As an avid sports fan growing up in Mashpee, Michael Perrino had his pick of any number of heroes from Boston’s highly successful professional teams.
But for a young man with a rare medical condition, none of the sports figures he saw on TV looked quite like him.
That is until he tuned into the ESPY Awards in July and saw Rob Mendez, a football coach from California. Mendez, who does not have arms, legs, or inhibitions, took the stage and delivered an impassioned acceptance speech in receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.
Perrino, 16, was born with thrombocytopenia-absent radius syndrome (TAR), a genetic disorder that is characterized by the absence of the radius bone in the forearm and a dramatically reduced platelet count.
Those with TAR can be affected to varying degrees, and Perrino has a severe case in that he was born with no bones in his arms and no cartilage in the knees of his shortened legs.
Like Mendez, who was born with an extremely rare condition called tetra-amelia syndrome, Perrino faces a multitude of challenges every day. And like Mendez, he isn’t letting that slow him down.
“Michael always found his own way to do things,” said his mother, Misty Perrino. “He couldn’t crawl, so he would roll. He couldn’t walk, so he would walk on his knees. He learned to feed himself.
“Michael has a good, good heart. Anyone else would sit and complain. But he doesn’t complain, he just rolls with the punches.”
Throughout his early childhood, Perrino flew with his parents to Baltimore to receive treatment from Dr. Dror Paley, a world-renowned surgeon who specializes in TAR. When Paley opened his own practice in West Palm Beach, Fla., it became difficult for the family to afford multiple flights per year.
While searching for answers, Misty came across the website of Miracle Flights, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance for medical flights so that seriously ill children may receive life-altering treatment. The Perrino family was approved, and Michael has been able to take 19 flights to visit the Paley Institute in Florida.
In February, Perrino underwent ankle surgery that allows him to walk with straightened legs. While it came with considerable pain, Perrino was recently able to walk 12 laps around the cul de sac on his street, proving wrong the doctors who told Misty her son would never be able to walk.
Sitting on his living room floor, eating an after-school snack and drinking water without assistance, he explained his approach to life.
“I see myself as a regular human being,” said Perrino, a sophomore at Mashpee. “Obviously I’m in a wheelchair, but I don’t see myself as different or special.
“I go through challenges in life, but everybody faces challenges. I just want to focus on what I can do, versus what I can’t do.”
In a sports-crazed region, Perrino realized that while he couldn’t necessarily compete in athletics, he could find another way to become part of the game.
From age 11, he studied basketball religiously, catching every play of every Celtics game, watching instructional videos online, and reading Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s playbooks. His dream was to become an NBA coach, but he never knew whether it would be possible until he came across the inspirational story of Rob Mendez.
Mendez, 30, developed a passion for football as a young teenager when his older sister, Jackie, tucked a PlayStation controller under his chin and introduced him to the Madden game. Through the game, he created his own playbook, then spent 12 years as an assistant football coach at five schools. He recently became head coach of the junior varsity team at Prospect High School in Saratoga, Calif., leading the program to the JV state championship.
Next Thursday, Miracle Flights will welcome Perrino as the guest of honor at its annual “Swings for Wings” fund-raiser at Topgolf in Las Vegas. Perrino was thrilled to learn that the nonprofit arranged to fly in Mendez to meet him over breakfast and play a game of Madden.
“There’s no way I could pass up this opportunity to meet Mike,” said Mendez, who cleared time in a schedule that has become chock-full since his ESPYs appearance.
“I really appreciate his story, and it means a lot to connect with someone like that,’’ Mendez said. “It really keeps me going to be a role model for people.
“We all need some kind of encouragement, and for people to tell me I’m inspiring them, it means a lot. The energy goes both ways, and I think I’ll get just as much out of it as he will.”
This fall, Perrino will begin his own coaching journey by assisting the Mashpee varsity basketball team. It will be his first taste of organized basketball and his first chance to implement some of the leadership strategies he hopes to glean from Mendez.
“The main question I would ask is, ‘How do you gain the players’ respect?’ ” said Perrino. “He’s my idol because he found a way to do that. He lives through the same struggles as I have every day, but somehow, some way, he’s overcome those challenges and now he’s coaching football.”
Perrino is grateful for the support of his friends and parents, who are remodeling the first floor of his Mashpee home to build him a specialized shower. His independence continues to grow, as he has taught himself to get dressed and walk short distances, and he is preparing to earn his driver’s permit with a modified vehicle.
Asked if he had a backup plan in case his coaching career doesn’t work out, Perrino said he is “all-in.” He rejected his father’s idea to become a broadcaster, because he’s 100 percent focused on becoming “part of the game.”
Miracle Flights CEO Mark Brown believes that type of singular focus could inspire other children across the country.
“Both of these flights [for Perrino and Mendez] are miracle flights, the way we look at it,” said Brown. “Who knows what the inspiration of meeting Coach Mendez might lead Michael to accomplish? And if other children see the goal that Michael’s set, it could be an amazing thing. Someone is going to read this story and go, ‘Wow, I can do it, too.’ ”
At the conclusion of his acceptance speech at the ESPYs, Mendez bellowed his trademark phrase, “Who says I can’t?”
It’s a rallying cry the coach used to help himself through tough times and motivate his players. Now it’s echoed far beyond their ears to reach people like Perrino, who Mendez hopes can inspire others.
“I want these kids to know that happiness is available to everyone, as long as you keep that hunger and that desire to want to get where you want to be,” said Mendez.
“Failing is part of life. I’ve failed plenty of times. Everything happens for a reason, but how are you going to react to it? I was really persistent with, ‘Who says I can’t?’ You know, why can’t I be the manager? If you have a goal, stick with it.”
On the bus to school some days, Perrino said, he daydreams of his first press conference as an NBA coach, in which he would make it clear that he doesn’t want any special treatment.
He wrote a letter to NBA commissioner Adam Silver detailing his lofty aspirations: win up to a dozen NBA titles, be better than Popovich, become the “Bill Belichick of the NBA.”
Silver wrote back, encouraging Perrino to “follow your dream,” and sent him a Celtics shirt and hat.
But Perrino made sure the commissioner understood that he wants to earn his way to the top.
“Who says I can’t coach basketball? Who says I can’t do this or that, because I know I can do it,” said Perrino. “I want to tell others that there’s always a light at the end of a dark tunnel. You’ll find a way. And I can’t wait to see what I can do down the road.”
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.