CONCORD — Nico Calabria detached his leg, gave up his prosthetic limb, because of its limitations. Not only did it hinder his game, he said it held back others from understanding why a kid his age, who was fit, vivacious, and seemingly able afoot, couldn’t dash around a soccer field like the rest of the bunch, trailed behind the play, struggled to keep pace.
Just entering grammar school at the time, Calabria already had figured out that appearance can be but an illusion and limitations too often for those small of thought. He was born with only one leg and was never trying to hide that fact. So, he thought, why try to appear to be like everyone else? Most of all, why not let everyone know what was slowing him down on the field, while at the same time be able to take his game as far as it could go?
“The day I changed to crutches as a little kid, I started to fly,’’ recalled the 17-year-old Calabria, who recently captured Internet attention because of the acrobatic goal he scored, rising high on his crutches, for Concord-Carlisle High School’s vaunted varsity soccer team (6-0 this season). “I hated the prosthetic. It was awkward. It made me look normal, like a person with two legs. But I wasn’t normal. It was just better for me to be happy and in a place where I could do what I wanted in life, and from there, you know . . . find a way to fit in, make a spot for myself, just with crutches.’’
Calabria’s goal, which prompted more than a million Internet clicks and views via a video that went viral on YouTube last week, came Sept. 19 against Newton South, one of Concord-Carlisle’s rivals in the Dual County League. Stationed in front of the net as fellow forward Wyatt Powell centered a corner kick, Calabria first shifted slightly on his carbon fiber crutches as the ball sailed over the head of teammate Will Young, then used his leg, arm, and upper-body strength to swing the leg high, twist and angle his hips and torso, and nail the ball into the net with his left foot at near-shoulder height. The play was swift, strong, dramatic, sensational.
“What’s really remarkable about it, from a technical standpoint,’’ explained Concord-Carlisle coach Ray Pavlik, “is the combination of core strength and athleticism involved. When he strikes that ball, his foot is nearly 6 feet in the air. I don’t care who you are, that’s a goal you remember the rest of your life.’’
Ecstatic after the goal, his first for the varsity team after playing freshman and JV soccer his first three years of high school, Calabria made a fast track on crutches toward midfield to rejoice with teammate Tom Kearns. That’s where the 13-second YouTube clip ends, the two boys about to rejoice on a sun-dappled afternoon in Newton.
“I was going for the chest bump,’’ said Calabria. “I might have knocked him over if he hadn’t gotten out of the way.’’
Pavlik put the video clip on YouTube some 30 hours later, with Calabria authoring its headline/title, “One-legged Soccer Player Scores Amazing Goal!’’ Prior to uploading, Pavlik showed it to a few friends, including assistant coach Theo Terris, and then shipped it up to the cloud, never expecting the torrent of publicity that soon rained down.
By morning, some of the Boston television stations were airing it in news packages, prompting Terris’s girlfriend, Shelly Alchanati, to phone friends and family in London and Greece to encourage them to watch it on the Internet.But in two countries where futbol rules the sports agenda, Alchanati found she was a few strides behind the play.
“Everyone she called, in London and Greece, said they’d already seen it,’’ said Terris. “They’re ahead of us in time zone, obviously, but this was overnight, and it was already old news for them when she called only 10-12 hours after it was posted. We were like, ‘Huh?, no way . . . this can’t be the same video!’ ’’
“I’m shocked by what’s happened — it made it to ESPN top 10, in fact it made it to No. 1,’’ added Calabria. “I didn’t even think it would end up on YouTube, but then all this . . . I’m just blown away by it. I wasn’t even sure I’d make the varsity this year, so first goal, and then all of this is kind of amazing.’’
Calabria, though yet to decide where he’ll go to college next September (Northeastern is a contender), is accustomed to media attention. At 13, he scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, a climb he took as part of family tradition — each of Jeanine and Carl Calabria’s three children required to make a rite-of-passage adventure prior to high school. Nico also turned the climb into a fund-raising tool, collecting donations to provide wheelchairs for children in impoverished African nations.
The effort garnered some $150,000, said Calabria, and it also landed him on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where he talked with polish and poise that might challenge a college grad.
CBS came to Concord-Carlisle at the start of this week and interviewed Calabria and his parents about the goal, he said, for a piece that will air Monday night on the “CBS Evening News,’’ which can be seen locally on Channel 4. The television crew told him during the taping that the story will be teased on the network Sunday during breaks in its NFL coverage, and then later during “60 Minutes.’’
The shot Calabria fired is getting more play than the shots heard ’round the world here and in neighboring Lexington 237 years earlier. Concord’s famed North Bridge, where Colonial and British troops clashed at the start of the Revolutionary War, is about 3 miles from the high school soccer fields.
“Yahoo Sports. Sports Illustrated. ESPN. Deadspin and Barstool,’’ noted Pavlik, ticking off just a few of the outlets that picked up the video. “It’s beyond viral. It’s literally everywhere. The last time I looked at the analytics, it had been watched in 197 countries.’’
Ideally, said Calabria, an “angel donor’’ will spot the video and help bankroll the US National Amputee Soccer Team that he played for briefly last spring in Mexico. The US squad had a berth in the amputee World Cup in Russia, but lack of funds prevented the Yanks from participating.
“No way could everyone afford the $3,000 each to make the trip,’’ he said. Calabria, the youngest to play for the national squad, which has players into their mid-40s, wants to play regularly with that team one day and also hopes to participate in club soccer during college.
Come the winter season, if his aching shoulders allow it, Calabria also wants to compete again with the Concord-Carlisle wrestling team. Last season, he finished third in the Division 2 state championships, competing in the 106-pound division, and he’d like to move up a weight class or two.
“Still deciding about wrestling,’’ he said. “But both shoulders have taken a beating, being on the crutches for soccer so much.’’
Meanwhile, Calabria will be back on the field Saturday when Concord-Carlisle hosts its annual “Kicks for Cancer’’ tournament, 11 other high schools joining in for a day of soccer that netted some $20,000 for cancer research last year. Maybe there is another goal or two with his name on it, another line in the story of his life to tell when he’s out of college. He’s planning a career in motivational speaking.
“Maybe someone who is disabled, with trouble adjusting, will see the video,’’ said Calabria, musing over where the good of his goal may lead. “And if they do, maybe they’ll get out and try something new, step outside of the box a little and see where it can lead. If I can give a lesson in this, it’s that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. But the key is to focus on what you have, focus on what you can succeed with . . . because you just never know what you are capable of doing.’’