It was April 2002, two months after the New England Patriots' stunning victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and Randy "Zip" Pierce '88 sat in the White House Rose Garden wondering when he was going to wake up. He had pressed the flesh with President Bush and rubbed shoulders with quarterback Tom Brady. Miss America was somewhere nearby. And it wasn't a dream.
Pierce was one of 50 guests invited to attend the celebration in Washington, D.C. Named the Fleet/Patriots Fan of the Year and inducted into the Visa Hall of Fans, Pierce had appeared on Rosie O'Donnell's TV show during the media frenzy in the week preceding the big game.
Pierce is a fervent Patriots fan who for many years has organized hugely popular tailgate parties. At home games, they're held under three canopies in the stadium parking lot. Away games are celebrated in his Nashua, N.H., home, a veritable shrine to the team that is plastered with Patriots memorabilia. But although he has attended countless Patriots games, Pierce hasn't seen one in more than 10 years.
It was during a fencing class in May 1989, one year after graduating from UNH with a degree in electrical engineering, that Pierce and his instructor first noticed he was having difficulty with his balance. Within two weeks of his diagnosis--a rare optic nerve disorder--he was declared legally blind. In 2000, while at guide dog school training with Ostend, his golden retriever, Pierce lost his sight completely.
A former hardware design engineer, Pierce admits that adjusting was not easy. But he is philosophical. "The adversity you face in life is not always entirely in your control, but the choice of how you respond to it is," he says.
Pierce has written a not-yet-published book about dealing with adversity called Choosing the Right Response. He volunteers as a peer counselor for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and as a motivational speaker to organizations like the Boy Scouts. He has taught karate at the local martial arts school where he earned his black belt. In some ways, blindness has made him a more effective teacher, he says. "I provide more one-on-one, and I am more descriptive." But, he notes, "I get thrown to the floor a lot."
Pierce has never allowed his blindness to interfere with his devotion to the Patriots. Using synthesized speech software, he maintains a fan Web site <www.patriotzip.com> with a message board that attracts visitors from across the United States. But how do you watch football games if you can't see? Pierce listens to games on the radio because the announcer describes the action, although he admits there are some things radio cannot provide. "I missed the Super Bowl Streaker!" he says, laughing. Whatever he misses is made up for by moments like the time his favorite player, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, ran the Lamar Hunt Trophy over to his seat yelling, "Put your hand on it, Zip! Put your hand on it!"
This spring, Pierce learned that his optic nerve disorder is spreading to the part of his brain that controls balance and orientation, a discovery that presents new challenges. But like championship football players, Pierce believes in mental toughness. On his Web site he advocates "striding forward against each challenge which arises in life. Football is a microcosm of this mentality. You take the challenge and you examine a way to rise above it, develop a plan for such and execute the plan." ~
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