TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – Brett Sheldon notices the uncomfortable glances and awkward stares from those who don't know him. He knows that no matter what he does, some people will never see him as just one of the guys, another football player on the Indiana State roster.
Sheldon is the 22-year-old backup kicker for the Sycamores and it so happens that he was born with short arms and hands with three fingers. The birth defect didn't stop him from chasing his dream of playing college football and he made the team as a walk-on.
Sheldon suited up but didn't play in Indiana State's 57-7 win over St. Joseph's (Ind.) this past Saturday, in part because of a left shin injury. He expects to be ready if called upon this Saturday at Cincinnati.
"It's always in the back of my mind," the physical education major said.
Sheldon figures if he plays, maybe then people will see his talent first and his foot-long arms later.
"I'm aware of it," he said. "I know exactly, from an early age, how some people look at me. That motivates me to not let anybody take anything away from me. I'll compete with anybody."
Sheldon is mostly self-sufficient. He clothes himself, does his schoolwork without assistance and can play most any sport. He drives a Dodge Ram truck, though he sits close to the steering wheel and the airbag is disabled for safety reasons. He can catch a football, even though he can't cross his arms, and he consistently throws a perfect spiral. He gets help putting on his football equipment, but after that, he's another football player.
"I enjoy being independent, but I also don't feel ashamed to ask for help," he said.
Those close to him say the way he's handled his birth defect exceeds his talent. His family members beam with pride when they discuss his athletic successes and his growth as a person. His coaches are thrilled to have him.
"He wouldn't tell you he's gone through anything different, that's the thing about him," his position coach, Jesse Minter, said. "He brings an added dimension, an extra heartbeat to the team. When guys say they can't do this, can't do that, all you've got to do is say, 'Look at this guy over here.'"
The starting kicker, freshman Cory Little, made a 24-yard field goal and 6 of 8 extra points in the season opener. Minter said Sheldon has earned his No. 2 position, and he would have no problem putting him in a game.
"He's one snap away," Minter said. "You never know. We'll see how the first guy does, and if we feel we need to make a change, Brett will be the first one in."
His teammates are impressed.
"He doesn't let his handicap or disability hold him back any," quarterback and holder Matt Seliger said. "Everybody looks at it at first, and then you kind of just forget about it because he gets along with everybody. You really don't notice it after a while."
Most of the people he has played sports with haven't initially taken him seriously. That's when the extrovert comes out.
"Anything, from basketball to pingpong, I can do," Sheldon said. "It's kind of hard to meet new people because they don't know what I'm capable of. When I meet new people, I like to play them in anything and show them."
Sheldon's mother, Laura Duncan, said his presence has helped the people around him grow as well.
"I saw his friends trying to help him," she said. "Years later, he told me there were a few times he got picked on, but he never brought that home to me. I just didn't see it. I saw more positive things."
His girlfriend, Samantha Schroeder, liked him immediately but wasn't sure how to approach the topic of his arms.
"I think like everyone, when I first met him, I was too scared to ask him what he could and could not do," she said. "Just from spending time with him, I got to see how he adjusted and how he did everything."
It didn't take her long to figure out why he had adjusted so well: "It doesn't matter who it is, what he's doing, he's competitive about it."
Sheldon began playing sports to be like his friends. His mother recalls her thoughts when her grade-school-aged son told her he wanted to play baseball.
"He came home, and I said, 'Oh boy, what are we going to do with this? How are we going to do this?'" she said.
Years later, she proudly pulled out old photos showing him batting, wondering aloud why she ever doubted.
By seventh grade, it was obvious that Sheldon was a good athlete. His stepfather put one of the old goal posts from Fountain Central High School in front of the family farm near Veedersburg, Ind. After a while, his stepfather, Andy Duncan, said he stopped looking at the defect and started focusing on the ability.
"When you're around it every day, you start seeing the potential," he said. "It's more like, well, what else can he do?"
Sheldon realized playing in college would be a real possibility after he made a 40-yard field goal as a varsity kicker for Fountain Central (Ind.) in ninth grade. He eventually became an all-state player with a career-long field goal of 48 yards.
Sheldon has dreams of playing professionally and how he plays at Indiana State will play a role in that. After stops at Franklin College (Ind.) and a failed attempt to walk on at Purdue, he has found a comfortable place.
Minter told him he had no guarantees of getting a spot in the spring. He got one, but was told he needed to get more height on longer field goals and become more consistent in placing his plant foot.
He immediately got to work. Besides his kicking, he did 500 sit-ups per day and learned to do bench presses with strings attached to dumbbells.
"I think he's really taken on the challenge and worked his butt off," Minter said. "Didn't miss a day all summer, all fall. He's out there every day before practice working on it."
Minter is impressed because Sheldon can't use full-sized arms to balance himself, yet he still gets good distance on his kicks.
"It's amazing that he can even do it, in my opinion," he said. "He's accepted the challenge and tried to overcome it."