was 13 years old, but he also forged a new category when he became the first person with one leg to attain the summit. All it took was one viewing of a documentary about a one-legged man who tried and failed to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, and the idea was born in Calabria's head and heart.

"I knew the mindset (in Africa) around disabilities is more something that the family should be ashamed of and something that you keep behind closed doors," Calabria said. "In the videos, there were people crawling through the dirt with disabilities similar to mine. I felt somewhat like I owed it to those people."

Carl Calabria, who also made the climb but did not reach the summit due to altitude sickness, researched the safety risks involved with the climb, and father and son decided to raise money for the Free Wheelchair Mission, an organization that provides wheelchairs for disabled people in developing countries.

By the end of the endeavor, Nico Calabria raised over $100,000 for the charity and earned the honor of hand-delivering some of the wheelchairs six months after his climb. He also received public and national notoriety as he was featured in a documentary "Nico's Challenge," that led to an appearance on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" to make people aware of his charitable efforts.

Calabria may have been in the national spotlight, but at practice with his Concord-Carlisle teammates, he's just one of the guys. He participates and competes with the first-team unit at times, and he shows off all the attributes needed to be a high-end soccer player with his change of direction, touch and vision on the field.

Calabria's upper-body strength, that of a 155-pound person in a 106-pound frame, allows him to use quick, purposeful bursts of speed to mark a man on defense or start a rush on offense. He is able to deliver power on his kicks (and touch if he needs it) that match most of his teammates' by using a swinging pendulum motion made possible by the stability of his crutches.

He is even able to stall his body, almost like he is frozen in midair, to play a ball well out of his reach or when he attempts a bicycle-kick motion to play balls over his head with a defender draped all over his back.

"You watch his first touch and it's exceptional," Patriots (team stats) coach Ray Pavlik said. "People don't understand until they see him play that this kid is totally legit. It's instant respect."

Calabria had seen the field in at least one game in early-season action so far for Concord-Carlisle, and although you can hear the willingness to get out on the field and compete in every minute of the game in his voice, his presence is felt even when he doesn't get into the game.

"You talk about people with disabilities and it's not a disability to him at all," Concord-Carlisle athletic director Barry Haley said. "Every kid that competes against him gains much more. It kind of opens their eyes to anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I don't think Nico or we see it as him having a disability at all. He's just a regular student here and he competes."

Calabria still hasn't decided on college plans for next year, but you can bet soccer will stay with him in the near future and beyond. He started playing for the U.S. national amputee soccer team this past year, and in his first international competition on foreign soil, he scored a goal in a 2-1 win over Mexico.

You could call it the next challenge for Calabria.

The team, which is made up of about 25 players scattered all over the country, couldn't get enough funding for a trip to the amputee World Cup this year in Russia. According to executive director Rick Hofmann, the plan is to make a run at the 2014 games with Calabria as the youngest and newest mainstay on the roster.

Wherever he ends up you can bet that determined stare will always be focused on a goal with athletics in mind, but Calabria will most likely be cloaked in a soccer uniform.

"I find (sports) therapeutic for me when I'm having a tough time," Calabria said. "Playing sports brings me back. Competing and performing against two-legged athletes connects me with people. Instead of just being that one-legged soccer player, I just become that competitor and that soccer player with one leg."

So far, he's done just that.

 

From Around the Web

  +