Randy “Zip” Pierce is on his feet in the first row yelling and screaming and banging his fist on the railing.
At first glance, he’s just another yahoo fan with a Pat Patriot tattoo and a Bruschi jersey. But there’s no one else quite like him among the 68,756 jammed into Gillette Stadium.
There’s a plaque dedicated to him in the Hall of Fans section of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was Patriots fan of the year in 2001. In 2002, he met President George W. Bush with the team. He’s had season tickets for nearly three decades.
He’s also blind, robbed of most of his vision at 22 by a mysterious neurological affliction that doctors could only guess at. In the 26 years since, the disease has resurfaced seemingly at random, attacking nerves in his brain and taking some new part of him — the remainder of his sight, bits of movement, and other capabilities. He doesn’t know what the players he loves look like. He doesn’t even know what his wife looks like.
But that’s not the whole story of what sets Zip apart.
It’s about what he hears and sees in his mind, the hits on the field, the crowd, the sausages grilling under the stands. And it’s about something that can’t be seen or heard — that despite life having thrown many good reasons his way, the Nashua resident does not complain about his lot. And his seat is never empty. Zip shows up and Zip brings his best.
He started watching the Patriots when he was 10. There was no football at New Hampshire’s Colebrook Academy, where he went to high school, so he played everything else — baseball, soccer, and basketball. When his basketball coach told him he was the slowest kid on the team, he went ballistic working out. The following season, people started called him “Zip” because he was so fast. The name stuck.
When he was 21, he couldn’t stand missing blacked-out games on TV, so he bought season tickets. He thinks they were $27.50 per seat his first year.
With that, he had just about everything a young fan could hope for, including the obvious: youth and a promising life stretched out before him as an engineer. When the debilitating disease struck just a few months after that season, in May 1989, all that promise seemed to disappear. His right eye went blank. His left eye had some vision, but it was like looking down a well.
He spent six weeks at UMass Medical Center while doctors tried to figure out what was happening to him and to do something about it. They couldn’t. For whatever reason, his optic nerve had decayed. For all they knew, the disease could strike again. Bitterness and depression enveloped Zip.
One day, a nurse said, “You came in here young, energetic, and a friendly guy, and now you’re in a shell,” he recalls. “If you’re not going to let anybody in, you are going to drive them away eventually. Think about that.”
He resented the words. But he did think about them. He couldn’t drive a car anymore and could hardly see to get around. But when football season came again in the fall, he found a way to be there.
A special connection to Tedy
“Happy Birthday, rookie,” Zip shouted.
It was seven years later, the summer of 1996, at a special preseason practice at Foxborough when season ticketholders got to mingle with the players.
Zip had learned by then to use the tunnel of sight in his good eye and had forced himself to adapt to a new kind of life. He hadn’t missed a game since the illness struck.
The player Zip called out to was an undersized linebacker he had watched at training camp. The guy worked hard, hustled when he didn’t have to. Zip admired that. The player’s name was Tedy Bruschi. His birthday happened to be the same as Zip’s, June 9.
So on a lark, he had shouted to him, and, to Zip’s surprise, the rookie “came over to see why some guy knew his birthday,” Zip says now.
They started talking. Soon, they were friends, the linebacker and the skinny hardware design engineer. Bruschi admired Zip for his dedication and determination to overcome. Zip returned the feelings. “I’m more proud of hardworking overachievers than I’ll ever be of prima donnas,” he says.
Zip, a home brewer, started making annual 54-gallon batches of “Bruschi Brew.”
He gave the linebacker a T-shirt with the words, “Full Tilt, Full Time.” Bruschi adopted the motto and kept the shirt in his locker. He touched it before each game to remind him “that this is what I have to do every play of every game,” Bruschi recalled.
Coming onto the field before games, Bruschi looked for Zip in the crowd and shouted to him.
In 2000, when Zip’s disease took the rest of his sight, he again lost hope. But he picked himself up. He got a guide dog, a sweet golden retriever named Ostend, and learned to follow his lead. He brought a radio to games. He let others tell him what was happening on the field.
Bruschi watched in wonder. “He’s a guy that’s always there, that I always counted on,” Bruschi says. “Whenever I entered that stadium, I always looked to find him. I just learned from him that it’s what you make your life to be.”
Another setback from disease
He was in Houston watching the Patriots beat the Texans when the next test came. It was November 2003. He felt disoriented and unstable. The next morning it was worse, and he flew home.
This time, the doctors said, the disease was attacking the vestibular nerve controlling balance. If it decayed further, he might lose the ability to walk. There was little they could do. Within a year, Zip was in a wheelchair.
The new blow felt somehow worse than the rest. He’d found ways to compensate for lost vision, but this? Still, Zip says he told himself, he had to press on. “So I said, ‘It is what it is,’ which is straight out of [Bill] Belichick . . . ‘Let’s see if I can get out of this wheelchair.’ ”
It wasn’t that easy. Months went by with no improvement. He underwent experimental procedures using a long needle to pierce his eardrum and inject steroids at the site of the damaged nerve. Still, he couldn’t stand up.
Unexpected consolation came from a friend. In February 2005, Bruschi suffered a stroke days after playing in the Pro Bowl. Bruschi called him, and Zip sent his idol pep-talk e-mails.
“When he couldn’t see correctly and he couldn’t walk, I was in a wheelchair and totally blind,” Zip says. “And we absolutely talked about how you deal day to day and put your focus on what’s next.”
Zip had bad days, but he tried not to let them stick around, concentrating instead on how to make them better.
Then, in May 2005, Ostend, his guide dog, died of a cancerous tumor in his heart.
Zip cried for days. He felt completely overwhelmed.
Then friends appeared, some he didn’t even know he had.
“Eighty people came to my house,” he says. “It was a pretty big message that you and your dog had done some good things. You get that much support, you got to use it.”
When football season came again in the fall, Zip went back to Gillette. He didn’t have a guide dog now. And he was forced to sit in the wheelchair section, high above his regular seat.
So, on big-game days, friends hoisted him from the chair and helped guide him, unseeing and unsteady, down the steps to his seat in the front row.
“Did I fall a few times? You bet.”
But he made it.
Back on his feet and giving back
It took Zip exactly one year, eight months, 21 days, and six surgeries to ditch the chair, but he did, in February 2006. Bruschi recovered, too, and returned to the Patriots to become the 2005 Comeback Player of the Year.
By October, Zip had a new guide dog, the Mighty Quinn, a yellow Lab named after a Dylan song. They made their way back to Gillette. And Zip started thinking of new ventures.
“Once I got going, I started to celebrate walking, and I decided to give back to the world in a few ways,” he says.
In 2009, he went to a talk by Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind man to climb Mount Everest. It inspired him. He started a nonprofit called 20/20 Vision Quest to help raise money to train guide dogs and “inspire people to reach beyond adversity.”
He decided to hike to the summit of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks by the year 2020 to raise funds for his charity. He’s now done it twice.
He became the national blind champion in the California International Marathon this year and plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
Zip and his guide dog became celebrities of sorts in classrooms around New England, where he talked to the children about teamwork between man and his best friend.
“I can’t see, and he can’t talk,” he would tell students, referring to Quinn. “But it’s amazing what we can do together.”
In the fall, he learned Quinn had bone cancer. For the first time since Zip got his Patriots tickets, he missed most of a season, staying home to care for him.
“His mouth could barely open,” Zip says. “So we found the smallest, softest toy for him to run and get. The playing distracted him because he was doing what he loved. So on his last day, that’s exactly what we did all day. We had an appointment to ease him out of his pain. My wife and I held him in our arms.”
Giving life his best effort
Another hole in his life, but the cure is the same: Late this September, on Opening Day of a new Patriots season, Zip is up at 5:30 a.m. and by 9 is outside Gillette, tailgating with 40 friends. The smell of steak tips fills the air. Zip talks and laughs and tells stories poking fun at his blindness.
He plays corn toss with friends and damn near pulls out a win.
“It’s all muscle memory,” he says.
A new dog is at his side, a black and tan Lab named Autumn.
“When it gets cold, she’ll get hand warmers and a Patriots blanket,” he says.
Game time draws near. Zip slugs down a Jell-O shot, toasts the Pats, and lets Autumn lead him across Route 1 to the stadium. He arrives at Section 105, Row 1, Seat 1 an hour before kickoff and lays a dog bed over the concrete at his feet for Autumn.
She naps. Zip gets amped up as the stadium comes to life. “Crazy Train” booms over the PA, and the crowd roars as the Pats come on the field. “For me, it all starts when Ozzy starts,” Zip says.
The game is up and down, and so is Zip, leaping to his feet, exhorting the players and the crowd. He listens to his college buddy, Rob Webber, tell him what’s happening on the field. Oakland takes an early lead, but then the Patriots score. The Patriots are ahead into the fourth quarter, but Oakland is driving and could tie it with a touchdown. When big Vince Wilfork saves the game with a last-second interception, Zip is ecstatic. He jumps up, and so does Autumn. She gets a hug and a treat.
The game over, fans trail up the steps and out the exits, but Zip stays put. Every game is a reminder — to be savored — that he has beaten blindness and love has triumphed. It’s a beautiful day.
“I have no qualms that I have a disability,” he says. “I can’t see. We all have things we can’t do. What you can do is always going to be more important than what you can’t.”
He still dreams that one day he’ll be able to see again, that he’ll get a look at the Patriots players he’s been so devoted to, and at his wife, Tracy. For now, as the Patriots head off the field, he applauds each and every one of them. He does this whether they win or lose.
“They are my team and they gave their best effort. And isn’t that what life is all about?”