‘My name is Bryce Weiler’ — blind broadcaster helps teams to see the disabled

Downstate sports fan, blind since birth, works hard to help players understand fans with disabilities, and to make those fans more welcome at sporting events.

SHARE ‘My name is Bryce Weiler’ — blind broadcaster helps teams to see the disabled
SHARE ‘My name is Bryce Weiler’ — blind broadcaster helps teams to see the disabled
T
he Arkansas State’s women’s basketball team has had a long day: the 70-mile drive from Jonesboro, Arkansas, to Memphis, Tennessee. The flight to O’Hare. The journey downtown. Now they are on the second floor of Giordano’s on Rush, waiting to try that institution’s notion of the famed Chicago deep-dish pizza.

But first-year coach Matt Daniel has one more hurdle for his Red Wolves.

‘‘I didn’t tell my kids at all. I wanted it to be a surprise,” Daniel says. “I wanted to catch them off guard.”

The surprise is his dinner guest, a 28-year-old man from Downstate.

‘‘Everybody listen,” says Daniel, standing up. “This is Bryce. Bryce is a friend of Coach D’s. He’s also going to do radio tomorrow with Mr. Merritt. He has an interesting story about his background. Listen to what he’s saying, OK?”

‘‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” the young man begins, speaking over the clatter of the busy restaurant, his shoulders hunched, arms straight down at his sides. “My name is Bryce Weiler. I was born four months premature. I was born at one pound, two ounces. Being born at such a small weight, doctors first thought that I wasn’t going to be able to survive at such a small weight. But after they realized I was a fighter, they decided to . . .”

His friend Maggie Walsh silently steps behind him, takes him gently by the shoulders and repositions Weiler two steps to the right.

‘‘. . . They were going to do whatever they could do to try to save me. I became blind, maybe too much light, maybe too much oxygen, caused the retinas to detach.”

The team listens attentively, even as the spaghetti course arrives, prelude to the cheese tire that Giordano’s considers deep-dish pizza. When Weiler asks for volunteers to try his collapsible white cane, two players leap up.

Blind sports fans are not unknown — Craig Lynch was a blind Cubs fan who ended up reporting from the press box for 30 years. Others are scattered across the country.

Weiler stands out even in that elite circle because not only is he immersed in a primarily visual realm, but his focus is on helping others with physical challenges get the most out of pro sports. He is a paid consultant for the Baltimore Orioles and was part of its National Federation of the Blind Night last year, when players wore jerseys spelling out Orioles and their names in Braille.

‘‘It’s my job to make sure it’s accessible and all the fans who are disabled have a great time.”

The national nonprofit he cofounded, Beautiful Lives Project, helps people facing physical challenges — who use a wheelchair or have trouble hearing or seeing — find better accommodation in the world of professional sports.

Weiler was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, — his mother was in an ambulance heading to Indianapolis but never made it. Lisa Weiler calls him her “little miracle baby.” She says that the hospital where she gave birth got the special newborn surfactant lung medicine that kept Bryce alive only the week before he was born.

‘‘He’s just very lucky,” she says. Her son was in the neonatal intensive-care unit for 16 weeks. He went through so many operations on his eyes that his mother lost count: she estimates he was under anesthesia 80 to 100 times because it was the only way to examine his eyes as a child.

Weiler grew up in Claremont, a small town in southeastern Illinois. His mother can’t explain her son’s attraction to sports, beyond her husband going to St. Louis Cardinals games and watching basketball on TV.

‘‘We found it kind of strange, too,” she says. “He never wanted to play sports, like beep ball at the blind school. He didn’t care for that.”

She is amazed at the tremendous sensitivity he developed with his fingers.

‘‘He could tell you what the date is on a quarter,” she says.

Bryce Weiler credits listening to Brian Barnhart broadcast the Illinois Fighting Illini and Don Fischer doing the Indiana Hoosiers as sparking his interest in sports. At the University of Evansville, he talked his way onto the bench of the college basketball team.

‘‘That changed my life,” he says.

A life where little falls into his lap.

Weiler replaces eyesight with pure, gerbil-on-a-wheel effort. He sends out up to 100 emails a day. He has contacted every team in Major League Baseball. Every NFL team. Every NBA team. He heard back from all but two and no, he won’t say which two those are. Because there is always hope.

Weiler, who can occasionally detect patches of light and shadow, also does live radio commentary during sporting events. He has broadcast 140 games. He calls games for the New Britain Bees, a college baseball team, and is set to broadcast the Arkansas State-DePaul game the next morning.

Two and a half hours before game time, Coach Daniel is alone on the Arkansas State bench. DePaul is a powerhouse, coached by Doug Bruno, now in his 34th year. Daniel is in his first year, trying to rebuild the team, whose role today is almost certain to be lambs to the slaughter. He hopes to keep the game close.

Looking back to the previous night, how did his team receive Weiler? Did they really get anything from it?

‘‘I wanted them to go into it blind,” says Daniel. “Because that’s what life looks like. In today’s world, it is so hard for them to lock into a speaker. Because of technology. The positivity of technology is drown out by negativity and isolation. I firmly believe that. It’s challenging enough to speak in a quiet room, with somebody just having dinner.”

He is amazed by which two players tried out Weiler’s cane.

‘‘The two who volunteered, they’ve seen a lot,” he says. “They’re seniors. It’s not somebody wide-eyed, bushy-tailed. They’ve been through the wringer. Their willingness to jump up and participate tells me they were engaged. It’s not the message, it’s how the message is portrayed. Words are just words. But you see Bryce’s intensity when he’s speaking. He’s very intense. He was very intentional about delivering a message. Basketball will take care of itself. Character is the most important thing. The person is greater than the player. Last night is what life looks like.”

Notice the visual imagery in Daniel’s remarks above: “blind,” “looks,” “seen,” “wide-eyed.”

Weiler arrives, two hours before the game, and is led to his seat on the sideline by another friend — Weiler has a genius for friendship, and to meet him is to be enlisted to the cause. DePaul’s Bruno comes over and greets him. We move over to the bleachers for a brief talk.

‘‘The ultimate athleticism is visual athleticism,” the coach says. “You can talk about running and jumping all you want. Every great athlete in every sport has magnificent vision. Muhammad Ali, they talked about his feet; it was his eyes. You can’t play Major League Baseball without great eyes. The ultimate athleticism is eyes, and here you have a man denied of his eyesight and still determined to make his way in a field where your eyes are the ultimate athleticism.”

The DePaul players are warming up, doing a lunging stretch, moving in line across the floor, almost like a modern dance. I wonder whether Weiler is aware of what’s going on in front of him.

‘‘One team is stretching,” he says. “The other is . . . not moving; maybe sitting down.” I look at the Arkansas State team, which is indeed in a huddle. I was so distracted by DePaul’s activity that I never noticed Arkansas State, a reminder that while visual impairment reduces input from the world, it also filters out distraction.

IMG_0837.jpg

Members of the DePaul Blue Demons women’s basketball team greet blind broadcast Bryce Weiler and share a laugh before their game against Arkansas State.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

Both teams line up to greet Weiler, shake his hand and introduce themselves.

‘‘Hello, I’m Deja Church, nice to meet you,” says a 5-10 DePaul guard.

‘‘Have you transferred from Michigan, I guess?” replies Weiler, who spends hours prepping, listening to old broadcasts and stat sheets.

‘‘Yes, I am,” she says.

He is not always so warmly welcomed. Last year, he was checking his email, waiting to give a talk, when he began to tune in what those around him were saying.

‘‘I was waiting to speak to a sorority at a Maryland college,” he says. “The girls of this chapter were talking about how they didn’t want to listen to someone who is blind speak to them for 20 minutes. It was hard for me to listen to that and then go in and speak. There were so many gasps when I walked in.”

At 11 a.m. the game begins. The 1,600 Chicago Public School students who were bussed in let out a rafter-rattling shriek.

IMG_1316_2.jpg

Bryce Weiler, far right, sits next to Keith Merritt, “The Voice of the Red Wolves,” broadcasting the DePaul-Arkansas State women’s basketball game. Merritt does the play-by-play and Weiler offers commentary.

Photograph by Neil Steinberg/Chicago Sun-Times

The players squeak up and down the court. DePaul pulls away quickly. If you’re wondering how a blind man does color commentary during a basketball game, remember, the action is narrated by a play-by-play announcer. Keith Merritt, “The Voice of the Red Wolves,” has been calling games since 1974. He describes a three-pointer bouncing astray. Weiler jumps in.

‘‘Long threes can sometimes turn into long rebounds,” he says. “One never knows how those are going to turn out. So Arkansas State gets a break by going over the backboard and also a chance for Coach Bruno to set up his defense.”

At halftime, it’s DePaul 64, Arkansas 35.

‘‘He’s going a great job. I’m really glad to have him. He does his homework,” says Merritt, pointing to the lopsided score. “It would be a lousy broadcast otherwise.”

The game ends, a DePaul 109-64 rout. Weiler is guided through the commotion of the departing students, up to the DePaul locker room, where the team is assembled.

‘‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Bryce Weiler,” he says. “I was born four months premature. I became blind because doctors were not sure I was going to be able to live. After 15 minutes, they decided I was going to live, but from too much light, or too much oxygen, caused the retinas in my eyes to not stay. But I have been able to overcome that. I grew up listening to sports on the radio . . .”

When he finishes, Bruno embraces him in a hug. The players stand to go. Former player Ashton Millender is crying.

‘‘It really got me at the end,” she says.

Weiler has a habit of doing that.

‘‘Whatever life deals you, it’s your attitude about your life,” says Daniel. “It’s not about your circumstances, it’s about your attitude. It’s what we preach every day, it’s what we teach every day. Here’s the ultimate example. He can’t control his visual situation, but he’s controlling his attitude about it. That’s what’s really impressive about Bryce.”

A man talking to female basketball players.

Bryce Weiler talks to the DePaul Blue Demons women’s basketball team after its victory over Arkansas State.

Photograph by Neil Steinberg

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