Calabria may have been in the national spotlight, but at practice with his Concord-Carlisle teammates, he’s just one of the guys. He participates and competes with the first-team unit at times, and he shows off all the attributes needed to be a high-end soccer player with his change of direction, touch and vision on the field.
Calabria’s upper-body strength, that of a 155-pound person in a 106-pound frame, allows him to use quick, purposeful bursts of speed to mark a man on defense or start a rush on offense. He is able to deliver power on his kicks (and touch if he needs it) that match most of his teammates’ by using a swinging pendulum motion made possible by the stability of his crutches.
He is even able to stall his body, almost like he is frozen in midair, to play a ball well out of his reach or when he attempts a bicycle-kick motion to play balls over his head with a defender draped all over his back.
‘‘You watch his first touch and it’s exceptional,’’ Patriots (team stats) coach Ray Pavlik said. ‘‘People don’t understand until they see him play that this kid is totally legit. It’s instant respect.’’
Calabria had seen the field in at least one game in early-season action so far for Concord-Carlisle, and although you can hear the willingness to get out on the field and compete in every minute of the game in his voice, his presence is felt even when he doesn’t get into the game.
‘‘You talk about people with disabilities and it’s not a disability to him at all,’’ Concord-Carlisle athletic director Barry Haley said. ‘‘Every kid that competes against him gains much more. It kind of opens their eyes to anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I don’t think Nico or we see it as him having a disability at all. He’s just a regular student here and he competes.’’
Calabria still hasn’t decided on college plans for next year, but you can bet soccer will stay with him in the near future and beyond. He started playing for the U.S. national amputee soccer team this past year, and in his first international competition on foreign soil, he scored a goal in a 2-1 win over Mexico.
You could call it the next challenge for Calabria.
The team, which is made up of about 25 players scattered all over the country, couldn’t get enough funding for a trip to the amputee World Cup this year in Russia. According to executive director Rick Hofmann, the plan is to make a run at the 2014 games with Calabria as the youngest and newest mainstay on the roster.
Wherever he ends up you can bet that determined stare will always be focused on a goal with athletics in mind, but Calabria will most likely be cloaked in a soccer uniform.
‘‘I find (sports) therapeutic for me when I'm having a tough time,’’ Calabria said. ‘‘Playing sports brings me back. Competing and performing against two-legged athletes connects me with people. Instead of just being that one-legged soccer player, I just become that competitor and that soccer player with one leg.’’
So far, he’s done just that.