North Carroll JV wrestler Chris Gonzalez

The Baltimore Sun

As Chris Gonzalez lies on his back and closes his eyes in an effort to stay calm, a feeling of apprehension creeps into his psyche.

The 14-year-old freshman from North Carroll is dressed in a bright-red and black wrestling singlet and a baggy "Panthers" jacket. He's lying near the wall of the Westminster High gym, his white iPod earphones on snugly.

As he waits for his match to begin, the 145-pound junior varsity wrestler keeps telling himself, "If you lose, it's OK."

Finally, it's his turn. He gets up, tosses off his jacket and is engulfed by teammates. It's a typical scene for wrestlers, but there is one distinct difference with Gonzalez.

As he runs through his teammates' huddle and slaps hands, he does so with only his right hand. He doesn't have a left hand, or a full left arm for that matter. He was born without them.

Once the match starts, the perceived disadvantage doesn't matter. When he grapples with Westminster's Jason Sandoval, Gonzalez's entire body is in furious motion. His legs tense, and his right arm hooks Sandoval's neck while his partial limb stays planted on the side of Sandoval's head.

Gonzalez wins the match, 6-3.

"Growing up as a kid, everyone would ask me, 'What happened? What happened?' " Gonzalez said. "They said I couldn't do things, so I got so used to it that I started to try to prove them wrong."

Gonzalez was born without a full left arm because of a congenital defect. That never stopped him from playing sports - and excelling.

That includes in wrestling, in which Gonzalez has learned to use his partial limb as a positive attribute. He has found that the pointed end of his left appendage is sharp, so he can use it to irritate and frustrate opponents, setting him up for points later in the match. Having just one arm also has strengthened the rest of his body.

"He was definitely strong, and he never stopped moving and it worked well," said Ben Green, a Liberty JV wrestler who lost a close decision to Gonzalez on Feb. 6. "It was interesting, and it was a different experience. I respect him for going out there. That takes some stuff."

He'll often wrap his right arm around his opponent's neck to keep him at a distance. He has strong legs, so when his opponent gets close, he'll often try to tangle him up or trip him.

"He's got natural talent and natural balance that you can't coach," North Carroll wrestling coach Dave Dodson said. "I think that's helped him become competitive in the sport."

'Natural toughness'

Wrestling is one of many sports Gonzalez competes in. He has been playing basketball since he was 3, and he played on the North Carroll freshman football team as a free safety last fall.

When he first came out for the football team, he had to convince people - including his coaches - that he was capable of playing.

"I just thought, 'There's no way,' " said Brian Lawyer, one of the coaches of the North Carroll freshman team. "It's a hard enough game to play when you have all your extremities."

It didn't take long for Gonzalez to change his coach's mind.

"When he started practicing, I was impressed," Lawyer said. "I figured we would have to make the accommodations, but Chris didn't ask for anything. He just wanted to learn like the other kids, and he wanted to be looked at as one of the guys."

It took a while for Gonzalez to learn the game, but toward the end of the season, his coaches said, he made progress. Instead of trying to wrap up ball carriers, he would charge with his shoulder to stop them and then bring them down with his right arm.

"One of the moments at the end of the season that sticks out was when a running back from the other team broke through both levels, [Gonzalez] put a big lick on him and pulled him down on his own for a solo tackle," Lawyer says. "You know how difficult it is to do that in the open field when you have everything? Chris did it without an arm. He can play."

Gonzalez's uncles, Andy and Corey Rill, and his grandfather, Dennis Rill, were standout wrestlers at North Carroll. They believed Chris had what it took to be successful at the sport, too.

"One thing he was always, especially with me and my brother [Andy], he was never afraid to wrestle us," Corey Rill said. "He had a natural toughness to him, and that's important when you're out there on the mat."

Tough upbringing

Toughness can come from a variety of things. Some seem to be born with it, and others are forced to learn it through experience.

Being able to overcome a birth defect to compete in sports is a good story, but for Gonzalez, it is far from the whole story. He was born and grew up in New York City (Queens). He lived with his parents, Vickie Rill and Andy Gonzalez, but a troubled home life led him, his mother and two younger siblings - Justin and Aimy - to move in with Dennis and Linda Rill four years ago.

"My early childhood wasn't too great," Gonzalez says. "I don't live with either my mom or dad now. In New York, I just loved most of the time I was outside, hanging out with friends. I normally wasn't even home."

Instability at home started to affect Gonzalez's behavior at school.

"When we came to Maryland, for the first couple years, up until this year, I was getting in trouble a lot in school," Gonzalez said. "I would get in fights. I would get, like, suspended pretty much every year."

After a brief stay with their grandparents and then living with their mother in an apartment in Westminster, Gonzalez and his two siblings went back to their grandparents and will remain with them for the foreseeable future. The Rills declined to go into specifics about Gonzalez's parents.

"It was supposed to be a week, and it has grown into 2 1/2 years," Dennis Rill says. "It was something we felt we had to do. It was the one thing in life we had to do."

With newfound stability, Gonzalez could concentrate on his true love: sports.

Even when Gonzalez is not wrestling or playing football for the Panthers, he's playing sports in some fashion. At home, he lifts weights and runs to stay in shape, and he plans to run track in the spring.

His involvement in sports has helped keep him out of trouble in school.

"Since I started playing sports, I know I have to be good in school or I can't play," he said.

'An inspiration'

Gonzalez's black hair is matted down, and his face is red and pinned awkwardly sideways on the large black-and-red North Carroll wrestling mat.

His white T-shirt, soaked in sweat, sticks to his lanky body. During a Panthers practice in the lead up to the county championships, a slightly bigger opponent is holding Gonzalez down. Suddenly, Gonzalez breaks free of his grasp.

"Ha, you see that? You see how he just escaped there?" Dodson says. "He's got so much heart."

Gonzalez has shown he is an effective high school wrestler. He has posted a 14-7 record this season, and the coaching staff has been impressed by his work ethic.

"It seems to be no end to what he's capable of doing," North Carroll junior varsity coach Tom Davidson said. "He adapts to anything he has to do. He comes to practice every day and gives 100 percent, and it pays off for him."

That mentality has paid off for the entire Panthers team.

"He shows that you can't have anyone on your team say you can't try," Dodson said. "You have a young man in your program that is handicapped, and I think he's very capable, and people look at that as an inspiration."

Gonzalez's goal is to wrestle on the varsity level. It's a goal that the coaching staff said could be achieved if he continues to work as hard as he has.

Until then, he'll continue to do what he does best: prove people wrong.

"I just love seeing the look on people's faces when I do something," Gonzalez says. "I'm not that religious or anything, but I just kind of think that it all happens for a reason. Every time something bad happens in my life, I just kind of ignore it and keep going."

stefen.lovelace@baltsun.com

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