William Floyd senior Wesley Sullivan turns adversity into advantage

Wesley Sullivan, a senior at William Floyd High Wesley Sullivan, a senior at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach, plays on the lacrosse team -- and also plays piano and bass guitar -- despite having Erb’s Palsy, a condition that has rendered his left arm virtually useless. He's seen at the school on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Nothing can stop Wesley Sullivan from being a teenage version of a Renaissance Man.

He thinks positive when you think negative.

He's up when you're down.

He can charm you with his upbeat personality and the force of his will.

"I'm the type of person to try and prove someone wrong," said Sullivan, 18, who has lived his life doing just that, as the list of naysayers who frequently have been skeptical of his athletic and musical goals is as long as his good right arm.

Sullivan -- a one-armed guitar-, piano- and lacrosse-playing senior at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach -- was born with Erb's Palsy, a condition often caused by injury during birth to the nerves surrounding the shoulder that results in weakness or paralysis of the arm. The severity of the impairment varies. In Sullivan's case, his shrunken left arm and hand hang weak and virtually useless from his rugged frame. But in his world, it's a nonissue.

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Sullivan, who lives in Mastic Beach, just completed his only varsity lacrosse season at William Floyd. He was a starter at defensive midfield and led the Colonials in ground balls. The team missed the Suffolk County playoffs by a single game.

Sullivan has been recruited to play next year at Briarcliffe College in Bethpage, an outcome that was nearly ruined by superstorm Sandy in 2012.

 

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'I'm definitely stronger'

Sullivan was declared academically ineligible to play as a junior for failing a class.

"It's not that he was a poor student," said his coach, Desmond Megna. "He's a good student. He failed because of attendance. He was kind of displaced after the family lost their house in Sandy. It was a disaster. Lacrosse was pretty important to him and he couldn't play. That, on top of losing your house and not knowing where you're going to live from day to day, was a lot to handle for a kid. It was a tough time. He thought about quitting the sport. He talked about transferring."

Instead, Sullivan did what he always does: He turned inward -- to his Pentecostal faith and his family -- and looked outward -- with determination.

"I'm definitely stronger for what happened with Sandy," he said before a late-season game. (The family has returned to a different home in Mastic Beach.) "I used to get bent out of shape; call the coach, ready to cry. But I've learned to look at things in a positive way. If I don't, I'm going to be miserable. Whether it's my house, a game that we lose, my arm. If I don't think positive, I'll be negative, and that won't improve anything. Mentally, I've had to get over things. OK, I've got one arm: Deal with it."

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On the lacrosse field, Sullivan has dealt with his disability by overcompensating.

"I made sure I got faster and that my right arm was stronger so I could push people away," he said. "When I get hit on the left arm, it hurts a little more because it's smaller and there's no muscle there. So I always lead with my right side. My left hand is on the bottom of the stick, and if it gets checked off, I'll use the elbow."

That resourcefulness has allowed him to play so well that often opponents and referees don't realize Sullivan is essentially a one-armed athlete. The level playing field applies at home, too.

"There is no pampering of Wesley," said his mother, Michelline. "None of us ever did it and we won't start. That's the way it's been for him since he was a baby. I have three other children. He's the third-youngest and he used to try to play that card. I'd tell him to pick up his toys. He'd say, 'Oh, I've got one arm.' I'd say, 'Take two trips.' He's mentally tough because I'm mentally tough. I told him, 'If you can handle me, you can handle the world.' "

 

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Music and lacrosse

Wesley's world includes his considerable musical talents. He plays piano and bass guitar, which he can do by using a strap and playing a "righty guitar upside down, like Jimi Hendrix, with the [larger] E-string on top.

"People say I'm a jack-of-all trades," he said. "I don't read music. I play by ear."

He and some friends formed an indie-alternative group called Vanilla Coast that has played at the Manhattan nightclub Webster Hall and wants to perform next year at the popular South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

Music and lacrosse will follow Sullivan to Briarcliffe, where he is determined to pursue both. "One of my life's goals is to show kids with disabilities like me that they can do anything they want to," he said. "Any sport, any feat."

That helps explain the decision Sullivan made a couple of years ago when doctors told him about an intense surgery involving the spine that could possibly give him use of his left arm. He declined the offer.

"If I didn't have my condition, I wouldn't have the drive to do what I do," Sullivan said. "I wouldn't be Wesley if I didn't have only one arm."

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