Burke, who qualified for the Division I nationals last season, beat Sapolin 5-2 and went on to win the tournament. "His level of intensity is pretty amazing," said Burke. "I guess he wrestled a lot before he went blind. No?"
Burke pauses in disbelief when he learns that Sapolin didn't take up the sport until after he had lost his sight. "You're kidding," says Burke. "That's awesome."
Jon Shweky, a Violet co-captain and Sapolin's practice partner, says, "At first I didn't want to beat him, because he was blind. Now when we wrestle, he can tell me what move I was going to do next. It's really been a learning experience. He's taught me that wrestlers don't need to see what they're doing; they just feel it."
Says Mat McClenahan, the team's other co-captain, "I see things in a different light. Knowing Matt puts things in perspective. I hurt my knee and complained endlessly about it, but you never hear Matt say anything about being blind. It's not an issue."
At practice, Sapolin is Scarpone's "throwing dummy." Each new move is demonstrated on Sapolin. Thus, his teammates learn by watching, but Sapolin gets to feel every joint-wrenching crunch. "Yeah, it's good because I learn the moves first-hand," says Sapolin with a chuckle. "But Jason will demonstrate it a few times, and then we drill the move, so I wind up getting three times as many beatings as everyone else. Some dummy I am."
Whenever Sapolin is knotted in Scarpone's grip, Sapolin's Seeing Eye dog, Jay, watches protectively from the adjacent coaches' office, his eyes following the action on the mat. Jay, a golden retriever, can do nothing but sit idly and sigh in protest, because his leash has been securely pinned beneath one of the legs of the trainer's table. "We leave Jay in the office because he tends to attack the guy Matt's wrestling," says Scarpone, "and we'd rather not have someone bitten during practice."
When Sapolin isn't with a wrestling buddy or his girlfriend, Katy Fifield, or a fraternity brother, Jay leads him through the streets of NYU's Greenwich Village campus, dodging the harried pedestrians, errant taxis and random, hazardous construction sites. "Jay is Matthew's lifeline," says Sapolin's mother, Miriam. That's why it was so devastating in October when Jay got hit by a car. The veterinarians said Jay could never work again. Without Jay, Sapolin had to go back to using his cane.
"It was obvious that Matt wasn't comfortable with the cane," says Scarpone. "He would be walking around the Village waving it, not like a mild-mannered blind person, but like a wrestler with a cane, poking people and knocking things over." Luckily, Jay's dislocated hip healed, and he was back on the job six weeks after the accident.
Growing up in Islip, Sapolin was sent to school with all the other kids in the neighborhood. His mother and his father, Morton, owners of a dry cleaner, didn't believe in special schools or special treatment. "I come from a very independent family, and I didn't have time to coddle Matthew," says Miriam. "Plus I really don't believe in it.
"He once gave a speech in class when he was about seven, called 'I'm Not Handicapped, I Just Can't See.' That's just the way he's been treated. His friends see him the way I see him. I had to smile when one of his friends gave him a present this Christmas. It was a camera."