Thursday, April 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Teen Spirit

Radnor's Andrew Austen plays golf, basketball and baseball. With one hand. And he's just fine with that.

Gallery: Teen Spirit
RELATED IMAGES
Gallery: Teen Spirit
 
Get Your Philadelphia Sports Gear Here

    Sometimes, Andrew Austen gets bored of telling people why he only has one hand.

    Sometimes, he tells people that God made him that way because, if he had a complete set of extremities, he'd simply be too awesome. Sometimes, he tells people that a shark bit it off. "I have a scar from a hot-glue gun in sixth grade," he says, pointing to a red, quarter-inch long line where his right arm just stops below the elbow. "I was hot-gluing something and it got on my arm and I kept picking the scab so it became a scar. So I say that's a shark tooth.

    “When kids get freaked out, I tell them" what really happened — that he was simply born that way, he says with a devilish smile. "I just try and have fun with it."

    A couple of years ago, his parents were looking for a decent picture of the whole family — one that included Andrew and his four siblings. They contemplated sending out a photo of the entire Austen brood on a boat, complete with the caption: "On the lookout for the shark that bit off Andrew's hand."

    More coverage
  • SportsWeek: Philadelphian sets sights on gold medal in fencing
  • SportsWeek: New book chronicles first black boxing champ
  • More from SportsWeek
  • Andrew's mom, Mary, nixed the idea, though. Although she thought it was funny, she thought some people might not get it, or think it was tasteless. And, more importantly, her mother would kill her.

    Andrew Austen is 14 years old, with floppy hair that curls up just so, in a way that only looks good on teenage boys and Tiger Beat centerfolds. During the summer, he plays golf, baseball and basketball — in the Narberth Outdoor Basketball League, the Malvern Basketball League, the Wayne Wolverines Sandlot American Legion baseball team and the St. David's interclub golf team — along with a healthy dose of video games. Later this month, he'll take part in the Eastern Amputee Golf Association Tournament at Saucon Valley Country Club. He's the defending Junior Champion.

    Granted, he was the only Junior in the tournament. But he still won.

    Simply listening to Andrew's summer schedule is exhausting. And yet the schedule doesn't even take into account how much Andrew actually plays in all of those games and events, which is a lot, since he is almost always one of the best players, one hand or no.

    During the season-opener for the Wayne Wolverines American Legion baseball team, he pitched a shutout, giving up only two hits and striking out seven in a 6-0 win against Narberth. His coach, Brendan Connor, knew he was a pitcher, but had never actually seen him play before. So far this season, he has a 3.62 ERA, third lowest on the team while pitching the second most innings. When he's not pitching, he plays centerfield.

    Andrew's dad, Peter, lauds his son's hand-eye coordination and instincts. Andrew might never be the absolute best on a team, but he's consistently one of the better players. "Andrew has always been one of the best athletes on the field," echoes Paul Neff, who has known and coached Andrew since he was little.

    When Andrew was younger, Mary and Peter tried to steer him toward soccer, a sport that seems natural for a kid with only one hand. Andrew used to play constantly, but he stopped recently. "He was really good at it. He had great instincts, really good speed," Peter said. "I don't know if this is true or not, but this is the cynic in me, I'm convinced that on some level that he's insisted on playing baseball and basketball [because of our support for playing soccer]. It was shame because he was great at it — but he just thinks it's ridiculously boring."

    "The kid is an athlete, he can just flat-out play," says Brendan Dougherty, who coaches Andrew in basketball in the Narberth League. This summer was Dougherty's first year coaching Andrew. The Narberth League has a blind draft, meaning that to Dougherty, who also coaches basketball at Rosemont College, Andrew Austen was just another name on the roster. He had no idea he'd be coaching a player without part of one arm.

    Disclosure forms for sports leagues often ask about medical conditions, of course, ailments and issues that the league or a coach should be aware of. Peter and Mary never fill out that part of Andrew's paperwork. Why should they? It's not exactly a secret Andrew has only one hand, and people tend to catch on as soon as they see him. It's certainly not a life-threatening condition, either. The hand's already gone. What's the worst that could happen? His hand grows back?

    Before the first basketball game of the season, Dougherty forewent practice, so he didn't know his players beforehand. He admits that he wasn't paying much attention during his team's initial warmups, either. It wasn't until well into that first game, after Andrew scored six points, that Dougherty noticed something was a little different about his player. Dougherty turned to his brother, who serves as his assistant.

    "Wait," Dougherty said. "Does that kid only have one arm?"

     

     

    Mary and Peter already had one healthy baby boy, Andrew's older brother Tom, when the couple went in for a sonogram to find out when the baby would be due. The ultrasound technician was chatty with the young parents until she started looking at the screen in front of her. That's when she went silent. She left and brought in a doctor in, who told them: Their son would be born without a hand.

    "Did I do something wrong?" Mary immediately thought.

    But then an odd thing happened, something that goes a long way toward explaining Andrew's attitude. Mary and Peter simply got over it.

    There was no genetic reason for why Andrew was born with only one hand. It was officially cited as a vascular accident. Peter noted it was the most common congenital limb deficiency. "No one knows why, no one knows if there's any statistical relevance to that or not," Peter said. "That's the reality."

    A doctor at duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington gave the Austens a piece of advice that has governed their parenting since: If you have a problem with this, Andrew will have a problem with this. If you don't, Andrew won't. Other than one little hitch, they figured, they had a healthy baby.

    People constantly told the Austens how well they were handling Andrew's condition, but if you talk with the family, it becomes clear that they didn't know how else to live. "We very early on realized that our obligation was an easy one: give our child enough self-confidence and [make him] comfortable enough in his own skin so people around him are comfortable with it and it becomes a nonissue. Ultimately, it is," Peter says over lunch at St. David's Golf Club in Wayne, where he had brought Tom, Andrew and the Austen's 13-year-old son Chris for golf lessons. "People have accidents all the time, whether they are born with an issue of some sort. You deal with it and you move on."

    With four siblings, Andrew is given few opportunities to cause drama in the Austen household. Although, as with any kid with a sense of ingenuity, he'll use his arm to his advantage whenever he can get away with it.

    "Usually when people say, ‘Can you bring this over?' I say, ‘I can't, I only have one arm,'" Andrew says. "That's pretty much what I use it for."

    "Oh, yeah, he's a complete scammer," Peter says.

    Andrew once told his principal at Radnor Middle School that he needed a helper. Knowing Andrew, the principal immediately called him on it.

    When not using his condition to try and get helpers, Andrew says there is little he has trouble with in day-to-day life. "I have everything but a hand. I can use this," Andrew says, pointing to where his arm hooks at the elbow and stops, "to tie my shoes, hold things, button my shirt; I can use it for everything but grabbing. When people say it's a disability, it's not a really a disability at all."

    And, most importantly for a 14-year-old, his lack of a hand does not impede his ability to text his friends.

    When he bats or hits a driver in golf, he uses a prosthetic made by Eddystone-based Prosthetic Innovations. "Having his elbow, even if there is only a few inches below it remaining, is huge," said Michael Rayer, co-owner of Prosthetic Innovations. "The device he uses is simpler and considerably less cumbersome than an above-the-elbow prosthetic. The above-elbow client cannot typically generate the same control or power that a below-elbow client can."

    Andrew initially got the prosthetic for golf, and was iffy about using it for baseball. But because it improved his golf game so much, he decided to give it a try. It's been a huge help. "All my friends mess around and say it's a mechanical advantage," Andrew says. "They don't really think that, but that's what they say."

    When Andrew was younger, Mary and Peter debated whether to fit Andrew with a prosthetic or not. There are different schools of thought on the matter. Some people advocate giving a kid a prosthetic so he can get used to it; others think it's better to make someone adapt without one so they don't become reliant on the device. Andrew tried a couple of prosthetics early on, but he never took to them.

    "When he was little, he had something we used to call the Halloween hand," Mary says. "It wasn't really functional."

    "We hit fit him with a hook; it was more a claw. He used it to pinch his brothers with it," Peter says.

    "Half the time we'd be at a stop sign and we'd see people looking over, horrified. It'd was because Andrew was in the back seat beating his brothers with [the Halloween hand]," Mary said. "Thank God we didn't have the puppy then, he probably would have chewed on it."

    Andrew has never been into the idea of the prosthetic as an aesthetic piece. He prefers to see it as a tool, and only wears it when he's batting or driving a golf ball. When he's playing the field in baseball, Andrew has figured out how to quickly transition his glove to his shorter arm so he can catch and throw.

    At the plate, Andrew wears a silicone gel liner and small mechanical attachment that fits into the prosthetic socket. There's a lock release button on the prosthetic that allows him to quickly shimmy it off when he's running to first. When he's safe at first, he takes off the silicone liner, just like any other batter would take off his gloves. And when he gets walked, he tosses the bat like any other batter, except his prosthetic is still attached.

     

     

    Adults are the worst.

     

    When kids see Andrew for the first time, they just come up and ask.

    "Yo, dude, what's the deal with your arm?"

    Andrew says he's never really been teased by other kids. They're curious. They ask, he answers (albeit, sometime with the shark tale). But it's not a big deal.

    But adults? Adults are brutal.

    At one game, the Wayne Wolverines were having a particularly hard time, committing seven errors over the course of one inning. Andrew was pitching OK, but Connor decided to take him out anyway. While Connor was on the mound talking with Andrew, the opposing coach came onto the field and told Andrew he was an inspiration.

    And then he gave Andrew a hug.

    Shudder.

    In front of everyone.

    Double shudder.

    Even Connor sounds uncomfortable relaying this story. Andrew knows the opposing coach meant well, but no 14-year-old boy, no matter how many extremities he may (or may not) have, wants to gets hugged in front of his teammates. Especially during a particularly poor performance.

    Andrew prefers the reaction he got from the coach of the Lower Merion Legion team. Andrew was pitching; the opposing coach had his first batter bunt.

    Andrew threw the kid out.

    The coach then had the second kid bunt. Andrew threw the kid out.

    Another parent turned to Peter and said, "I can't believe he's doing this."

    Peter had no idea what the parent was talking about. Exploiting Andrew's supposed weakness? Isn't that what any good coach does? Isn't that strategy?

    Then a third kid stepped up to the plate. And bunted.

    Andrew threw the kid out.

    The opposing coach finally looked over at Andrew, threw up his arms in a way that said, "OK, kid, I get it. You can field."

    In April, Andrew went to see Michael Smerconish interview Jim Abbott, the former Major League pitcher who was also born without a right hand — and who threw a no-hitter for the Yankees against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Abbott discussed a similar situation as the one Andrew faced against Lower Merion. Smerconish was appalled.

    But Abbott came back at Smerconish: He put himself in that situation; any smart player, any smart team, would try to exploit it.

    Both Andrew and Abbott just wanted to be treated like any other player.

    "Sports allows you to be like the other kids and move past a label," says Abbott. "It may not be how other people see you but how you see yourself in your own mind. Ironically, you do well and people put the label on all over again. I understand [Andrew's] feelings, people would interview me and I wouldn't understand why. We have this thing that makes us feel like everyone, but at the same time, when you're on the field of play, you're labeled as different."

    Not everyone handles that difference the same way. A couple of years ago, Andrew and his buddies were screwing around on the golf course at St. David's. A man approached Andrew. The man had just learned that his child would be born with one hand. On the verge of tears, this relative stranger told Andrew that watching him play like a kid with two hands changed his life.

    Andrew's buddies had a field day with that one.

    Later, the man met with the Austens and told them how he did not handle the news about his unborn child well.

    Doctors always told the Austens they were so great with Andrew, but Peter never really knew why. "We didn't know how else to be," he says. "[Doctors] said so many people today are waiting for perfection. But no one is perfect, and everyone is perfect. We always come back to that conversation. We talked about it with this gentleman: [Your kid will] blow you away with what they can do and not because he's got one hand, but because he's your son and he'll do great things."

    To return to The Best of SportsWeek, click here.

    Molly Eichel Daily News Staff Writer
    Latest Videos:
    Also on Philly.com:
    Stay Connected