Ray Duckler: Looking to inspire others through a clear vision

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Randy Pierce is blind, but his tunnel vision is 20/20.

Sure, he slipped on a rock during a recent hike, and walked into a branch because his guide dog, Autumn, was sniffing on the job. But Pierce sets goals, and he pursues them with the passion of a man who’s climbed all 48 of the state’s 4,000-foot mountains.

While not able to see a thing.

“This is not a pity story,” Pierce said recently during a Concord fundraiser for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. “It’s a story about challenges, which are the realities in life.”

His challenge began 26 years ago, at the age of 22. That’s when a strange neurological disorder took most of Pierce’s sight. He lost the rest of it 11 years later, in 2000, but that’s when our story gets good.

Since then, beyond his endless hiking, Pierce has run marathons, hiked the grand canyon, gotten married and impacted former Patriots linebacker Teddy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in 2005 and turned to Pierce for inspiration.

That’s what the Nashua resident does.

He inspires.

“It’s not magic,” Pierce told me. “It’s problem solving, perseverance.”

I met Pierce last week at the Centennial Inn, where he helped raise money for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. He mingled and schmoozed during cocktail hour, then addressed seven circular tables in the dining room, saying he was “angry, hurt, in denial,” when his life changed, in 1989.

Pierce had graduated from the University of New Hampshire and was working as a hardware design engineer. He had always loved playing football and basketball, always loved the school drama clubs.

Then his world went black. Not totally at first. In a two-week period, Pierce lost all vision in his right eye and half in his left. For 11 years his sight, already severely limited, faded and returned, until it left for good in 2000.

There’s more. In 2003, the same neurological disorder attacked Pierce’s cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance, leaving him in a wheelchair and adding to his emotional and physical challenges. Intense rehab got Pierce back on his feet two years later.

His first guide dog was Ostend, a golden retriever who died in 2005. Then came Mighty Quinn, a yellow Lab who passed away early this year. Quinn had been at Pierce’s side when he hiked the 48 4,000-footers, scaling them in one winter season and also through three summer sessions.

“My low point came when Mighty Quinn died,” Pierce told the Centennial crowd of about 75 people.

Quinn and Ostend led Pierce to Patriots games through the 1990s and 2000s. His no-quit attitude and allegiance attracted the attention of Bruschi, one of the best linebackers in Patriots history, a three-time Super Bowl champion.

They met at a season-ticket holders’ event, when Bruschi was healthy and strong. They shared the same birthday but not the same physical challenges. Not yet, anyway.

Bruschi greeted Pierce at his stadium seat after wins. Pierce was named 2001 Patriots Fan of the Year.

Then Bruschi suffered a stroke in 2005. His career, he thought, was over. He suffered partial paralysis. Through rehab, though, his mobility returned.

Pierce, it turns out, was part of that rehab. He let Bruschi lean on him. He showed what life was like for him, full, rich, rewarding. He gave a pep talk to Bruschi’s father, confined to a wheelchair after he’d suffered a stroke, too.

Bruschi could not be reached for comment. But his bond with Pierce is everywhere on the internet, highlighted by a 2008 Sports Emmy Award-nominated HBO documentary in which Bruschi describes his loyalty to Pierce.

“He took notice of me and ever since then we’ve developed a relationship,” Bruschi says in the 10-minute film. “I consider (Pierce) a friend. I had trouble seeing and walking, and that linked us even more. My dad had a stroke and Randy inspired him, 800 percent.”

I wanted to tap into the inspiration Pierce had to offer. So he and Autumn took me and photo editor Geoff Forester up the south peak of Uncanoonuc Mountain in Goffstown, a 6/10-of-a-mile cupcake for Pierce.

“On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of terrain scale, with 10 being the hardest,” Pierce said, “this is a 3.”

If felt like a 9 to me. Not the distance, but the rocks and roots that covered the trail, all of which had “turned ankle” and “have a nice trip; see you in the fall,” written all over them.

And, sure, Pierce stumbled a few times, his right foot once catching a rock, which slid outward and took his leg for a ride.

Beyond that, though, he was fine. While I walked with my head down the entire time, studying the obstacle course that covered nearly every inch below, Pierce saw nothing.

Holding Autumn’s harness in his left hand and his walking stick in his right, Pierce navigated the mountain with ease. He knew to step down or up based on Autumn’s movements.

When Autumn stopped, Pierce knew a potentially troublesome rock lay in the way, and Autumn waited for him to tap it two or three times with his stick. That alerted Autumn that Pierce knew the rock was there and it was okay for Autumn to continue.

During the hike, we learned Pierce, at times, remains upset over the sudden condition that took his sight. “Sometimes I wake up and say to myself, ‘I’m blind again today?’ ” Pierce said.

He talked about the organization he founded, 20/20 Vision Quest, and its mission of inspiring blind people to achieve goals through outreach, education, support and, of course, dogged determination.

We learned that hiking on snow provides more even footing than the terrain on this day and thus makes it easier for him to navigate.

We learned that it once took Pierce more than four hours to hike up 1.6-mile Mount Monadnock in the early days of his new-found love, and that he did it in 45 minutes two years later.

And I learned how to be a guide dog, replacing Autumn for a few minutes on our way down. Pierce kept a hand on my right shoulder as I walked cautiously, suddenly burdened with a responsibility that made me nervous but had no effect on him.

“You’re fine,” Pierce told me.

We thanked him at the road for showing us part of his world. He told us he’ll be running a few marathons soon, including Boston in April, and he’ll hike Mount Kilimanjaro, all 19,341 feet, next September.

We had no reason to doubt he’d make it.

The man, remember, has great vision.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)