On Sunday, a series of different youth lacrosse teams were crowned as champions of the second annual Pockets & Sockets tournament. The tourney titles capped a bright Florida weekend for athletes and their parents, with kids playing plenty of competitive, good spirited lacrosse, and everyone in attendance focused on -- and inspired by -- one young player: Mikey Stolzenberg.
There's a good reason why everyone is focused on Stolzenberg, too: The 12-year-old member of the Florida Snipers program is a quad-amputee, and is competing in lacrosse without any limbs. In fact, he's doing more than just compete. In his first tournament back playing without traditional limbs, Stolzenberg scored three goals.
It may seem impossible for someone without limbs to compete in a sport which requires both running and significant amounts of upper body finesse. Yet those limitations haven't stopped Stolzenberg, who lost all four of his limbs to a rare reaction to a bacterial infection called Chromobacterium Violaceum, related to an equally rare immune deficiency called Chronic Granulomatous Disease.
After scratching a mosquito bite while playing football as an 8-year-old, Stolzenberg contracted the bacterial infection and two days later found his body in septic shock, with the drastic step of amputation of all his limbs needed to save his life.
For most people, such a traumatic and physically debilitating event would have spelled an end to their participation in sports. That was never a consideration for Stolzenberg. Instead, the youngster opted against arm prosthetics because they seemed too limiting, and he taught himself how to exercise advanced motor skills -- writing, eating and yes, cradling a lacrosse stick -- with arm extensions called sockets.
After adding leg prosthetics that allowed him to run, Stolzenberg was ready to get involved in sports again, even though rejoining the Florida Snipers youth lacrosse program would require some rather drastic adjustments.
In fact, the sheer idea of having to run up and down the field while maintaining possession of a lacrosse ball was almost mind boggling for coaches who have watched him perform the skill, according to Lacrosse Magazine.
"It seems impossible," Pine Crest (Fla.) High lacrosse coach Doug Shanahan told Lacrosse Magazine. "But you know it's possible because you've seen him do it. He has more skill, given his circumstances, than a lot of other kids.
"His hand-eye coordination, without having normally functioning hands, is incredible. The way he moves to the ball, even with prosthetics, is more athletic than many other kids. He's mentally tough, and his work ethic is contagious. He wants to be better than his brothers."
Those brothers are both lacrosse players at Pine Crest, where the oldest, Harris, is a star junior and a legitimate Division I prospect. The middle brother, Justin, also plays lacrosse at the school and was a victim of his younger brother's rather deadpan sense of humor earlier this year, according to Lacrosse Magazine; when Justin broke his finger and complained about struggling to write, Mikey looked up at him and said, "Figure it out."
Together, the Stolzenberg family has figured out how to make Mikey feel more like any other kid at Pine Crest middle and high school, where he is a minor celebrity for, well, being so normal. Yet the expense to constantly refit the growing Stolzenberg for more sockets twice a year can cost the family tens of thousands of dollars. To help offset the cost, the Stolzenbergs and another family founded the Pockets & Sockets tournament in spring 2011, with the inaugural edition of the event raising $30,000 to help offset the cost of Mikey Stolzenberg's healthcare costs. More than 50 teams took part in the 2012 tournament, which should bring an even higher return and stoke hope of Stolzenberg eventually receiving a double hand transplant when he gets older.
Whether or not that ever happens, one thing seems certain: Stolzenberg will keep competing, in lacrosse and life, with traditional hands or without them.
"I was grateful I still had Michael," Laura Stolzenberg, Michael's mother, told Lacrosse Magazine. "We had him, now we just had to rebuild him. …
"Michael embraces his difference. We told him, 'Your hands and feet do not define who you are.'"
No, they do not. Yet, in Stolzenberg's case, the lack of hands and feet show he may be one of the most determined human beings on the planet. That seems unlikely to change in years ahead.