Nicholas Mangione eyed the pyramid formation of bowling pins at the end of the lane in front of him. Ball in hand, he took three quick steps toward the lane, drew his arm back then released. The ball rolled toward the pins straight and steady, hitting them just right of center and knocking down seven.
It wasn’t his best bowl of the night, but as he walked back to his seat he was greeted with a powerful high-five from one teammate and pats on the back from others, including those playing against him. A smile crept across his face.
Mangione, 20, is a member of the Challenger Division, a sporting league for children and young adults with disabilities. The league bowled its last game of the season at Smithtown Lanes on Wednesday night, but none of the players really seemed to care who was winning.
“This is the only time I get to hang out with all my friends,” said Mangione, of Smithtown, who as a child spent three months in a coma and was then temporarily paralyzed after doctors removed a tumor from his brain.
Teri Mangione, Nicholas’ mother, said his recovery process was long and took place in phases. First he was in a wheelchair, then he needed a walker before he could finally walk on his own again.
But Nicholas Mangione’s physical ability was permanently limited, she said, which was devastating for the entire family, who all loved baseball.
Nicholas Mangione had played ball before his tumor was diagnosed, and his older brother, Anthony, received a full scholarship to play in college. Teri Mangione’s husband, Frank, was president of the local Little League for 13 years.
“It was pretty rough,” Teri Mangione said. “We are a baseball family.”
She said when she set out to find activities her son could participate in despite his disability, there were none locally. So 10 years ago, she discovered that the Little League Baseball and Softball program also sponsored the Challenger Division in separate leagues around the country, and she started one in Smithtown.
The league meets weekly to play baseball in the spring, and she took an extra step with her league to include bowling in the winter.
Liz Deluca, of Smithtown, brings her son, Brian, who has a mild case of autism and other learning disabilities, to bowl with the Challenger Division each week. She said Brian, 19, loves to bowl, but the real draw of the league is to give him a chance to grow socially.
“He always has a lot of fun and that’s the main thing,” she said. “He’s able to socialize with other people like himself.”
Mangione said the participants range in age from 5 to 22, and include many different physical and mental disabilities. Parents and other volunteers are on hand at each of the games to help out.
The relationships that develop through the league are just as important as the athleticism, she said, and the league has grown to reflect that.
“It’s a mix of kids with all different afflictions,” Mangione said. “But it doesn’t seem to matter because they all blend together and become a family.”