Finding His Field of Dreams
A COOL BREEZE IS BLOWING AT Houston's Barnett Stadium football field this late October afternoon, and the Thomas A. Edison Middle School's seventh-grade Edison Rangers are locked in a 6-6 tie with their archrivals, the Cullen Middle School Bobcats. The Rangers kick off into the wind, then race down-field after the ballcarrier. Near the 30-yard line, Ranger running back Daniel Torres and a teammate plow into the runner, bringing him down. Torres leaps to his feet, joyfully high-fiving his fellow Ranger.
Edison goes on to win the game, 13-6, but for the 13-year-old Torres, a dwarf who stands 3 feet tall and weighs 60 pounds, winning is secondary. "The best thing about football," he says, "is the attention, the excitement and being part of a team."
Joining the Rangers never occurred to Torres back in August when he started at Edison, in the blue-collar neighborhood of Central Park. By then he had had his fill of attention. Born with achondroplasia—a genetic condition affecting one in 40,000 children—Torres had endured a lifetime of in-sensitivity. Just three hours after his birth, recalls his mother, Viola, 49, a first-grade teacher, the doctor told her about her son's condition. Then he added, "Don't worry, maybe someday he can work in the circus"—a remark she says left her "devastated." More recently, she adds, it was "the staring that bothered us, especially at malls, where you can read people's lips."
Sure that similar humiliations awaited him at Edison, Torres arrived with a chip on his shoulder. When kids asked his name, he says, "I'd ignore them. I was afraid they'd make fun of me."
Friendless, Torres would sit by himself after school waiting for his mother to pick him up. "He sat every day, kind of lonely," says head coach Balde-mar Gutierrez. "So I went over and said, 'You're going to be a football player.' I was kidding at first but he didn't back out, so I didn't back out." His mother was all for it too. "I never dreamed anybody would even give him the opportunity to belong to a team," she says.
The first challenge was getting a uniform that fit. Knee pads were stuffed under Torres's shoulder pads to keep them from wobbling, and his seamstress grandmother, Juanita Longoria, 74, took in his pants. His teammates proved equally adaptable. When they first met Torres, he recalls, several snickered and said, "You gonna play football?" But when Torres simply answered, "Yes," they shrugged and said, "Okay." Aware the others were afraid to tackle him, Torres says, "I told them to treat me like everybody else." Still, during the half-dozen plays he averages each game, his fellow Rangers go out of their way to protect him. "Whoever hits him," says tackle Charles Donovan, "we get them."
Torres, whose parents—Roy, 46, is a director of bilingual education in Galveston—divorced when he was 10, comprehended his condition eight years ago during an outing with the Little People of America, a nationwide support group. When he noticed that some of the adult dwarfs were the same size he was, his mother explained that he too would never get much taller. "He said, 'Mom, I don't want to be little,' " recalls Viola. "And I said, 'Look, this is the way God made you and the way it's going to be.' "
With his newfound confidence, Torres has few self-doubts these days. Living with Viola, grandmother Juanita and sister Raquel, 16, in a Spanish-style three-bedroom house in southeast Houston, he says he feels sorry for strangers who tease him about his height. "It's their problem, not mine," he says. "My life's pretty good."
LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Houston