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Blind Player Maintains Clear Vision of His Role

New York Times

ARRIMAN, N.Y. — He trots onto the field with a teammate, side by side, touching occasionally until he finds his spot at guard. A football field for him is a safe place, he said, because there are no obstacles, no potholes, no 4-foot drops. Just flat and open. Nice.

He can find the defensive lineman he has to block because he can hear him breathing across the line. He can also hear that guy's shoulder pads creaking — "It's very hard not to make noise if you're 260 pounds wearing all of that plastic," he said. "It's not exactly an outfit a cat burglar wears."

The center gives him a cue, often a clearing of the throat, and that's a go.

He fires out, he engages, he locks him up. As soon he gets his hands on the guy, "that's great," he said, "because that first contact means I got him."

Bob Caterino does not play football like most in the sport do.

He is blind.

But Caterino manages to see the game and his life clearly.

Caterino, 35, plays guard and center for the Orange County Bulldogs, a semiprofessional football team based in Monroe, N.Y. This is his third season as a Bulldogs offensive lineman, and he primarily plays on the extra point and field-goal teams.

"I'm not just a novelty act," said Caterino, who is 6-foot-1, 230 pounds and who also works as a personal trainer. "Being blind you are always walking and bumping into something, and maybe it's the physicality of it that makes me love football. I am a gentle person. But there's something about the collisions of the game and testing my physical strength.

"I can't imagine my life the last three years without football. I get in there and hope I hit somebody with a different uniform on. Fortunately, I can say that I have never taken out a teammate yet."

When his team scores, he can tell by the yell of the crowd. What race is a teammate? He does not know, except when the teammate discloses it, like the other day in practice when one complained about his own playing time and wondered "if it was a black thing." Caterino said: "I thought, `Hmmm, he's black.' Never knew."

His world is colorless, his initial view is dark, but his impact is lasting.

"The rest of the team looks at him like one of the guys, and he is not treated like someone who needs special privileges," said Jovan Garcia, a Bulldogs receiver and cornerback. "He is one of the favorite guys on the team; everyone takes a piece of his heart when they spend any time talking to him. He can play. I see it in practice. He's a contributor."

Caterino was born in the Bronx, grew up in Dumont, N.J., and moved to Harriman three years ago. He was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease that is usually developed after birth. He was born with no vision in his right eye and with partial vision in his left eye. Gradually, that sight faded, until 1988, the last year he can remember seeing.

Right then, Caterino dealt with the change: He graduated from the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Ill., a couple of years later. He is single, owns his own home in Harriman and takes the bus to be at work at the Monroe- Woodbury Health and Fitness Center by 6:30 a.m. Most of the time he walks home from work at 5 p.m. along Route 17M. He said he can tell an overcast day from a sunny one and day from night just by his sensitivity to light. He turns on his TV for Yankees games and for football games.

Once he thought he could make out the Yankees' pinstripes — "I don't know if that was my mind just filling in the blanks," he said. He turned on the recent Hall of Fame football game between St. Louis and Miami and said by his sensitivity to light he could tell which way the teams were moving across the screen and thought he could differentiate between the teams by noticing one set of uniforms seemed darker than the other.

Caterino said he might play three to five more years for the Bulldogs, who have a 3-2 record with six regular season games left. Maybe he will play longer.

"I never said `why me?' about being blind; I relied on my faith and my family and was just glad it wasn't one of my brothers," he said of James, 38, and Anthony, 27. "My parents, Jerry and Theresa, celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next year, and I can honestly say they provided me with a childhood of no real pain or heartache.

"One of the nice things about life is that it is like an unwrapped package. I'll be waiting to see what's next. If someone out there has a disability, dealing with it is all about a frame of mind, because it's all about accomplishing things no matter the disability. I don't think things are ever as bleak as they appear. Like right now, I want more playing time — but I've got to earn it."

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Date last modified October 28, 2001