SOMERS, N.Y. - John Esposito will finish out his senior year at Somers High School on top.
“I can’t believe it’s been four years with him,” said Mike Sokolofsky, a physical education teacher at the high school and the boys spring track and assistant football coach. “He’s just such a wonderful person and inspires all of us that have worked with him—the football coaches, track coaches, basketball coaches, and the kids, too. He’s such a motivation for them. It’s just been an awesome experience watching him and seeing the things he can accomplish even with his disabilities.”
John, 17, has an extreme visual impairment. At 4 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and his vision problems began showing in third grade.
First went his peripheral vision, then, slowly, most of his eyesight.
According to his dad, Joe Esposito, the doctors believe the optic nerve fibers, which transmit visual information from the retina to the brain, are being damaged.
John is the youngest of three brothers: there’s Michael, the middle son, and Joe, the oldest brother, who also has Type 1 diabetes and extreme visual impairment.
“Obviously it stung for a little while, but then I realized other people could have worse problems and stuff, so I’m fortunate for who I am and what I have,” John said of learning he was going blind.
It’s this positive attitude that led John to track and field, and later to become the team manager for basketball and football.
“In eighth grade is when you have to start trying out for the basketball team, and I didn’t make it, so I wasn’t doing any sports.
Because of that, I wanted to keep active, so I thought about trying to do track and shot put and I liked it,” John said.
He was in the weight room one day doing conditioning when football coach Tony DeMatteo spotted him.
“Maybe three years ago I was in the weight room with the football players working out and I saw this kid working out and he’s bumping into things, and I say, ‘Who is that kid? What’s his problem?’ and they said, ‘Coach, he’s blind,’ ” DeMatteo said. “I just kind of took to him. I started talking to him about working out and life lessons. He used to sit on the bike next to me in the weight room and I talked to him about being the manager for the football team.”
John’s life is sports. His bedroom is filled with signed baseballs. He’s also a WWE fanatic and has the proof: Around his room are photos of John and WWE superstar John Cena through the years.
So being involved in any way he could was a boost for John and, in turn, John’s been a boost for the teams.
He scored the first basket of the game against Walter Panas during senior night in February, prompting the crowd to get on its feet, shouting his name, and was part of the 2016 varsity football team that earned the first state championship win in Tuskers history.
DeMatteo said it’s John’s spirit and optimism that helped the football team catch a winning streak leading up to the championship.
“We had, in that championship season, we had a very bad loss, our only loss, and we were coming back to play in the homecoming game (after the loss) against John Jay, who was undefeated at the time, and I introduced him at the pep rally and said, ‘I want this kid to go home and not be able to sleep because he’s so excited about how we beat John Jay.’ ”
Following the loss to Yorktown, Somers crushed John Jay, 49-17, and won every game after straight to the championships in Syracuse, where John was on the field during the coin toss.
“Every game the national anthem plays, he stands by my side with my arm around him,” DeMatteo said. “He helps me when things go wrong. I get upset, but you look at what this kid’s going through, his mindset and demeanor in what he’s dealing with, and he’s got a smile on his face.”
It helps, too, that dad Joe Esposito doesn’t limit John in any way.
Aside from their home being very, very neat—the family learned the hard way that any coffee cups or chairs out of place could lead to disaster for John—he’s treated as a regular teenager.
“I was never worried about [him doing sports],” Joe Esposito said. “I always liked the idea of him doing it and being active and staying interested. The one thing that did always concern me is his getting down because of his disability, so you try to keep every day positive and keep it interesting.”
Basketball coach Chris DiCintio said John’s presence made the whole team work harder. His teammates see John’s passion for sports and know that he can’t always join them on the field, so they play harder for him, DiCinto said.
“They’re able to do something he’s not able to and they want to help him be part of something special,” DiCintio said. “It’s not because they feel bad; it’s because they realize how lucky and fortunate they are. “The kids have grown up with him as just another classmate, but one that’s been hit with a tough road and it allows them to appreciate what they have,” DiCintio said.
And John’s more than happy to play that role.
Like a typical 17-year-old, John has the easy confidence you’d expect from any teenager about to graduate from high school. When asked what it feels like to be a role model, he flashes a wide grin and says he likes it.
Assistant football coach Anthony DeMatteo, Tony DeMatteo’s son, was also John’s middle school physical education teacher.
He said his can-do attitude is “something built within” boosted “by his group of friends who have really done a great job taking care of him.”
For the coaches, John’s influence goes beyond winning games and track meets. He’s a shining example of what the coaches try to teach the student-athletes about overcoming adversity.
“He’s a presence,” Anthony DeMatteo said.
John said his favorite memory of high school is being part of the team that won the 2016 football championship, but his being part of that team got it to that moment.
“When I’m having a bad day, I see him in the hallway and I say to myself, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s an uplift for me,” Tony DeMatteo said. “I love him and I’ll never forget him.”