HINTON, Iowa | Football player Jake Olson made national news Saturday by getting onto the field as the long-snapper for the University of Southern California Trojans. Olson is blind, the result of retinal cancer.
At Hinton High School, Eli Buck sprinted onto the field on Friday night.
Buck, a senior, played nose guard for several plays as the Hinton Blackhawks defeated Woodbury Central on Parents' Night at Held Sports Complex.
The fact Buck played didn't garner banner headlines, at least not in Hinton, where No. 78 has been a fixture in black-and-gold during his prep playing days.
The connection to Olson? Buck, 17, is legally blind, the result of albinism.
Buck, like Olson, remains determined, saying his heart makes up for anything his eyes can't do.
"I watched part of the USC game," Buck told me on Tuesday. "I thought about being a nose guard and playing against Olson. I guess he and I would be in the same boat: We've both had to adapt."
Adapt. Buck's parents, Jon and Angela Buck, of Hinton, use that word as they describe how the son they adopted at the age of six months has rolled with any physical punches life has thrown his way. The Bucks knew much about albinism as their second child, daughter McKenzie Buck, 19, has albinism as well.
"We knew that Eli's brain would adapt to his vision limits," said Angela, who noted that McKenzie, who has fewer vision constraints than her brother, has a driver's license.
"When the kids learned to walk, depth perception was an issue," Jon Buck said. "They'd see a shadow and think it was a step."
Eli illustrated the phenomenon for me on the steps leading to Hinton High School. He left his cane in his locker and walked up and down the stairs, noting his comfort level rises in the surroundings of the only high school he has attended.
The football field is a known setting as well; Eli has played the sport for eight years. His jersey number, 78, is the answer to a math problem he wrote in the classroom of Casey Crawford three years ago. Crawford also serves as Hinton High's wrestling coach, where Eli Buck spends his winters competing for the Blackhawks. (His favorite sport, however, is soccer.)
"I wear No. 78 and I found out that by adding up my jersey numbers in football, you get to 173," said Eli, who has sported jersey Nos. 21, 24 and 50 in addition to his varsity No. 78 jersey.
"If you have 173 on a calculator and you turn the calculator upside-down, it shows my name, 'E-L-I,'" he said with a smile.
Football co-head coach Steve Diedeker noted how Eli used his iPhone to magnify the print on a list of starters and reserves that Diedeker and co-head coach Bruce Held posted in the locker-room prior to Friday's game.
"Eli was right up next to the sheet and was trying to find his name," Diedeker said, describing how inspirational it is to have a player so motivated to do anything he can to help his team. "I told him we'd see about getting him in the game."
The coaches inserted Buck into the contest late in the first half. Buck sprinted on the field, played his role and returned to the sideline once the starting nose guard was ready. Buck then paced the sideline, trading fist-bumps and high-fives with his teammates as the Blackhawks built a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Buck returned to the action late in the game as the Blackhawks kept the Wildcats from tacking on a late touchdown.
"I think we looked back on our loss in the first week (against Akron-Westfield) and used it to make improvements for our second week," Eli Buck said. "As long as we keep making improvements, it will help us in the long run."
The long run. What is Buck's long-range goal after high school? "I'd like to become an athletic director one day and help pay back the school and community that have been so good to me," he said.
Until that time, Buck will continue to work on mastering Braille, as he tests at 82-percent proficiency now. He'll also spend time at the Iowa Department for the Blind's Independent Living Program in Des Moines, where he has completed a couple of summer courses. One test, he said, involved teachers taking him from the school and leading him to a spot in Des Moines, where he was dropped off and then challenged to make it back to school.
"I thought I could just remember where we turned, but they went into a parking lot and did some donuts or something, and that got me disoriented," he said with a shrug. "I managed to find my way back by studying sidewalks and places like buildings and whether light poles were inside or outside the sidewalk."
Buck smiled and said he knew he was close to "home" when he smelled the aroma of pizza. "There's a Domino's Pizza on the corner by our school and they vent the place, so our block smells like fresh pizza," he said. "I knew when I could smell Domino's Pizza that I was home."
Until graduation, though, Hinton and Hinton High remain his homes. Eli Buck said he can't think of any better places to be. Jon and Angela Buck, recalling the crowd singing "Happy Birthday" to their son during a playoff game two seasons ago, agree.
"Hinton has been so supportive of Eli and everything he's done or tried to do," Angela said. "The school has been amazing for him, ever since kindergarten."
"I've got coaches who are like a father to me," Eli concluded. "And my parents? They lift me up when I get down. They're the big reason I'm still on the football field. They've always told me how proud they are of what I've been able to accomplish."
Jon Buck said Eli's activity goes back to what a doctor told the family years ago: "The doctor said Eli's temperament wouldn't let his vision stop him from doing anything."
On a football Friday night in Hinton, that's clear to see.