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Blind since birth, high school senior uses guides to run XC

Coach, community help Frankenmuth's Bobby Steele keep the course

8:56 AM, Oct. 05, 2012 EDT

Randy Wiles, 49 and Bobby Steele, 17, both of Frankenmuth, finish their 3 mile race during the Michigan High School Division III Cross Country Jamboree at Delta College on Sept. 26, 2012, in University City, Mich. / Jarrad Henderson

UNIVERSITY CENTER -- The first 35 of 39 runners have crossed the finish line when Bobby Steele turns the corner and begins striding down the final stretch.

The applause begins once the fans see the Frankenmuth (Mich.) senior and grows louder the closer Steele gets to the finish line.

"Way to go, Bobby," one fan yells.

Really, Steele has no idea which way he is going.

"Looking good, Bobby," another shouts.

Actually, Steele has no idea how he or anyone else looks.

Steele has been blind since birth, but last week he was the most popular runner at the Tri-Valley League's East Division cross-country meet.

Aside from the winner, Steele received the loudest cheers from the fans, which is not unusual.

PHOTO GALLERY: Bobby Steele in action

Following the 3.1-mile race, athletes from the teams approached Steele to offer congratulations.

"Sometimes, I get really weird things," Steele said. "Like last year for track, some person randomly came up to me and gave me a hug."

The random person was a girl, and no, Steele didn't think to get her phone number.

Frankenmuth freshman Shane Gutkowski asked Steele his time. He said he ran 23:38, 4 seconds away from his best time.

"High-five it here, man," Gutkowski said, raising his hand and making sure it met Steele's as he raised his for a high five.

It is a scene Steele's father, Jeff, could not have envisioned when his son was born three months prematurely.

"I don't think you could probably do justice in describing how much good it has done Bobby," he said. "Just to be able to participate in what other kids do, I think most kids take that for granted. This is the only opportunity he's ever had to do it. It's been pretty cool."

This is not your typical high school sports story. This is a tale of a young man who simply wanted to be a part of a team, and how his teammates, coach and people from the community gained more than they could have imagined by helping to make it all possible.

Steele admits the decision to run cross-country was a good one, even if it wasn't his decision. That belonged to dear old dad.

"Hey, Bobby, you're doing cross-country," his father told him one summer day before Steele's sophomore year.

Steele's reaction was not positive.

"What?" he asked. "No, no, no, I'm not."

Yes, yes, yes, he did. But it wasn't easy.

Telling his son he was going to run cross-country was only the beginning. Jeff then had to break the news to Frankenmuth boys cross-country coach Mike Snyder, who was all for it despite the complications.

"We'd never done it, so we had to figure out how to make it work for him," Snyder said. "The administration was really good about helping to work things out."

The Frankenmuth community was even better.

Shortly after practice began, Wayne Knieper noticed Snyder running and alongside a runner with both of them holding something that appeared to be a rag.

Curiosity got the best of Knieper, who called Snyder to ask what was going on.

Snyder explained that Steele was blind and needed a guide to run with him.

Knieper and three friends became Steele's first guides and ran with him at practices and in meets.

It was a tough first year for Steele, who had never run more than 100 yards before that fall.

"It was pretty difficult those first couple of weeks," Steele said. "I wasn't ready the first meet of the season. I had to work at it for a couple of weeks, but I was ready by the third meet of the season."

Knieper remembers how grueling it was for Steele in the early going, which made him admire the youngster even more.

"That first month, he could not run 3 miles," he said. "He had to stop every quarter mile. But man, as the year went on he got faster and he was able to run the entire course."

Steele's best time his first year was 33 minutes, and Knieper had no difficulty pacing the youngster. But now that he has shaved 10 minutes off that time, Knieper serves as Steele's guide coordinator, lining up people to run with him.

Because he has improved so much, it now takes two guides trading off at the midpoint to get Steele through a race.

And there is much more to being a guide than just running with Steele. The guide and Steele each hold an end of a tether as they run.

"You have to talk turns, if there is going to be a change -- uphill, downhill," said Jeff Frahm, one of the guides. "You spend a fair amount of time talking as well as running. If it gets really narrow through the woods, we have to shorten up a little bit, he might hold on to my arm instead of the tether."

The guides' dedication is not lost on Steele, who is thankful for their efforts.

"Without them I wouldn't be able to do this," he said. "So I'm pretty grateful they set aside time in their lives to help me out."

The truth is, the guides are grateful, too. They realize they are spending time with a terrific young man.

"He's become my friend," said Knieper. "He's an amazing boy. Always independent; he does everything. You don't help him at all unless it's something strange and unfamiliar. He's smart, witty. I've gotten a lot out of it."

The Steele family moved to Florida so the youngster could attend the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, but moved to Frankenmuth when he entered eighth grade.

"We've dealt with a number of school districts," said his father. "The folks at Frankenmuth, I don't know what else to say other than there's no way it could have happened at the other places."

Junior Andrew Palmreuter said the other runners understand how much effort it takes for Steele to run, and that is one of many reasons why he has been accepted so well.

"He's a good kid," Palmreuter said. "He's smart, funny. I would say he's an inspiration. It's just amazing what he can do. He's just a nice guy."

Everyone loves Steele's sense of humor, which developed as a result of being the youngest of four children and having three older sisters.

"One of the things they told us before we brought him home three months after he was born was the best thing we could do for him was treat him like our other kids in the family," said his father. "We've pretty much teased him mercilessly. He couldn't be a sensitive person and be a part of our family. It wouldn't work out well."

Steele receives vocational training each morning and returns to Frankenmuth High in the afternoon for two mainstream classes. He hopes to major in journalism in college.

Because he is on the cross-country team, he has a core group of friends scattered around the school.

In a sense, being a part of this team has made him normal.

"It's as close as we've got," said his father. "If a kid is different, they're not got to have as many friends. Other kids aren't going to know what to say and who to be with him. High school is probably the worst time of someone's life if you think about it."

Because he is on the varsity team this fall, when the season ends Steele will receive a varsity letter and a jacket.

"It's going to be very significant to me," he said, softly. "Memories that could never be erased."

Steele's father knows who to credit for helping create these memories for his son.

"If it weren't for Mike Snyder, this wouldn't have lasted very long," he said. "Don't let anybody fool you, that guy is a living saint. They don't make too many like Mike."

And the people connected with the Frankenmuth team will tell you they don't make them like Bobby Steele, either.

"His dad said it's a life-changing experience for Bobby, and it was for us, too," said Snyder. "It wasn't a chore, it was a pleasure to do stuff because he's a great kid."

For his first two years, Steele ran in meets with the junior varsity, but he has improved so much he has earned a spot on the varsity.

The irony of being able to run fast enough to run in races where he doesn't finish as well as he did last year is not lost on Steele.

"It's pretty cool, except now there's less people that run my speed," he said. "So, I'm like, 'Oh, I'm doing well in this race. Oh, I'm third from last. Awesome.' "

Awesome? Yes, that pretty much described Bobby Steele.

Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or mmccabe@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.



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