Inspiring pitcher is team’s ace despite competing with spina bifida

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

James Fuller is the ace starting pitcher of a strong Niles (Ill.) North staff. He's emerged as one of the rocks of the Niles North team, which is fitting for a senior.

Niles North pitcher James Fuller — Chicago Sun-Times
Niles North pitcher James Fuller — Chicago Sun-Times

Yet it's what Fuller conceals underneath his baseball uniform that makes his case so special: Fuller was born with -- and still suffers from -- spina bifida. As reported in an excellent feature from the Chicago Sun-Times, Fuller has to wear custom braces on both of his legs whenever he pitches, and has had to overcome a lifetime of physical struggles to reach his current healthy lifestyle.

To say that the physical challenges facing Fuller were daunting is an extreme understatement. The 18-year-old has had 10 surgeries over the course of his life. He has to live with leg braces every day, but -- thanks in large part to playing a variety of sports at a young age -- Fuller has never had to be fully confined to a wheelchair, as are many who suffer from spina bifida.

In fact, it's difficult to detect Fuller's limitations when he's on the diamond. The senior currently sports an impressive 3.06 ERA and has a shutout victory to his name. That ERA becomes even more impressive when one learns that Fuller had never been a starting pitcher before the 2012 campaign, always working out of relief in prior seasons, not to mention the fact that his lack of lower body strength forces Fuller to get more torque from his upper body and greatly limits his ability to field balls hit back to the mound.

James Fuller smiles in the dugout — Chicago Sun-Times
James Fuller smiles in the dugout — Chicago Sun-Times

To find the most stirring testaments to Fuller's adaptability to his condition, one need only ask those who have faced him, like the coach of the powerful Glenbrook (Ill.) North program, which eked out a 2-0 victory against Niles North in a game in which Fuller pitched seven sterling innings while taking a loss.

"I'm even more impressed," Glenbrook North coach Dom Savino told the Sun-Times. "He shut down our lineup and did an outstanding job of changing speeds, and that's why he got the best of our hitters. My first thought [on hearing of Fuller's spina bifida] was, 'What an unbelievable sense of personal courage.'

"We have a sign in our dugout, and the first word is 'perspective.' If you go out and strike out or walk somebody, you feel like you have it so rough. [Fuller] competes with such bravery. All our players could benefit from him."

A number of Niles North players and classmates have learned plenty from Fuller, who has also been a standout member of the school's golf team and competes on a wheelchair basketball squad.

"I've never had a huge problem with it," Fuller told the Sun-Times. "But I've come to realize that there are things I'm not going to do. I'm not going to run a marathon -- fine. But it's gotten easier over time. The reason I can play sports is luck, and it's gotten me to push my boundaries."

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