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Undeterred by spina bifida, Niles North senior stunning foes on mound

Niles North High School pitcher James Fuller who has spinbifidpitches during game Maine West High School. Fuller wears braces both

Niles North High School pitcher James Fuller, who has spina bifida, pitches during a game at Maine West High School. Fuller wears braces on both legs and special shoes, and is photographed on Thursday, March 26, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 30, 2012 8:21AM

It’s the sound every new mother dreads when she’s in the delivery room: silence.

That’s what happened to Joanne Fuller when she gave birth to her son James at Evanston Hospital. James was born with spina bifida — the failure of the spinal column to close during fetal development, typically resulting in nerve damage and paralysis in the legs — after there had been no indication during the pregnancy that anything was wrong.

Eighteen years and at least 10 surgeries later, James, a senior at Niles North, is the Vikings’ No.  1 pitcher, has played on the golf team for four years, plays wheelchair basketball and is a role model for anyone able-bodied or living with a disability.

‘‘To this point, senior year, anyone who is going to ask has already and understands it,’’ he said. ‘‘I did have kids who were rude about it, but it was not out of being malicious; it was out of ignorance. I don’t really get questions anymore.”

Born with a portion of his lower spine outside

his body, James underwent surgery at Children’s Memorial Hospital when he was one day old. Three weeks later, he had more surgery to put a shunt in his brain that helped his central spinal fluid drain properly.

‘‘It’s pretty complex, and every kid is different,” Joanne Fuller said. ‘‘We had to learn a lot, and [the hospital staff] had to teach us how to care for him.

“There are varying degrees [of spina bifida], and fewer of his nerves are affected. As a baby, we knew he crawled and walked late, but he was lucky. A lot of kids are in wheelchairs.’’

Part of their caring required the Fullers to let go and get their son involved in sports. James started playing T-ball when he was 6; he earned a black belt in karate in fifth grade. Thanks to sports, he never has needed physical therapy for his condition — only leg braces.

‘‘I’ve never had a huge problem with it, but I’ve come to realize that there are things I’m not going to do,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not going to run a marathon — fine. But it’s gotten easier over time. The reason I can play sports is luck, and it’s gotten me to push my boundaries.’’

Fuller, who will attend Wisconsin-Whitewater in the fall, has to be mindful of his shunt malfunctioning, of kidney infections and of sores on his feet from his braces. He may face more surgeries.

Because of the braces, he doesn’t get much strength from his legs when he pushes off the mound and has limited mobility in fielding.

‘‘We have a strength and conditioning program, and we lift every day, and it’s been great,” he said. ‘‘Below my knees is really weak. I need to work on upper body.’’

Most of Fuller’s Vikings teammates have known him since Little League and don’t even think twice about his disability.

‘‘He doesn’t have many limitations when he plays,’’ junior Matt McTague said. ‘‘I’ve known him since we were little, and we knew he had spina bifida and we all thought it was pretty amazing that he could play [baseball], even back then. He wants us to treat him like a normal kid, and he doesn’t want any special treatment.’’

This season, Fuller is 4-5 with a 3.06 ERA, has one shutout and has given up 45 hits while striking out 35 and walking 15. As a junior, he pitched in relief and had what Niles North coach Ed Toledo called a rubber arm, relying mainly on breaking pitches. Fuller took over the Vikings’ top spot this season when McTague tore a ligament in his right elbow, then broke his left hand as a designated hitter.

Opposing teams in the Central Suburban North wouldn’t have guessed Fuller is less than perfect. Glenbrook North coach Dom Savino said he was shocked when Toledo told him a few days after the teams’ April  19 meeting that Fuller has spina bifida.

Fuller threw seven innings against Glenbrook North that day, giving up four hits and striking out six in a 2-0 loss. He held the Spartans scoreless through six.

‘‘It’s incredible, thinking back, that he pitched so well against us, and it’s a testament to him,’’ Glenbrook North shortstop Brad Ruchman said. ‘‘His mobility seemed fine, but there were no balls hit back to the pitcher. We approached him just like another pitcher.’’

Said Savino: ‘‘I’m even more impressed. He shut down our lineup and did an outstanding job of changing speeds, and that’s why he got the best of our hitters. My first thought [on hearing of Fuller’s spina bifida] was, ‘What an unbelievable sense of personal courage.’ ’’

Savino shared the revelation about Fuller with his players Tuesday. Ruchman said the team was awestruck and silent. Fuller’s accomplishments illustrate a point Savino tries to make to his team every day.

‘‘We have a sign in our dugout, and the first word is ‘perspective,’ ” Savino said. ‘‘If you go out and strike out or walk somebody, you feel like you have it so rough. [Fuller] competes with such bravery. All our players could benefit from him.’’

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