Garrett Haywood has been attending UCF and Orlando Magic basketball games since he was an infant, and last year he was a scrappy power forward on Oviedo High School’s 19-0 freshman squad.
So these days, when Haywood listens to the radio play-by-play call of a game, feels the roar of the crowd inside UCF Arena and cranks up his imagination, the mental picture of the action on the court is crystal clear. And for ever so briefly it doesn’t matter to Haywood that his central vision is failing him and he can’t actually see very much of the sport that he loves so dearly.
“Playing basketball and watching basketball my whole life, it’s easy to imagine what’s going on out there. And then when they add the stats and the commentary to it (on the radio), it’s like I can actually see it,” Haywood said recently before UCF’s home defeat of Marshall. “The environment of the game is so much better when I’m actually there. I watch it on TV at home and it’s not the same as being here with the college crowd. The college crowd is so much different than the professional crowd, so it just adds a lot to the game when I’m here.”
Garrett, 16, is affected by Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, a genetic disorder that causes the optic nerve to atrophy. LHON, named after the German doctor who first diagnosed the disorder, usually results in sudden, painless loss of central vision in one or both eyes. Those with the disorder usually start experiencing vision loss in one eye and then it spreads to the other eye within eight weeks. Garrett, who still has some peripheral vision, has been considered legally blind in both eyes since January 2011.
The onset of LHON usually comes between the ages of 17-25, and that was the case with Garrett, who started having vision troubles in his right eye late last year when he was still a part of the freshman basketball team at Oviedo High School. He was able to finish out the year as a key part of the undefeated squad, but these days with his central vision gone, his relationship with basketball extends to watching games on television and at UCF Arena.
Because the peripheral vision still exists, Garrett can offset his eyes and see some of the movement down on the court from his seats in the lower bowl of UCF Arena. Faces and numbers are impossible to make out, but that’s where he relies on the radio voice of the Knights, Marc Daniels, the noise of the fans and his vivid imagination to paint a clear picture of what’s happening on the court.
Few, if any of those sitting around him, know that Garrett struggles to see considering the way he follows the action and reacts after big plays for the Knights. The Haywood’s seats are directly across from the UCF bench, eight rows up off the court – close enough for Garrett to hear sneakers squeaking and sometimes the ball bouncing on the court.
“From our seats, the rim, backboard and part of the arm holding the backboard aren’t there (in Garrett’s vision). But he can still follow the action because his peripheral vision is fine, in focus and in color,” said Garrett’s father, Greg, a 1987 UCF graduate.
“If I didn’t tell you about Garrett’s condition, you probably wouldn’t pick up on it,” Greg continued. “There’s nothing wrong with the eyes, but it’s just a hereditary gene mutation. It’s one of those things that because he still functions at such a high level with the vision that he does have left you wouldn’t know the difference with him.”
Garrett still attends high school at Oviedo where he makes mostly As and Bs in AP Honors classes. He has a steady girlfriend and he rarely misses high school, college and NBA basketball games on television or in person.
Prior to losing his central vision, Garrett was a rising basketball player. He modeled his game after UCF standout power forward Keith Clanton because of his love for doing the dirty work for his team. Clanton is easily his favorite player and he jokes that the 6-foot-9 forward at UCF wears “my” No. 33 instead of it being the other way around.
“I was a power forward because I was kind of the clean-up player. I loved to play defense and rebound the basketball. I really enjoy watching Keith Clanton. He wears my number too, No. 33,” Garrett said with a laugh. “Basketball is my favorite sport by far. Keith is an all-around player, and he plays my position. I learned from him some last year. He seems like a great guy and he carries the team at some points in games.”
Garrett said the process of gradually losing his vision was tough to deal with, and initially he was in denial about it. Because his mother, Kendra (a 1994 UCF graduate), carries the genetic disorder, Garrett was predisposed to be affected by the optic troubles. That family wasn’t aware of the genetic disorder until Garrett started experiencing vision troubles in September of 2010.
Garrett’s sisters, Karli (13) and Kayla (10), are also carriers of LHON, but do not suffer from any vision difficulties. Garrett is the only one in the family who has suffered a loss of central vision.
Garrett struggled seeing out of his right eye as the 2009-10 basketball season progressed, but he was determined to finish out the year with the Lions. The freshman squad ultimately finished 19-0, and Garrett considers it to be one of his best memories in basketball. Garrett ultimately lost the central vision in his right eye in September 2010 and lost the central vision in the left eye by January 2011.
“It was pretty difficult, and I didn’t really accept it at first,” Garrett admitted. “I was dropping passes and saying it’s not because of my vision. But eventually it got to the point when it was so bad in one eye and one eye was good and my depth perception was a problem. My shots were way off. It was difficult, but I made it through the end of the season and got to finish with my team and we went undefeated. It was a really good season for me.”
Cooperation with UCF
In an attempt to stay connected with the sport that he loves so dearly, Garrett attended UCF basketball games early this season. But because it was difficult to pick up the WYGM AM-740 radio signal inside UCF Arena, Garrett couldn’t follow the action via the play-by-play call.
Greg, an electrical engineer who has four season tickets for basketball games, approached UCF about the issue. His hope was that the radio signal could be broadcast on an FM station and without the seven-second delay so that Garrett could sit in the stands and know what was going on as the action unfolded down below on the court. As it turns out, adding the broadcast inside the arena has been a benefit several fans could enjoy, Greg said.
“When I contacted the staff here at UCF and told them about it, I pointed out that it would be beneficial for the facility for a lot of reasons. I let them know the reason that I was interested, and they worked with their facilities and radio folks, purchased and installed everything to get it up and running,” Greg Haywood said. “Now, everybody has access to no-delay, play-by-play, which compensates for what Garrett can’t visually pick up. So with a basic FM receiver and some ear buds and he can hear the game in real time. It totally changes the experience for him.”
All fans attending games at UCF Arena can listen to the radio call from Daniels and former UCF guard Taylor Young on 97.1 FM. The feed is available only in the arena and primarily in the seating areas.
Hope for the future
According to LHON.org, about 100 people in the United States lose central vision each year due to LHON, joining the 4,000 or so Americans who are already vision-impaired due to LHON. Thousands more carry a LHON genetic mutation, and they could suddenly lose their vision at any time. It’s estimated that about 35,000 people worldwide are affected with vision problems related to LHON.
But there is hope for those such as Garrett affected by the disorder. Research being done at the University of Miami and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami has given hope that there will be a cure for the disorder in the coming months and years.
The hope is that the atrophy in the optic nerve can be reversed, restoring the central vision to people like Garrett.
“I want to work my way through this. In a year, they are supposed to have a cure, so I’m going to keep on pushing through with the vision that I have now,” he said. “I’m hoping I can go back later and pick up what I missed.”
Regardless of the timetable for the cure, Garrett said he refuses to play the role of a victim and wonder why he’s been affected by something no teenager should ever have to endure. He said most would be shocked to know he still attends public school, and his regular attendance at basketball games is shocking to some as well.
Eventually, he hopes to attend college and pursue his passion for math. And even though he doesn’t know yet what he wants to be when he grows up, Garrett has already picked out a school to attend.
“I still go to school every day and that might surprise some people. With me being in a public school and not being able to read my papers or the board that makes it tougher, but I’m doing OK,” he said. “UCF is my main option for college.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at [email protected]