Devon Ackerman's poor eyesight is a blessing and a curse.
The South Western High senior wears glasses while not wrestling but takes them off to compete. Fans, the scoreboard and the referee are blurry. His opponent is the only thing in focus.
Coaches Brad Zeigler and Neil Dutterer must scream what they want Ackerman to do and sometimes demonstrate by grabbing each other or a nearby wrestler. They have developed code words -- "Buckeye" means he can't afford being taken down -- to help communicate.
"He's pretty much blinded out there," Zeigler said. "It's got to be obvious."
His coaches tell him the score after every period, and Ackerman sometimes asks the referee for updates during the match. If the referee doesn't respond, he'll shout to his coaches.
The system has worked well enough for Ackerman to qualify for the District 3 Class AAA South Central Region tournament, held Friday and Saturday at Hersheypark Arena alongside the District 3 Class AA tournament. Ackerman is 26-6 this season and is ranked 11th at 285 pounds by PA Power Wrestling.
The top four wrestlers from each region advance to the state tournament. Ackerman, ranked third, has little margin for error if he hopes to advance.
With everything at stake, it's easy to wonder why he doesn't wear contacts or prescription goggles during matches. Zeigler -- who hated the feel of a mask when he wore one while wrestling with stitches in his lip -- wants his heavyweight to be comfortable.
Ackerman also tried contacts once, but one fell out during the match.
"It was really hard to see looking through one eye," he said. "I said forget that."
His poor eyesight has caused a few mishaps this season.
During a tournament early in the year, he couldn't see Zeigler signaling him to choose bottom at the start of the second period and instead deferred. His opponent chose bottom and scored first. When the match went to ultimate tiebreaker, his opponent -- having scored first -- got to choose bottom and won with an escape.
Ackerman's success comes after losing 20 pounds from last season, which gave him more speed and agility, but also by being more attentive in practice.
"While he paid attention last year, instead of just basically going through the motions in practice, he's been asking more questions," Zeigler said. "He's been an unbelievable role model for the young guys. I can always rely on him to get what I need done. He's a go-er in the room."
This season will be Ackerman's last as a wrestler because he plans to play just football in college. He is attempting to do so after being born with what he described as a mild case of spina bifida, a birth defect that involves incomplete development of the spinal cord.
Ackerman had surgery when he was one day old and had another the summer before his freshman year when pain developed during a growth spurt in eighth grade. He couldn't participate in sports until his sophomore year.
"If I take away anything from sports, it's that I came back and was able to participate," he said. "I'm proud and blessed to have been able to fight through it. It's very unique."
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