Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Mass. student thrives in sports despite disability

Inspirational Basketball

In this Jan. 9, 2013, Roman Sweeney handles the ball during basketball practice at North Central Charter School in Fitchburg, Mass. Sweeney, a 19-year-old senior, has been amazing people with his determination and sense of humor since his parents adopted him from a Russian orphanage when he was 6. He was born with legs that end just above the knee and a left arm that extends to where an elbow should be. (AP Photo/Christine Peterson, Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

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From page C6 | February 03, 2013 | 2 Comments

FITCHBURG, Mass. — North Central Charter Essential School coach Kyle Gillis stopped basketball practice recently so a photographer could film Roman Sweeney shooting 3-pointers.

Standing on his titanium legs, Sweeney held the ball in his right hand while balancing it against the stump on his short left arm. Then he heaved the ball into the basket on his first attempt and his teammates cheered.

Sweeney, a 19-year-old senior, has been amazing people with his determination and sense of humor since his parents adopted him from a Russian orphanage when he was 6. He was born with legs that end just above the knee and a left arm that extends to where an elbow should be. On his stump, which he nicknamed “Paul” after no one in particular, is one digit that amounts to a thumb.

Sweeney joked that he was like the Lady Gaga song, “Baby, I was born this way.”

Sweeney’s birth mother gave him up to an orphanage and Tim and Pam Sweeney, who have four biological children, welcomed him into their home in Orange. The family never treated him like he was disabled and don’t even have a handicap placard for their car.

“On paper, I guess I’m disabled,” Sweeney said, “and if it gets me free stuff I’ll take that, but when it comes to people saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because you’re disabled,’ then that’s when I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll try it.’ ”

Sweeney plays tennis, break dances and even climbed Mount Monadnock on a school trip. Last spring for NCC’s baseball team, Sweeney played first base and pitched an inning of relief, retiring all three batters he faced. He was startled when a hard grounder bounced off his rib cage, but he picked the ball up and threw the runner out.

Basketball is his favorite sport, but his mother, a U.S. history teacher at NCC, didn’t want him to play it until this year because he can’t easily brace himself when he trips so she was afraid he’d get hurt.

“He had to learn how to fall,” she said.

So Sweeney had to be content with attending the games last season as a fan. At halftime of each home game, he’d take one-handed shots from half-court and Gillis said he made more than he missed. Yes, Sweeney’s right arm is very strong.

“I take steroids,” he said. “No, I’m just kidding.”

Actually, Sweeney built up the strength because when he takes off his legs at home he sits down and uses his right arm to move his body around.

This year, Sweeney tried out for the basketball team and was welcomed by his new teammates.

“At first it’s kind of shocking,” NCC junior co-captain Garry Brown admitted. “He has one arm and no legs and he’s doing all this stuff. It’s kind of amazing.”

Even with titanium rods for legs, Sweeney is still NCC’s shortest player. He estimates he’s 5 feet, 4 inches with his titanium legs and rubber feet and about 3 feet tall without them. He plays with prescription goggles.

“I want to look like Amare Stoudemire,” he joked, referring to the Knicks forward who also wears goggles.

Sweeney has played in every game except one for 0-7 NCC, which this year moved into the Notre Dame Prep building on South Street and shares the gym. On Tuesday, NCC practiced at the Applewild School where Gillis teaches.

On Dec. 21, Sweeney surprised the crowd at Bethany Christian Academy in Mendon by sinking a 3-pointer.

“It was all net,” he said. “You could hear that beautiful swish. I’m not being overdramatic. That’s the beautiful sound you love to hear. I was so excited.”

Then Sweeney hit a second 3-pointer against Bethany Christian and even the BCA fans told him they were proud of him. Earlier this month, he hit another trey at home against Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School of Marlboro. The fans erupted.

“They went nuts,” Gillis said. “It was awesome. As he came back down the court, he was running by our bench and he was getting high fives from his teammates. It was pretty cool.”

“I’m really proud of him,” Pam said, “but I have to say I’m not surprised because from the first time I met him he has always been really tough and determined to do what he wanted to do.”

The Sweeneys took Roman sledding at Gardner Municipal Golf Course the first week they had him and he refused to allow his uncle to pull him on his sled back up the hill. Even though Roman couldn’t speak English then, he made it clear he would get up the hill on his own and he did, wrapping the rope of his sled around his body and dragging himself up with his one arm.

Pam discovered soon afterward how competitive her son was when he got upset that cars were passing them on the highway.

“He was furious,” Pam said, “and he was banging on the back of my husband’s seat, yelling, ‘Faster, Papa, faster. You have to win, Papa. You have to win.’ ”

Sweeney, an avid fan of the Celtics and Kevin Garnett, is at his happiest when he’s playing basketball.

“It makes me feel like I’m dating Beyoncé,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world. It’s my passion.”

Sweeney taught himself to shoot while practicing at home.

“He’s got the mechanics mastered,” Gillis said.

Sweeney said when opponents first see him, they appear curious, but not rude.

“Once they see me shoot,” he said, “they’re kind of baffled. They’re like, ‘Oh, you can shoot with one arm. I can barely shoot with two.’ ”

“Whenever he’s on the court, he tries his hardest,” Brown said. “He never gives up on a play. He makes me want to work harder, too.”

Many people have told Sweeney that he’s inspired them.

“I don’t play just to inspire people,” Sweeney said. “I play because I love it, but obviously when I’m out there, I hope I’m an inspiration to some people. If they believe they’re not good enough, they can just look at me and say, ‘Well, his circumstances aren’t that good, but he still plays with his heart. I can contribute as well.’ ”

Gillis rates Sweeney among NCC’s most tenacious defenders.

“There’s kind of a quickness about him,” Gillis said. “We play a lot of zone and he’s able to cover his area. He’s a basketball player when he’s out there.”

“I keep my eye on the ball,” Sweeney said, “and I watch a lot of NBA players defend and I try to learn from them.”

Sweeney plans to study sports management at Fitchburg State University or American International College in Springfield. His dream job would be to manage the Red Sox, but he might try sportscasting for a while.

Sweeney refuses to allow his limitations to get him down.

“I like the metaphor that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he said. “Life gave me no legs so I have fake legs. I just try to be positive. If people notice that I’m positive and they’re depressed, they’ll look at me and think, ‘Maybe my life isn’t so bad, it could be worse, like him, but he’s turned it around to make it something great out of what he had.’ ”

That outlook is far more meaningful than sinking a 3-pointer. It’s a slam dunk.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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