NFL scouts show interest in player born without left hand

NFL scouts show interest in player born without left hand
In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2011, University at Albany defensive lineman Eddie Delaney works out during NCAA college football practice in Albany, N.Y. Delaney was born without a left hand. He also wears an insulin pump to control the Type 1 diabetes, but has twice made second-team, all-league in the Northeast Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — As an eager freshman, Eddie Delaney and his father walked into his university's football office five years ago and asked for a shot at the team.

Sounds like an average enough story, except for the fact that Delaney was born without a left hand.

Admittedly, Albany coach Bob Ford didn't know much about him, and obviously had some reservations.

"We were concerned about his hand," Ford said. "I guess probably 70 percent of the coaches in the nation might have said, 'No, you can't do it.' "

But with more than four decades of experience, Ford knew better and gave Delaney that chance. There was no scholarship money for the aspiring defensive end, but he made the scout team as a walk-on and practiced against a first-string offensive line that would help the Great Danes go undefeated in conference play.

Little did they all know, that was just the beginning of a standout career.

"He was up against a 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive tackle, and Eddie never backed down once," said Ford, whose 250 career victories at Albany rank second only to Penn State's Joe Paterno among active coaches in college football's top two divisions. "He went hard for 11 weeks. Motor never stopped. He got better in that process."

Since then, Delaney has twice made second-team, all-league in the Northeast Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision. And now, after growing nearly half a foot and gaining 50 pounds of muscle from tireless work in the weight room, Delaney is a bona fide star for the Great Danes.

Heck, even some NFL scouts have asked about the muscular, 6-foot-6, 250-pound fifth-year senior, who was elected a team captain — just as he was at Sachem East High — and was the top returning tackler on the defensive line.

"Ed plays with a reckless abandon that I've never seen by anybody around here before," said defensive line coach Bill Banagan, who played for the Great Danes in the 1980s. "He flies to the ball every chance he gets. He's like a kamikaze pilot out there running around. He's never out of the play. You have to know where he is at all times because he's going to run plays down from behind.

"I can remember when he walked through the door, 200 pounds with long, blond, shaggy hair. If you told me at that point that I'd be talking to NFL scouts about him, I would have said, 'You're crazy.'"

It borders on the unfathomable when you consider "his hand." He also wears an insulin pump to control the Type 1 diabetes that too often saps his body of energy, something his coach didn't find out about right away.

"Let us hit you with the nub first. Then we'll ease into the diabetic situation," Ford said, flashing a wry smile. "His freshman year, his blood sugar was off the wall and over to the sideline he would come. And it would take probably 15 minutes to get him back to where he could go back in the ballgame. I told one of our team physicians, 'This is OK while the kid is a scout team player, but if he ever rises to a level above this, we can't have a kid coming out for 15 minutes.'"

Delaney, who has overcome that, too, shrugs at the mention of it all.

"I'd rather be acknowledged for my football performance rather than being able to do something (with a handicap)," said Delaney, who carefully wraps his insulin pump at his waist when dressing for practice.

For someone faced with such adversity, Delaney has lived about as normal a life as one could imagine. Born and raised on Long Island, he learned to ride a bicycle at the same time as his friends, and excelled in football, baseball and lacrosse.

"I just loved sports, so he played everything," said Delaney's father, Ed, a vice president of operations for the YES Network. "He was catching footballs and hitting baseballs at the age of 3. When he was playing tee ball, the coaches used to make the outfielders move back, and he could switch hit. He was an incredible athlete."

The two or three insulin shots he had to give himself were the only difference in Delaney's daily routine as a kid.

"He was diagnosed with diabetes in first grade, so the combination of the two can be a huge thing to deal with," said Delaney's mom, Suzanne, a special education teacher. "But we really tried never to hold him back from anything. Really, we just had our fingers crossed and hoped for the best. As it turned out, it was a good thing. All the milestones were pretty much the same as the other kids."

"That was a difficult thing to overcome at that age," added Delaney, who only wears long sleeves when the weather dictates. "But there wasn't a lot of time to feel sorry for myself. I had a lot of other things going on."

In high school, Delaney was prom king and served as vice president of student council, winning the election with the campaign slogan: "Vote for the man with one hand and a plan."

Amazingly, taunting was never much of a problem. Maybe that infectious smile had something to do with that.

"He came home from kindergarten once and we were speaking about children who could be mean," Suzanne said. "He said, 'Sometimes kids make fun of me.' Right away, my heart just sank to my stomach and I said, 'What do kids say?' And he goes, 'Well, sometimes they call me Eddie spaghetti.' We really never had a problem at all with bullying."

"There were times when kids taunted me, but I would excel in athletics, speak normally, socialize normally," said Delaney, who hasn't worn a prosthetic device since grade school. "I had a good attitude, always carried myself well. I think that's why I've always had a lot of friends."

Delaney has morphed into a star in part because he has treated the weight room like a second home.

"You look at him walk around in there, there's guys in there (from other sports teams) who don't even notice that he doesn't have a hand," strength and conditioning coach Conor Hughes said. "He can do 75 percent of what everybody else does, and for that other 25 percent, he makes up in doing extra stuff. It's really amazing to watch."

So, too, is seeing Delaney bench press more than 300 pounds while grasping the barbell with his right hand and letting the other side balance on the small stub at the end of his left arm — it measures maybe 2 inches at best.

It's not without peril. One time the barbell slipped off the nub and he went into survival mode, sliding his body off the bench as the weights caromed off one side of his face.

"I'd have to say ignorance is bliss," Suzanne said. "I trusted him and what he felt he could do. It is a little nerve wracking, but you just kind of push them and let them do their thing and hope for the best. We have faith, but he does like to push the envelope — always in a positive way."

Even when poking fun at himself.

"Freshman year he was Captain Hook for Halloween and two years ago he was a shark attack victim," said teammate Zach Gallo, his roommate. "He painted blood all over it. We're trying to figure out something for this year."

"One of the great things is to watch us kick extra points at the end of practice," Ford added. "He just waves that nub up in the air. The kids go berserk."

Actions like that have created a strong bond with his teammates.

"When I first came here, maybe there was a little shock," senior defensive end Marc Wargo said. "But ever since the first week, if you didn't look down and look at his hand, you'd never think he had one hand. Disability is the wrong term.

"If anything, he uses it to his advantage. He doesn't care. He's comfortable, and he brings the best out of everybody."

Even little Johnny Ryan, whose photo is taped to Delaney's locker. Johnny has the same disability, too, and No. 96 in the purple and gold is a hero.

That might be Delaney's greatest gift.

"When I was a freshman, I got rookie of the week when we played Sacred Heart. I mentioned to coach how in every article it always said despite having one hand," said Delaney, who counts former major league pitcher Jim Abbott, also born without one hand, as a hero. "I'm like, I appreciate that I've overcome things, but I'm the same football player as everyone else. I was the player of the week that week because I was the best rookie.

"Coach Ford came up to me the next day and said, 'It's pretty amazing. You have to realize there are children and people out there who are inspired by you.' That was probably the first time where I felt that what I do, what I love to do, affects other people."

If football ends after this year, Delaney says he'd like to hook up with an engineer and help develop products for people with disabilities who want to lift weights.

A big photo of Delaney in uniform now covers half the door to Ford's office. And doesn't that speak volumes?

"What's the chances," Ford asked. "It makes you cheer for the underdog."

It also says a lot about the human spirit.

"You can do anything you want," Suzanne said, "as long as you put your mind to it."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.