Randy Pierce is not able to see the New England Patriots play right in front of him, even though he has a front row seat and season tickets.
Pierce is totally blind, the result of a debilitating neurological disease. Yet, ironically, he may have a better idea of what is happening on the field than anyone else around him, despite the fact that he can't see the field just feet away from him.
Being blind doesn't stop Pierce from rabidly following his Patriots and it won't stop him this Monday as he attempts to become the first totally blind person to run the Boston Marathon.
Blind for nearly 27 years, Pierce has one of the best views at Gillette Stadium, something that would seem to be wasted on someone who has zero vision in either of his eyes. But Pierce's senses are honed so tightly onto the team he loves that he knows and understands all the nuances of the game and his Patriots. With an ear bud in one ear giving him the home team's radio broadcast and a buddy to one side chiming in with details (his dog guide Autumn sits on the other side in the aisle, diligently watching the game), Pierce knows exactly what is going on.
That was the case in the playoffs this past year against the Baltimore Ravens when the Patriots lined up running back Shane Vereen as an ineligible receiver, a move that caused Ravens coach John Harbaugh to argue so much he got a personal foul penalty. The NFL changed the rules on that type of formation this offseason. During the game, Pierce was the one explaining to everyone around him the strategy in play.
He has been a season-ticket holder since shortly after he graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1988, which was about the time that he began to lose his vision. Within the next year, he suddenly lost all of the sight in his right eye and about 50 percent in his left eye, leaving him with tunnel vision. Pierce had some vision but he was declared legally blind.
There was no immediate diagnosis; the doctors were befuddled.
Eventually after a myriad of tests he would be told that he had a mitochondrial disease that was first beginning to affect his eyesight and might in fact create other issues throughout his body. He went through a time of adjustment, he says, but he credits football and in particular his Patriots for helping him along.
Pierce calls them “my Patriots” - a term that might sound pretentious coming off the lips of an average fan. But in many ways, they are his team. He's the unofficial mayor of the Patriots Way, a constant presence at team functions and a friend to players and management. And he's always in the front row cheering the action on just feet away from him, action he hasn't actually seen for 15 years.
After his original diagnosis in 1989, over the next 11 years Pierce went through seven episodes that each took a little more of that narrow vision left in his left eye. Eventual by the seventh episode he was totally blind.
“It was the last of it. I lost all of the light perception and every bit of usable vision from then when I was legally blind. That's a rarity, I ask now, 'Am I illegally blind?' I sort of put a little bit of humor into it. It was striking,” Pierce told Yahoo Sports.
“It's funny, the last football play I ever saw in my life it's something that will stick. I wish I could tell you it was a pro-Patriot moment as a fan. [In 2000] the [New York] Jets and the Patriots played Monday night football that week. I was in Oregon to get trained for my dog guide. We had a lead and Wayne Chrebet of the Jets makes this diving catch, a phenomenal catch. He rotates his body and clips the pylon and scores the touchdown to put them ahead. That was the last play I ever saw in my life.
“At least it was a phenomenal play.”
If the blindness wasn't tough enough to deal with, two years after becoming totally blind he suffered a concussion - “as a blind guy it's pretty easy to hit my head” - and he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. He struggled to walk and the doctors learned that the mitochondrial disease was now not just affecting his eyes but also his nervous system. An MRI revealed that his balance center was affected.
In 2003 he was put into a wheelchair because when he stood up he would keel over. Then in 2013, he lost the use of 50 percent of the nerves in his peripheral nervous system, meaning that he has what is essentially a short-circuit in his hands and feet. More fallout from this mitochondrial disease.
“We have no idea what nervous system it can or will strike although I imagine we believe the odds are high that it will again since it has been an ongoing challenge for me over the years so we have to be on the watch for it,” Pierce said. “But not the kind of watch that it is dismal, woe is me. Just to be aware and know what could happen.”
The one constant through all of this for Pierce has been his Patriots. He loves Sunday with the team, sitting on the edge of his front row seat and desperately waiting for the next big play. Even as a blind man, he always had a clear vision for how he wanted to support his team. The team was always in focus in his heart even if no longer in his line of vision.
Ask him about a play from this year and Pierce can describe it with ease as if he saw it with his own eyes.
In 1996 Pierce programmed a website for the team, using a screen reader to create the template. He wrote game previews and reviews back in the early days of the internet, providing insight and details while beginning to register some impressive hit numbers for the site. "Zip's Patriot Page" – "Zip" is Pierce's nickname - began to register a couple thousand hits a day as his team went through the playoffs and finally into a Super Bowl showdown with the Green Bay Packers. The Patriots would lose the game but Pierce emerged as a big winner with a following that was growing by the day to read his Patriots content.
It was a large following that also proved to be loyal.
In 2001, the web community for his site very quietly organized a push to have Pierce be named the Joseph R. Mastrangelo Memorial Trophy recipient as the organization's fan of the year. To this day, it remains the largest ever number of write-ins received by the Patriots nominating any one fan.
He had no idea that the fans were rallying to support but the Patriots were impressed.
“To be honest, I didn't even know they had a fan award of the team. I got a phone call telling me that I was the fan of the year and it was just the start that year of our push to get into the playoffs,” Pierce said.
“Obviously as that advanced, that's where the Visa Hall of Fans at the Hall of Fame began. They bring me to the Super Bowl with the team as the ultimate fan.”
And from there, a friendship with former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi was growing and developing. Pierce remains a constant around the team's facility, invited to nearly all events. He even met President George W. Bush in 2002 along with the rest of the team.
He's no longer in a wheelchair and he's back to being active. He was always “a reasonable athlete” in his own words and he didn't want being blind to hold him back.
“The only thing that limits me is my willingness to believe and my willingness to work hard. And that was true even before I went blind. Obviously we all have some physical limitations,” Pierce said.
“Once I started putting myself into it – I love hardworking overachievers – why am I not going to be one? So I started finding out what can I do? What can't I do? In the instance of the wheelchair, I lost the ability to walk. What a gift it is for all of us, any of us to walk. And you never appreciate something until you lose it.”
After six surgeries he was able to, as he puts it, “earn his way out of the chair.” He began hiking with his dog guide Quinn and gradually, the walks became longer. Then faster. Then he slowly and cautiously started running with Quinn.
Pretty soon, he was passing joggers on the path. And 33 competitive races later, Pierce started a program to help others who are visually challenged to also be able to run. He also completed a "Tough Mudder" recently, showcasing his athleticism as well as his sheer guts.
Pierce is also one of the "Heroes of Summer" an effort created by Oberto Beef Jerky. He is one of four individuals who Oberto picked who best personifies the “you get out what you put in” refrain, allowing him to showcase his inspirational story.
And on Monday, he will set out to be the first totally blind person to run and finish the Boston Marathon. Quinn, the dog guide who who led him into running, is no longer with him, the victim of cancer last January. Now with Autumn, he will run this race in Quinn's honor.
This year he will be running the marathon to support 2020 Vision Quest, a charity to support the blind. He is the current president on the board of directors.
This will be his fourth marathon, all run in the past year. Making it even more remarkable is that he never ran a marathon before, not even when he had full sight.
He hopes to run at a pace of 8:45 per mile, something he says would be his “comfortable pace.”
Fitting that the marathon is run every year on Patriots' Day in Boston, because Pierce can't wait to be back at Gillette Stadium this fall, cheering on his defending Super Bowl champions.
He will be there, he promises, front and center in his Patriots jersey, just feet from the field. Autumn will be on one side and he'll be surrounded by friends. He chuckles when asked about his front row seats.
Even he sees the irony in him having such a great seat location.
“I got asked that a lot. Down in front, 'Why does the blind guy have front row seats?' Football is fantastically suited for being blind more so that other sports. Because you have these breaks in action, the personnel grouping – the things you learn – that give you insight into what is coming. Then the formation gives you some insight,” Pierce said. “Then you get four seconds of burst action that is very easy to get on the radio.
“And I'm using my understanding of the team and the players to put it all together as we're going along. And it's ironic because I'm getting multiple bits of information from radio, fans around me. And I've got people asking me all the time 'Randy, what just happened out there?' They're asking the blind guy what just happened.”
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Kristian R. Dyer writes for Metro New York and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KristianRDyer