UI freshman who wrestled sightlessly now set on law career

University of Illinois freshman John J. Herzog wishes he could wrestle in college but jokes that his high school record wasn't good enough to earn a scholarship.

He did have double-digit wins as a senior. Not bad, especially for someone who suffers from congenital optic nerve hypoplasia.

The condition means his optic nerve, which carries visual messages from the retina to the brain, was not correctly formed. That makes him blind.

He can see some light, but not enough to provide any help.

"Everybody is frustrated when you're growing up. I deal with it the way everyone else deals with it. You work through the hard times and get through it," said Herzog, as his green eyes flutter after the reply. "I've always been this way."

Because he is visually impaired, Herzog is a man of habit. During his summer orientation, he mapped out routes to his classes and getting back home to Garner Residence Hall. He gets help from a Global Positioning System device, which offers back-up when programming his routes.

In addition, he relies on Juno, his 2-year-old multicolored German shepherd guide dog.

"He leads me around obstacles," Herzog said. "When coming up on a street, Juno will stop to indicate there's a curb. When I'm on the Quad, he will slow down or speed up in proportion to the students."

When it comes to learning, the university has set up another routine.

Herzog receives his books from a UI Web site and downloads the information into his Braille machine. It acts as a note taker with Braille and speech outputs, which lets him read books as well as receive e-mails.

"It allows me to read all the information in this machine," he said. "I bring all my books for all my classes in the (Braille machine) and carry it out with me wherever I go."

Other than a slew of October midterms, the fall semester has gone smoothly. He picked the UI over Northern Illinois University and College of DuPage because it was ranked among the top 50 U.S. universities, has one of the biggest libraries in the nation and was close enough to his parent's western Chicago suburb.

In addition, he was impressed with the number of student organizations – and soon, he could join the Garner Hall running club.

Herzog said he's an athlete who wants to stay in shape and avoid the "freshmen 15," the extra pounds students often acquire at the start of their college career.

That determination served him well when he joined the wrestling team at Downers Grove South High School after sampling the sport in his seventh- and eighth-grade gym classes.

Rick LeBlanc, his varsity wrestling coach, remembers the first encounter with Herzog.

"He came to me as a freshman and said he wanted to try it," LeBlanc said. "There's been kids who have been blind wrestlers, so even though we never had anybody, we decided to go ahead with it."

Because wrestling is a skill sport, standard practice included showing students certain moves and positions, then asking them to practice the moves with a partner.

"His lack of sight made for some obstacles," added the coach, who called Herzog one of his hardest-working athletes. "You had to physically put him in the position and have him do certain things differently than other kids who would pick it up from watching. He stuck with it, even though he wasn't always as successful as he would have liked to be. He never gave up or thought about quitting. He is a very determined and hardworking kid."

LeBlanc figured Herzog would compete for a year before succumbing to frustration. He was wrong.

"I'm a very competitive person," said Herzog, who wrestled at 189 pounds all four years. "After the first couple of months, I knew what to expect, and it started getting easier."

His father, John T. Herzog, prides himself on following his children's sport activities. To help his son become a better wrestler, he would peek in on practice and videotape the matches.

In his son's matches, his opponents had to remain in contact with him and couldn't sneak behind him.

"What we would do is play back the matches and try to re-create with his brother when he got in trouble, reversed or pinned," said his father.

When a Chicago specialist diagnosed the optic nerve condition – when John was 3 months old – the family was devastated.

"My wife and I felt like it was the end of the world," said his father. "It was poor us and poor John."

The couple did some research and joined a parent-infant program with other parents going through the same struggles.

"That was very helpful because first, we realized we were not alone, and second, we got advice," he said.

Then came schooling. Herzog said most things have been accessible since kindergarten, where he was taught to read Braille.

"There were some times when I was young when I was sad that I was blind," he said.

But he worked through it, attending regular classes with sighted children.

"I wasn't separated from the mainstream classes," he said. "If I was just exposed to blind people when I grew up, I would feel awkward and not comfortable being myself around sighted people. I wouldn't be the same person."

Herzog describes himself as a leader with a good sense of humor. Others agree, but add stubbornness to the mix.

"For a while, he was very conscious of not having any exceptions made for him because of his blindness. He tried to do everything himself. He was very independent," said his father. "But he realized that some concessions needed to be made."

That has included sports. Herzog can't play regular baseball, but that doesn't keep him off the field. He plays Beep Baseball, a game where some cork is drilled out of a 16-inch softball and replaced with a constant beeping device. Buzzers placed on the bases let runners know where to go. Herzog's father later became head coach of his Chicago Comets team after falling in love with the game as a fan.

But there was one concession Herzog wouldn't think of making.

During wrestling winter conditioning in high school, coaches took the athletes to the swimming pool as a change of pace workout. Many of them liked to jump off the diving board.

Not to be outdone, Herzog went off the high dive with his younger brother Adam talking him through it.

"That became the end of Christmas practice, watching John go off the high dive," LeBlanc said. "He always wanted to do what everyone else was doing."

"He has really been an inspiration not only to us but to his brother," added Herzog's father.

"Early on, I looked at life through different eyes with raising John. Things that we as sighted people take for granted. John judges people based on how they treat him and not how they may look. It's strictly based on how you are as a person."

Herzog said he plans to take that attitude and use it as a trial lawyer when he graduates from the UI in 2007.

You can reach Ernst Lamothe Jr. at (217) 351-5223 or via e-mail at elamothe@news-gazette.com.

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