Commentary

Blind football player listens, learns

Updated: November 10, 2009, 10:41 PM ET
By Ben Houser | E:60

When I first came across Charlie Wilks' story I did a double take. A blind football player? Really?

Close your eyes.

Count to 10.

Open your eyes.

Imagine every second, every minute, every day of your life is visually blank.

Charlie Wilks is 100 percent blind. He can sense only extreme light. He is a smart, witty 14-year-old kid who even finds time to tell blind jokes.

At age 5, a brain tumor crushed Charlie's optical nerve and stole his eyesight. After multiple surgeries, Charlie was completely blind by age 6. He saw football on television before he went blind and heard plenty of stories from his grandfather, Al Reynolds, who played in Super Bowl I for the Kansas City Chiefs.

After meeting Charlie and his mother, several family members and folks from Emporia, Kan., I knew I had discovered a special story. Charlie has a perfect television personality. He is vibrant, intelligent and funny. He is dramatic and compelling. Most of all, Charlie Wilks is real.

I had a radical thought. I wanted Charlie to be the "E:60" reporter for his own life story. Charlie liked the idea and executed the concept flawlessly. Management gave me the green light. And I just might have found the next Jeremy Schaap.

Charlie Wilks has a fascinating story that raises lots of questions. Here are some of those questions and their answers.

When I tell people about your story, there's one question that is always asked &

How do I do it?

Yes. How do you do it? Can you describe how you play football?

I run forward, and I run into people. Basically that's it. I play football with my team, and they give me cues. We just work together. I play football with the four senses I have left to me; I listen mostly, it's just listening. I feel where the other guys are, and it's not like reaching out and touching them. I don't do that. I just have a sense of where they are by where I am positioned.

Describe what you hear on the football field.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Wilks
E:60Charlie Wilks during an ESPN's "E:60" shoot in January 2009 at Emporia State University.

Well, I'm listening to the quarterback say the down, set, hike and then the middle linebacker, which he's like lined up right behind me, and he'll yell "Go" when the ball is snapped. And then I'll run forward and try to break up the play. Sometimes I'll help my team out by listening in on the other team's conversations in their huddles.

So you steal plays?

Yeah, pretty much. I tell them what's going to happen, and then we stop them.

How are you able to do that?

I listen.

How do you know who to tackle?

I don't. Basically the center is just pretty much in front of me, and there have been times when I've tackled my own teammates on accident. The center pretty much, his position is right across from me, so I run forward or I can run to the right or the left to try and bust through. And just wreck the play as much as I can. But basically my only job is to hit the center, drag them back, make an opening and give somebody else a chance to get in there to stop the play. Or, I can stop it myself.

How were you able to pick up football so easily?

It wasn't any different than what the other guys did, I listened and learned -- and then, just experience.

Can you sense people around you and what's happening in the play?

[+] EnlargeCharlie Wilks with Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe
E:60Charlie Wilks with Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe before the Cowboys-Chiefs game on Oct. 11. Bowe caught a touchdown in the fourth quarter and gave Charlie the ball.

Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I do have a heightened sense of awareness of the people around me, but it depends on the day. If we're playing in rain, that's the hardest time for me to play football because I can't hear anything. The water that's hitting my helmet just drowns everything out. If it's raining, we will have the middle linebacker run up, and he'll smack me on the leg to let me know that the ball has been snapped, and then I'll run forward.

Your grandfather Al Reynolds [Chiefs offensive lineman from 1960 to '68], along with many other all-time great Chiefs players, was honored at halftime of the Dallas Cowboys-Kansas City Chiefs game Oct. 11. The Chiefs invited you to be there with him and experience that moment. What was that like?

It was pretty cool. I liked meeting Dwayne Bowe and Glenn Dorsey, 'cause they have had the experience and they gave me some good advice about football. But not just football, but to tell me to keep going with what I am doing. They said I inspire a lot of people out there. I think that it's cool that I inspire them. If it weren't for them [Bowe and Dorsey], I wouldn't have the motivation I needed to continue playing football, so I guess it's a two-way thing.

What do you want people to remember about you after this story?

I want people to remember that disabilities aren't things that get in your way. If you use them right, disabilities can be your greatest ability. It's like if you imagine a disability as a crutch, don't use the disability as a crutch, you should use the disability as a leg and start running.

Charlie WilksE:60Charlie Wilks reports his own story about what it's like to be blind and play football.

Ben Houser is a senior producer for "E:60." Charlie Wilks is a freshman football player in Emporia, Kan. When asked what was the experience was like as an ESPN reporter -- asking family and friends about himself -- Wilks said: "I thought it was cool to ask my family about this stuff. It is usually not something that I would talk about, and I enjoyed learning what they thought about me."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.