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Nick Germano, who is legally blind, ends an inspiring high school career as Newsday's Wrestler of the Year

Nick Germano with his coach, Ken Leverich.

Nick Germano with his coach, Ken Leverich. Credit: Pablo Garcia Corradi

Nick Germano was working on his double-play pivot, and as the throw from third whizzed toward him, the second baseman caught nothing but air. The baseball hit him square in the chest.

How could that happen? How could such a sure-handed defender completely miss a throw?

"We were working indoors and going over our double-play defense," said his father, Bill Germano. "Nick was a fantastic middle infielder and rarely missed a throw. I guessed it might be because the lighting wasn’t great. I got mad and yelled, ‘Do it again!’ "

So they worked the drill again. And Nick missed the throw again.

"I was confused and couldn’t understand why I missed a few throws," he said. "Something was definitely not right."

"Regrettably, I pulled him out of the drill," Bill Germano said. "I wasn’t thinking . . . or maybe I was in denial. I knew he had a vision issue and that it could be progressing right before my eyes. It was a simple infield drill and . . . "

Bill Germano said he’ll never forget that practice. That was 2015 and Nick was only 12 years old. The Smithtown athlete’s life was about to change.

He had been diagnosed with a rare inherited retinal condition known as Stargardt disease two years earlier, although Nick had not been told the extent of what could happen.

Stargardt is a juvenile form of macular degeneration that often is diagnosed between 8 and 12 years of age. The disease usually progresses rapidly to complete loss of central vision. The defective gene results in an inability of the eyes to properly process vitamin A, resulting in a buildup of the toxic byproducts of the vitamin and a destruction of the cells of the retina responsible for fine and central vision.

"There were signs that something was off when he was younger and slow to complete schoolwork," Bill Germano said. "He was misdiagnosed by a local optometrist, who’d recommended glasses."

Nick complained the glasses didn’t help and that he was still having difficulty reading in school.

"We took him to a retinal specialist and the diagnosis made my heart sink," said his mother, Lorrie Germano. "The doctor said there was still no cure, and that was life-changing. Nick’s diagnosis immediately became the focal point of our lives. The news was terrifying."

Bill Germano explained, "The majority of people diagnosed with Stargardt will progress to legal blindness. Nick’s visual acuity regressed to 20/400 and he was considered legally blind."

He was forced to give up baseball, his favorite sport. But that didn’t mean his athletic career was over.

Four years later and legally blind since he was 12, he finished his high school varsity wrestling career with a 107-19 record against opponents with the power of sight. And after going 8-0 as a senior, he has been named Newsday’s Wrestler of the Year.

But before all that happened, the backyard batting cage, no longer useful, was taken down. His composite bats were donated. The black Rawlings Gold Glove model with "Nick Germano’’ inscribed on the thumb is now a keepsake.

"It was devastating to know he would never play baseball again," Bill Germano said. "Nick loved baseball. He was a middle infielder, pitcher and leadoff hitter. But I noticed he was having difficulty playing baseball at 12 years old. It began with missing throws and then he was having difficulty tracking pitches up at bat. He couldn’t follow the path of the pitch. And his safety became a concern and we had to have that dreaded discussion with him."

Lorrie Germano said the family had no idea how quickly the condition would progress because the symptoms were mild. There was no way to prepare for the changes.

Nick stayed with the baseball team as a pinch runner and an assistant coach for the remainder of the season. With baseball no longer an option, he devoted more time to wrestling and made it a year-round sport.

"I didn’t want to stop playing baseball, but there wasn’t a choice," Nick said.

So he reinvented himself as a wrestler.

"I can’t imagine what we would have done if he didn’t have something to take the place of baseball," Lorrie Germano said. "He didn’t love wrestling at the time. It was something that he could work hard at, set goals for and occasionally experience a sense of accomplishment. It was a godsend."

Nick became a regular in the offseason youth wrestling circuit on Long Island. He joined the Smithtown Kid Wrestling Club, run by Ken Leverich, the varsity head coach at Smithtown West High School. Leverich would have a tremendous impact on Nick in the years to come. By the time he was in middle school, he’d shown enough promise to practice with the varsity.

"He’s a remarkable young man and exceptional in every way," said Leverich, the program’s head coach for the past 16 years. "He’s got excellent character, strong work ethic and a quiet confidence. He’s the poster boy for the theme of ‘what do you do when no one is looking?’ The wrestling allows Nick to just be Nick and be out there in a one-on-one situation. He’s taken his disability and tunneled the energy and desire for competition to becoming a better wrestler. It was emotional the last day in our home gym because he’s very special to me."

Germano also was motivated by an appearance by inspirational speaker Rohan Murphy, a county runner-up from East Islip who wrestled at Penn State. Murphy has gone through life without legs.

"He came to our middle school and I had the chance to wrestle him in front of everyone," Germano said. "He was amazing. And he inspired me to realize I can do anything when I put my mind and body to it."

Germano wasted little time making a name for himself. He won his first league title as a freshman and didn’t give up a single point in the tournament or in any of the league dual meets. His goal was to repeat that for four years and become the first four-time league champion in Smithtown West history.

He won his second and third league titles without giving up a point. Only the shortened season of COVID derailed his bid for a fourth title and the school record.

"I was looking forward to this year and winning that fourth league title," he said. "I trained every day for that chance."

Germano felt his senior year finally would bring a Suffolk title shot. He placed sixth as a sophomore but missed the championship podium twice. He lost seven times in the county tournament, five of those losses coming against eventual Suffolk champions.

That opportunity was squashed when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Suffolk and state championships and threatened to eliminate the entire wrestling season.

"I kept training and keeping the faith," Germano said. "I wanted to be ready."

His optimism was rewarded.

"I never had the heart to tell him the season was postponed indefinitely," Bill Germano said. "I held out hope that something positive would happen. He was at 99 wins and excited to get win number 100. He’d had enough adversity in his young life. How much could this guy go through?"

An abbreviated wrestling season commenced on Feb. 6 and Germano earned his 100th win in his first match of 2021.

"Nick is the perfect example of how sports in general are the perfect metaphor for life," Bill Germano said. "He’s been a role model for his teammates and coaches in that they see what he deals with on a daily basis. His wrestling style is exactly how he approaches life: nothing fancy and with no fanfare. Just quiet toughness and a never-quit attitude. You would never know everything is a struggle for him — he just gets through it."

And if anyone is wondering . . . no, no one takes it easy on him. Germano is a very physical wrestler and much stronger than his opponents. When he grabs them, they know it.

Some of the competitive challenges for Germano came in a sport in which seconds can define your fate. He needed to know the score and how much time was left, but he could never see the scoreboard or the clock. He also needed to listen to his coaches’ shouts for direction.

His teammates also were a key to his success. He couldn’t see the scale to control his weight, so they told him what it was. He can’t drive, so they drove him everywhere, including home from practice late at night.

"It’s called love and caring," Leverich said. "When Nick went out for food, he couldn’t read the menu board, so his friends did it for him. It takes a village."

While everyone rallied around Germano, he put up some incredible career numbers. He had a 25-4 record as a freshman at 112 pounds. As a sophomore, he went 37-7 at 120. He was 37-8 at 126 in his junior season, earning team MVP honors. He wrestled at 138 as a senior.

"We had a strategy in his matches where we wanted no separation from an opponent, always keeping in touch, in a very high-pressure style of wrestling," Leverich said. "We didn’t want a guy to create space against Nick."

Said Germano, "I wrestle a very defensive style where I keep my opponent close and score early on him. I don’t like to give up any points. It’s a high-pressure style."

He also said he doesn’t allow his opponents to create space because he wants them right in front of him. Said Germano, "If they’re too far away, they can’t score anyway. But I like them right in front of me."

Germano’s academics also improved through the years.

"He carried the same work ethic and dedication that he put forth in wrestling into the classroom," Bill Germano said. "Nick gets a lot of accommodations in school. He has an individual education plan [IEP] that is constantly updated, he uses various types of adaptive technologies, and he meets several times per week with the district’s support person for the visually impaired. With her he learns Braille, keyboarding and tries out different types of magnification devices and text-to-speech resources. The district paid for and supplied him with numerous devices including two large, closed-circuit devices, one for use at home and one for use in school. He has made honor roll a few times."

Germano has tried to handle every misfortune that has come his way with a quiet perseverance and an absence of self-pity.

The next life-changing decision comes in the college selection process. He wants to attend a smaller school where he can more easily navigate the campus and get the accommodations he’ll need to succeed.

"Although the colleges that he planned on applying to didn’t require an SAT score, Nick took that test twice," Lorrie Germano said. "He had to take it by himself, with an aide/proctor, over a two-day period, for close to five hours each day. He had the print enlarged to 32-point font, had people read passages and questions to him and fill in the answer key, and used various forms of magnification, depending on which part of the exam he was taking."

Now it’s a matter of finding the right college for him. "I want to study history and become a teacher and a wrestling coach," Germano said. "And I do want to wrestle in college. I can do it."

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