Amputee Dayton Webber, 11, excels at wrestling -- and a whole lot more

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; C01

Here's the scouting report on 11-year-old Dayton Webber: No arms. No legs. Huge heart.

Whether he's wrestling, playing football, go-karting or ice skating, Dayton doesn't just participate -- he competes.

"I just like to do sports," Dayton said. "I feel like I can play sports and kind of show people what I can do -- that I can do sports just as good as them. I feel like I can do anything if I just put my mind to it."

For four years, Dayton, whose limbs were amputated when he was 11 months old because of a life-threatening bacterial infection, has wrestled competitively in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Dayton, who lives in the Charlotte Hall section of Charles County with his parents and his brothers Tyler, 17, and Justin, 5, started out with a club in Calvert County. Now he competes for Rampage Wrestling in Waldorf.

By now, Dayton is well known on the local wrestling circuit. When he started out, his very presence moved some parents of wrestlers on other teams to tears.

"It's a moving thing, seeing him out there, trying his heart out," William "Lou" Hennessy said.

Hennessy, a district court judge in Charles, first saw Dayton at a competition two years ago. He rounded up his three sons, who were wrestling for another team, and a teenager who also wrestled and was living with his family and had them watch Dayton. "Some kids don't know how good they have it," Hennessy said.

Dayton doesn't quite get all the fuss. Sports run through his family, so competition is in his blood. He would have it no other way.

A lot of kids are curious when he meets them, said Dayton, an articulate sixth-grader. They ask how he lost his hands and feet and parts of his arms and legs. He answers. It's no big deal.

Every now and then, he said, a kid will express doubt that Dayton can play or compete. And then that drives him.

"Anything they say I can't do, I try to show them I can do it," Dayton said.

He showed his drive at a recent match in Waldorf, where no one batted an eye during his bout. The referee blew his whistle, and Dayton and Mac Scott began grappling for position.

Mac, 9, maneuvered himself onto Dayton's back, pressing until Dayton's face nearly touched the mat. Dayton rose and flipped his opponent to the mat. After three one-minute periods, the whistle blew again. Mac won on points, 4 to 1.

Mac offered his hand for the postmatch handshake. Dayton reached out and touched it with his padded stump.

Mac's mother, Geanie Scott, said it was hard to watch the match because she wanted to root for both boys. "We all have challenges, but he has more," Scott said.

Good luck convincing Dayton of that.

'He's just a boy'

Dayton not only skateboards but also does tricks -- the equivalent of handstands on his arm stumps. He races go-karts, with the help of Velcro-outfitted gloves that help him control the steering wheel with the insides of his biceps. He plays video games, such as "Madden NFL 10," balancing the controls on his lap and pecking at the buttons.

He ice-skates. "We just stick his legs in the skates and tie them real tight," said his mother, Natalie Webber, 37.

Dayton is also the family's most skilled user of chopsticks, she said.

His parents said they never pushed him to play or compete, nor did they discourage his athletic aspirations. (Dayton, though, contends that he had to nag his parents to let him play football.)

"He's just a boy," Natalie said. "In our family, that's what kids do. All the members of our family are athletically oriented. Anything a kid would want to do, he does."

When he was 8 and 9, Dayton played on a youth football team, which had an "A" squad for the better players and a "B" team. Dayton played for the "A" team. He has prosthetic legs, but he eschewed them on the gridiron. On his stumps, he played on the defensive line, usually lining up in a four-point stance, sometimes standing upright like a linebacker.

Before long, his teammates and coaches were calling Dayton "the Vacuum" because he was so good at recovering fumbles -- at least four in one game.

"He has a nose for the football you wouldn't believe," said Rich Brenner, one of Dayton's football coaches.

Being lower to the ground than other players can be an advantage, Dayton said. As plays developed, he said, he could look between offensive linemen and see in which direction the quarterback or running back was headed with the football.

"I'd bear-crawl past the linemen," Dayton said. "I liked trying my best to get through the line."

Willingness to learn

As for wrestling, Dayton wins his share of matches, pins his share of opponents and has been pinned only once -- in his first year of wrestling, when he was 7, said his father, Mike Webber.

Because of his physical limitations, Dayton can't execute certain wrestling moves. But his opponents also can't use certain basic tactics, such as going for his ankles.

Harry T. Hornick was Dayton's first wrestling coach. He said that when the Webbers brought Dayton to him, he thought, " 'Poor guy.' But you could tell from the look on his face he was very excited. He had a sparkle in his eye, like, 'This is going to be fun.' I basically started thinking, 'I'll have to figure out how he can wrestle.' "

Dayton's willingness to learn was a big plus, Hornick said. "Getting him to try stuff is easy. He's really a tough kid to pin, because he's strong, he's quick, he tries hard. These are all characteristics of a good wrestler."

Wrestling matches are paired according to weight. Dayton wrestles in the 52- to 55-pound group, often against kids who are younger. In practice, he participates in all the drills his fellow Rampage wrestlers do. When they run laps, Dayton hustles around on his stumps.

At the end of practice, the wrestlers pick up a fellow wrestler and carry him over a shoulder in a firefighter's drill. Dayton picks up his brother Justin, who also wrestles, and is a mere 10 pounds lighter.

An emergency-room visit

Natalie Webber said she thinks Dayton's resiliency has something to do with the ordeal he survived as an infant.

In May 1999, his parents took Dayton to an emergency room in La Plata. He was swollen and had a 105-degree fever.

Doctors found that Dayton had been born without a spleen, an organ that helps filter bacteria from the bloodstream. He had streptococcus bacteria in his bloodstream, and the flow to his extremities was compromised.

Dayton's prognosis was so dire at first that a doctor asked his mother if there was anything she wanted done if the boy couldn't be saved.

Natalie Webber, a Catholic, wanted Dayton baptized.

A priest was summoned. As Dayton's parents, siblings and other relatives stood nearby, the priest baptized Dayton. Then he administered last rites.

Dayton ended up spending four months at Children's National Medical Center. To save him, doctors amputated at the knees and just above the elbows.

"For a kid to come so close to dying, I think he has it in him -- that drive to survive," Natalie Webber said.

And to have fun.

On the same day he lost to Mac Scott, Dayton pinned another opponent.

Dayton touched the other boy's hand, then scampered toward his parents, beaming.

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