Despite being partially blind, Canterbury football player Sam Schoensee is thriving
When you watch Sam Schoensee on the field, you think he’s just your typical high school football player.
He is quick, athletic and capable of scoring as soon as he touches the ball.
However, this is not the case. The Canterbury elder was blinded when a football hit him in the eye almost six years ago.
It was a normal day in seventh grade for Schoensee, who attended Trafalgar Middle School. They were playing football that day in gym class. Schoensee grew up playing as a goalkeeper.
“I didn’t play goalie that day,” Schoensee said. “I decided to go out and play on the court because it was fun. The gym doesn’t really matter. Club football does. We were just playing normally and I went to press the ball. This kid decided to pop the ball when I was right in front of him, and it hit me in the perfect spot in the eye, and here we are.
Schoensee’s father, Kevin, coaches the Canterbury boys’ football team. He heard the news on a flight returning from Las Vegas on business.
“When I got within range, I forgot to turn off my phone,” Kevin said. “It started to go. My wife wasn’t in town and it was my mother-in-law who ended up having to go to school. She was in a hysterical fit. As soon as I landed, I met him at the eye doctor, and the doctor said “No, it’s over”. I’m like, what?
“We went to see another doctor that night, and then I found out who was the best nationally, and that’s when we really started to make progress.”
Sam is approximately 95% blind in his right eye. There is a large black spot in the middle that prevents him from seeing anything. He can only see the light coming from the four corners of his eye.
“It’s hard for me to believe it sometimes,” Kevin said. “I think the most amazing thing for me is because it happened before puberty, they gave him a bunch of drugs, steroids and weird drug therapy. He was able to get some depth. We were still playing ping pong and he couldn’t play and was really upset, he couldn’t catch a ball, he couldn’t do anything.
Things have changed for Sam, who said he was a better goalkeeper back then than he is now in midfield. He used to travel around the world to play football, including meeting with club team Borussia Dortmund as well as Chelsea and another Russian team. Sam was elected MVP in a tournament across the Atlantic.
“He was definitely on top,” Kevin said. “He was one of the best goalkeepers in the country, without a doubt.”
The difficult conversations started shortly after Sam went partially blind, but they took it one step at a time.
“We were trying to get back on track,” Sam said. “It started off slow. We knew we were always going to play football one way or another. But you can’t go back to it right away. Because it’s almost like you’re a completely different player.
It was a difficult start to recovery for Sam. He was training with Felix Acosta, father of Canterbury women’s football manager Paolo Acosta. They started playing ping pong and basketball, to help him regain his depth perception to some degree.
“I couldn’t tell the ball was coming to my foot and keep it close to my foot, it would go right past me,” Sam said. “So first my coach, coach Felix, started to playing games like ping-pong, basketball, just to try and get my depth perception back to what it was. And that’s where we started. At the very beginning.”
There has been a lot of repetition and commitment to getting back to the elite player he once was.
“I don’t think it’s a dream for anyone. It’s a testament to his hard work,” Kevin said. “You know, I don’t think any of the doctors, nobody dreamed that he would come back to that level, and who would have thought he was an in-demand college football player. Who would have thought that?
“Between what Felix did with him and the long term stuff, it was amazing to see him back after the hard work of a few years.”
Sam played with seven players on the team – Harrison Ames, McLaren Baggett, Brayden Cathey, Brian Cruz, Jason Kitzinger, Jimmy Parker and Ethan Wiese – for nearly a decade. In the most difficult times, these players never left him as he tried to regain his football skills following his blindness.
“When they first came back without their support, they didn’t kick him out of the team when all of a sudden he wasn’t good enough,” Kevin said. “They worked with him as players, friends and coaches to bring him back. It was amazing.”
Every six months, Kevin and Sam traveled to Boston to visit Massachusetts General Hospital to see Dean Eliott, who works at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and is a senior scientist at Harvard Medical School.
To lighten the mood on each trip, Kevin always timed the rendezvous around a Bruins, Celtics or Red Sox game so they could enjoy the festivities at TD Garden or Fenway Park. They would also bring Ames with them to Boston.
“The way the doctor described it is because they’re younger like that, your brain can rebuild the pathways and reinterpret the signals,” Kevin said. “They made him undergo this complete protocol, vision from afar, near, near, from the middle, from near. We were constantly driving back and forth to Boston to test it and see if it worked. He was really one of the first to use it.
“If you want to use layman’s terms, it’s better than 2015. But other than that, they measure response times and fields and all sorts of things. The adaptation has been amazing.”
Last Tuesday, Kevin and Sam traveled to Miami to visit Bascom Palmer, part of the University of Miami Health System. Bascom Palmer was ranked the nation’s top eye hospital in 2021-22.
“He didn’t have anything surgical,” Kevin said. “The dye stuff they did in the back to see where the damage was and the pressures they changed. You can’t tell. That’s the other thing he did, they A ton of these exercises that Coach Felix did with them had to follow, because usually that eye when you’re blind like that, you see some of it, it becomes like a lazy eye. His eyes follow perfectly.
Sam caused a stir on the pitch as a rookie, when he scored in the 23rd minute against CSN in a Class 1A regional semi-final.
“He was going to be fine, enjoy it and get good (at football) again,” Kevin said.
In his four years so far, Sam has 31 goals and 38 assists in his high school career, including plenty of clutch moments. With the Cougars’ chances mostly on life support, Sam tied the regional final against Bradenton Christian in the 76th minute on a free kick. Canterbury ended up winning that game in extra time to maintain their state run.
In the Class 2A State Championship game, he finished with two goals and an assist, setting up Riley Johnson’s second goal of the game from a corner kick, while finishing in a penalty and free kick to give Canterbury their first football state title in program history. .
“That’s why I was so emotional, I think for me,” Kevin said. “If you look at the goals, the one he absolutely had to pick the top corner from a long-range free-kick in the light and in the dark. Probably more impressive to me was the assist on Riley’s second goal. He landed the ball exactly where it was supposed to land on Ethan Javedan’s head, aiming for that spot from 30 yards out.
“It was unbelievable for me. And as a coach, I couldn’t believe it. You can’t do this without a huge amount of hard work and practice.”
Sometimes, however, Sam is still hesitant to head a ball due to his injury years ago. This changed the strategy when it comes to coaching. Kevin doesn’t put him against the wall when defending a free kick.
“I’m going to close my left eye and be like, ‘OK, it’s still the same,'” Sam said. “I’m going to close my right eye, ‘OK, it’s still the same. We’re fine, keep it up.’ “
Now Sam is committed to playing at the next level. He chose Chatham University, a private university in Pittsburgh that is NCAA Division III.
“It’s huge, and I think what’s important to me is that it actually happens,” Sam said. “And it’s nice to see it’s gone this far, like four or five years of incredibly hard work, almost a reset button all the way. Just to get this far is amazing.”
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