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Para-athlete leads by example, showing kids with disabilities what’s possible

The whole reason I really like to play sports now is to be an example to other kids, to say it’s possible to excel in sports,” says McMurry sprinter Tanner Wright, also a kicker for McMurry football.

Tanner Wright could never hide from his arthrogryposis. The congenital condition, which causes shrinkage and fusion of his joints, affects his left shoulder, the left side of his rib cage and collar bone. His underdeveloped left arm, missing the triceps and biceps muscles, along with the front deltoid and part of a pectoral, looks like a stiffened, pre-adolescent limb attached to the muscular, athletic torso of a young man.

Such a visible disability made others worry he could be injured easily. He had no choice but to push back. So when Wright started playing tackle football at age 5, he learned to adapt his tackling technique to be effective with one arm. He played linebacker, and even some spots on the line — all physically demanding positions. Coaches who first noticed his arm quickly took notice of his effort. Minds changed.

That’s what Wright, now a kicker on McMurry’s football team and a sprinter on the track team, wants  patients at Dallas’ Scottish Rite Hospital to see. A Scottish Rite patient as a child, Wright now works with kids throughout the year as they learn to live with their upper-limb disabilities. Many are the age Wright was when he started playing football — a time when their disability can feel isolating and limiting.  Wright teaches them skills they can perform with one hand, like tying their shoes. He talks to their parents about what he’s accomplished.

But perhaps most important, he provides an example of what’s possible. The kids and parents see a 20-year-old who hit eight of 10 field goals and a school-record 35 consecutive point-after attempts as a freshman at McMurry. They see a two-sport star who competed in his first World Para Athletics  Championships in London last summer, finishing fourth in the 100 and 200 meters. They see a confident leader who sets the standard for work ethic on both the football and track teams at McMurry.

And Wright? He sees his own inspiration in the kids — one that leads him to study kinesiology and biology in hopes of one day pursuing a master’s in prosthetics or orthotics so he can make devices that help the kids adapt.

“The whole reason I really like to play sports now is to be an example to other kids, to say it’s possible to excel in sports,” he says. “It turned from a selfish thing that I really liked to do into something that’s bigger than me.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.