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Harbison holds head high, finds comfort in circle

Springville-Griffith Institute sophomore Billy Harbison, who has cerebral palsy, threw shot put on the Griffins’ track team. Photo by Dave DeLuca.
A day doesn’t go by without Billy Harbison dreaming about playing football under the lights on a Friday night at Pop Warner Field.

Billy’s diagnosis of cerebral palsy when he was 3 years old has kept the Springville-GI sophomore from playing the game he loves.

Harbison likes baseball, too. CP has kept him off the diamond.

This past spring, CP didn’t hold Billy back and he threw shot put on the Springville track team.

“I’ve never experienced being in a huddle or playing in front of screaming, cheering fans,” Harbison said. “It was really cool to do track and actually experience competing. When I went to go throw for the first time at a scrimmage in Fredonia, it just seemed normal. I knew I wasn’t go to make it to sectionals or anything, but just the feeling of getting changed, warming up, walking to the throwing pit as a player, that was an exciting experience for me.”

Springville girl’s track coach Mark Heichberger reached out to Billy before the season about possibly joining track. Harbison thought it through and went back-and-forth between joining or sticking with his role as a manager for the baseball team.

“I’d say I wound up making a pretty good choice,” Harbison said.

Harbison’s personal-record is 15 feet, 7 ½ inches, a mark that he set at Iroquois. Harbison began the season throwing 12 ½ feet, but made a steady climb throughout the season to obtain his PR. Early on, Harbison’s form translated more towards throwing a baseball, rather than a shot put. Springville track coach Joe Marvin admired Harbison’s attitude to improve.

“He has a lot of determination and he’s easy to coach,” Marvin said. “He always listened to what you were telling him. He put a lot of effort into making corrections to his form. He was constantly asking me what I thought he was capable of and what he could do better. He was definitely into the idea of improving as much as he could.”

Harbison and Marvin had a discussion before the season about what he would be able to do. Outside of some workouts in the weight room that involved free weights and some lower body exercises, Harbison did everything that the other throwers did.

“I told him ‘I’m going to ask you to do everything the team does and you let me know what’s too much’,”Marvin recalled. “Everything we did with the kids, he took in stride and did a part of as well. I think it really motivated the kids and I think it was great for Billy to be a part of.”

Athletics have played a large role in Harbison’s life since attending Springville-GI High School. Despite not being able to put football pads on in the fall, Billy has served as manager of the junior varsity football team for two years. That led him to having managerial stints with the JV baseball team, the varsity wrestling team and the JV basketball team. Last fall, he was featured on Channel 2 when he scored a touchdown against East Aurora.

“Joining the football team my freshman year was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Harbison said. “I’ve managed the baseball, basketball and wrestling teams, none of that would have been possible if I didn’t join football. One managing position led to another. Most of my relationships with other kids started with football.”

Bill Sr., Billy’s father, has seen a tremendous improvement in Billy’s health since he got involved with football and sports in general.

“A lot has to do with the school and his peers,” Bill Sr. said. “It’s a pretty good district, they’ve accepted him really well. A lot of it revolves around football, the discipline it demands and the comradery and the schedule of the workouts, practices and games. Sports have gotten him involved and it’s made a huge difference.”

Billy now serves as a “battalion leader” for the varsity football. As a battalion leader, Billy is the captain of a group that competes in the Battalion Challenge, a competition among football players that combines academic success with commitment to weight lifting and attendance at organized team activities.

It’s been a long road for Harbison. He has undergone eight operations and wasn’t able to consistently walk on his own until he was eight-years-old. Since he was 18 months old, Harbison has been doing physical therapy and started doing occupational and speech therapies later on to lessen the effects of cerebral palsy.

He is unable to walk heel-toe on his right leg, a small speech impediment exists, his mobility is hindered and he’s more susceptible to weight gain. Doctors once told Billy’s parents that he might never be able to walk or communicate. Billy is 15 now and he’s walking, talking, and throwing shot put.

And cerebral palsy can’t stop him.

“I’m working hard to put my disability behind me in my life,” Harbison said. “I don’t use my disability as an excuse to be unsuccessful. No matter what part of the world you come from, no matter what background you have, you can be just as successful if you have the heart and the determination to do it.”


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