NEW PORT RICHEY — Aaron Masterson is a natural soccer player despite the fact that he can't use his feet.
The 14-year-old Gulf Middle School student suffers from muscular dystrophy and is unable to walk. That doesn't stop Masterson from doing just about anything he wants, though. Whether it's replacing the tires on his electric wheelchair or storming down the wing for his wheelchair soccer team, the Tampa Thunder, Masterson earns his nickname, "the Spark Plug."
"It's interesting because Aaron spent a year watching his older brother (David) play," Thunder assistant coach Tari Carpenter said. "He had the shortest learning curve of any player I've ever seen. He's already playing at the same level as kids that have been playing for six or seven years. He's brought a spark to the team because they know when he goes in, he's got it."
A few years ago, it became clear that Masterson would no longer be able to walk. Like his 20-year-old brother David, who also has muscular dystrophy, Masterson found himself in a wheelchair.
But instead of feeling shackled, he said the experience was somewhat liberating. As a person with muscular dystrophy, Masterson could never participate in regular sports. He played Special Olympics soccer but found that he wanted more competitiveness. Once he started using a wheelchair, he found the desired competition in wheelchair soccer.
"It was really exciting when I started playing this sport because there is a lot more hitting than the soccer I used to play," said Masterson, who now plays on the same team as his brother. "When you play in a game, it's serious, the other teams are competitive. My favorite part of the game is scoring because it's so exciting. This is a sport I feel like I can play for the rest of my life."
Having sat on the sidelines watching David for a year, Masterson understood wheelchair soccer and the mechanics of it from the moment he sat in the chair. Learning the maneuvers was all there was left to achieve.
"It takes a little time to learn how to move the chair the way you want and to get used to the movement," Masterson said. "I learned a lot from my brother, though, so I caught on fast. We talk about soccer and watch game tape at home so we can learn from mistakes and look for things that work in a game."
The game and the gear are a little different. Each team has four players on the field at a time. The chairs are equipped with bumpers to strike the ball, fans to cool the battery, and smaller wheels in the back so the chairs don't tip back when the players accelerate. No one can use their hands — including the goalie. He must rely on his chair to block the shots.
To his teammates, Masterson is the new guy, but an essential asset to a team that finished second at the Americas Champions Cup this year. Ben Carpenter, 15, is a veteran of the team, having played for the Thunder since age 8 and was the MVP of the tournament. He has seen the team change since Masterson's arrival and had nothing but plaudits for the winger.
"He's picked up the game faster than anybody else and made an impact," Carpenter said. "He's scored five or six really big goals over the last year, which is really good for a rookie. We're glad he's on our team."
His infectious energy and positive attitude are things that everyone around the Thunder talks about. None more so than Don Gorman, the team's head coach, who has seen just how determined to be independent Masterson and his brother are.
"These guys amaze me," Gorman said. "I went to over their house one day and Aaron and David were out in their garage like a couple of mad scientists with wheelchair parts everywhere and electric tools. They had propped up their wheelchairs so they could work on them and adjust them however they wanted without the help of an able-bodied person.
"They simply blow my mind."