Blindness can't sack Pottstown running back

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Pottstown's Marvin Pearson started losing his sight at 8 and was completely blind two years later. During that time, he inexplicably also lost his hearing. Now, at 18, he is a senior at Pottstown High School after spending three years at the Overbrook School for the Blind, and plays football. He scored a 65-yard touchdown and two-point conversion in recent games.

After going blind and then deaf while still in grade school, Marvin Pearson learned how to get around his Pottstown neighborhood, even walking alone six blocks to a Walmart. Regaining some hearing after getting an implant in his left ear, he excelled at wrestling and track at Overbook School for the Blind, figured out how to defeat his two sisters on PlayStation games, and occasionally alarmed them and his mother by roller-blading around the house.

But that still wasn't enough. During the summer, Pearson contacted Pottstown High School and said he wanted to return to his hometown school for senior year - and there was one other thing.

He was going out for varsity football.

"I talked to him and said, 'It's going to be a process,' " recalled Pottstown head coach Gary Rodenbaugh. This fall, that process quickly evolved into a remarkable journey not only for his blind and hearing-impaired running back, but for Pearson's teammates, who say his contagious can-do spirit has made an otherwise so-so season a life lesson they will never forget.

It was the viral video of a 65-yard touchdown sprint last month during the last play of a 48-0 rout that gave Pearson a burst of fame, including a TV appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he was given a $10,000 scholarship and the promise of a trip to meet his football idol, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. No one seemed to care that the other team's defense stood aside as Pearson tore down the field.

The real highlight for the teen was his three-yard plunge for a critical two-point conversion in a victory over Upper Merion High School, because that time he fought off live tacklers to reach the end zone.

"It was time to show I was just a football player, not a blind football player," said Pearson, recalling how six defenders couldn't bring him down until he was finally over the goal line. It was the epitome of what Pearson has done again and again since he began losing his sight at age 7: Finding a way to do just about anything other kids do.

"People ask, 'How does your brother play football, how does he run track?' I say, 'I don't know,' " marveled his older sister MarDaije, a freshman at Chestnut Hill College. "It's like he never even lost his sight," she said, adding: "He doesn't think he has it worse than others. He feels equal to everybody else."

Indeed, Pearson, who maintains a 3.6 grade-point average, is already sprinting toward his next goals, college and a career in sports management, a fitting choice for a kid who's juggling 17 fantasy football teams.

"Marvin doesn't know what obstacles mean," said his mother, Ana Carmona. "He has none. If they're there, he does not see them."

Growing up in Pottstown, Pearson was an active, sports-loving kid who played youth football in Conshohocken and, his mother recalled, was often "hardheaded."

The child's stubborn determination would serve him well when seemingly out of the blue, his vision began to deteriorate. Doctors eventually determined that he suffered from retinal detachment, and laser surgery on both eyes didn't prevent a total loss of sight over the next two years.

"I was never the type to cry," Pearson recalled of the experience. "I wasn't scared, but it was frustrating trying to prove to doctors and teachers that I couldn't see."

About a year into his vision crisis, Pearson started losing his hearing as well. Carmona said neither the family nor doctors ever figured out the cause. Only the cochlear implant prevented him from completely losing touch with the outside world.

Yet Carmona said the harrowing experience seemed to be harder on her than on him. "Marvin, honestly, he took it on the shoulder," she recalled. "It was me in the corner crying every night and angry with God."

Pearson's relatives say he always remained focused on what he could do, not what he couldn't. He knew his way around his Bright Hope Community neighborhood, so it wasn't long before he ventured out with his cane, making it two blocks to an aunt's house or to a nearby park with an assist from one of his sisters.

"He always just kept going and acted the same," said MarDaije. Sometime he insisted on riding his bike, and she would have to run alongside.

At Pottstown Middle School, he wrestled and played football, although he wasn't cleared for full contact. He started high school at the Overbook School for the Blind, where he also played goal ball, developed for blind athletes, in which players try to score with - or block - a ball that makes noises with tiny bells.

In transferring to Pottstown High this fall, Pearson, 18, knew it was a chance to pursue his unfulfilled dreams on the gridiron - for real this time.

It's a road that few travel. The U.S. Association of Blind Athletes is tracking just two similar players in the entire country, defensive lineman Jay Spencer at St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Huntsville, Ala., and long snapper Jake Olson at the University of Southern California.

But Mark Lucas, executive director of the USABA, said it's possible for a blind athlete to succeed in just about any sport as long as coaches are willing to provide adaptations.

Rodenbaugh and his staff were more than willing to adapt. They drew up plays for Pearson to take the snap under center and plow forward behind a wedge of blockers, but they also saw the larger, intangible benefit of someone who could teach his teammates about overcoming adversity.

Just 5-9 and 154 pounds, Pearson said he idolizes Brees because the Saints quarterback was once dismissed as too short at 6 feet.

"We're both underrated," Pearson said. "He's small, I'm blind. And we're both individuals that people don't expect to be as tough as we are."

At a recent practice, a few guys worked on the sidelines with Pearson while the first-team defense was on the field. He put his hands together to catch passes, and even threw a few strikes of his own, with a helper telling him how far to throw and pointing his left arm in the direction of the receiver. "Good throw, Marvin!" they said again and again.

Teammates appreciate both his accomplishments and his attitude. Nehemiah Figueroa, 16, admires how Pearson works up the home crowd with a few front flips before a game. "Marvin basically proves that no matter what your disability is, you can do anything you want," he said.

The 65-yard dash against rival Pottsgrove - in which the opponents didn't challenge Pearson as he sprinted for the touchdown with a teammate's guidance - came with mixed emotions. It had been the Pottsgrove coach's idea.

"I just kind of shared with him, this was going to be an opportunity to get to the end zone," Rodenbaugh recalled. "Marvin, being a competitor, was like, 'I don't want them to let me.' I emphasized it was a sign of respect for what you've been able to do and what you've shown to the world."

It also proved that Pearson sometimes literally doesn't know when to quit. Five yards past the goal line, he finally dove to the ground. "We were yelling, 'Stop, stop!' - if he kept on running, he would have hit a gate," his mother said.

That momentum should carry him to college next fall. It sounds like Pearson might be leaning toward Kutztown University. "I talked to the coach," he said. "He sounds like the kind of guy who will give me a chance to play."

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232@Kathy_Boccella