John Lee Thompson – Overcoming Disability And Following Your Dreams

Andrew Dacuba, Editor in Chief

John Lee Thompson, second to the left, and his colleagues at Clover Stadium including Shawn Reilly, far right (courtesy of Drew Wohl).

One thing everyone can be guaranteed in life is challenge. But what a man can’t be guaranteed is that the challenge he faces will be easier than the man next to him.

John Lee Thompson is a student at St. Thomas Aquinas College who has faced profound challenges in life, far greater than many others. But he has not let these challenges stop him from pursuing his passions in life.

Thompson has cerebral palsy, a non-degenerative disability that affects his ability to move.

Thompson’s cerebral palsy often restricts him to a wheelchair, but it has not stopped him from going far in life, and aspiring to go ever further both in the field of media and the baseball field.

His first foray into a career in sports media was with his town’s local newspaper. Although he could not physically write, he did not let it stop him from taking the opportunity; his mother would come with him to help him write.

At the age of 18, while still in high school, he began working with the New York Boulders at Clover Stadium, working as clubhouse security, the team historian, doing play by play announcing, and helping others with disabilities through a disability liaison program he created.

His friend and colleague of 12 years at Clover Stadium, Brad Sarno, said “As a disability ambassador you connect with fans on a regular basis… and he is amazing when it comes to his fan interactions and just the way he puts himself out there for others.”

Thompson’s boss and president of the Boulders, Shawn Reilly, says “John has been with the Boulders for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember the first time I saw him at the ballpark, but for as long I can remember, John and the Boulders have been synonymous in my mind.”

Thompson has always had a deep-seated passion for sports, even before his job with the Boulders. When asked what he loved about sports, Thompson replied, “Do you have enough paper?”

When a big moment happens and the crowd gets loud – I still always get goosebumps. Of course there’s nothing like seeing an Aaron Judge home run go over the wall and to have that feeling like you’re 12 years old again! It’s just amazing!” he said.

Many others have noticed this passion in Thompson. In working with him at Clover Stadium, Reilly says Thompson stands out from so many others in his “endless enthusiasm [and] genuine excitement about being at the ballpark.”

Sports announcing has been a great way for Thompson to stay involved with his passion after finding out his disability was permanent.

Thompson says he loves “seeing how the players move after you say their name and seeing how much satisfaction they get for having their name announced. That’s pretty special to think that your voice was a part of that moment for another person.”

Thompson is exhaustive in ensuring his announcing makes for a special experience, both for the players and the fans.

“I literally will study hours of film on my iPad and listen to the game how a fan would hear it so that I can improve for the next call!” he said.

In spite of the challenges he’s faced, Thompson has taken advantage of the unique opportunity sports announcing has offered. That is why he says it would be a mistake to assume his wheelchair holds him back.

“How bad could it be when you’ve never lost a game of musical chairs? And you don’t have to worry about standing room, you know?” he joked. Even though his disability has limited him in some ways, Thompson emphasizes the importance of staying positive. 

He hopes he can motivate others to be positive as well through his story of managing disability. 

Just as he wants to inspire others, Thompson says he owes his success to his own inspirations, others with disabilities.

“It’s other people with different disabilities that keep me going,” he says.

“As much as people say, ‘I couldn’t imagine what you go through,’ I’ll immediately turn to somebody and say, ‘It’s not that bad for me. Look how people manage who once had all their independence and then had it taken away.’ For me, if you think about it, I’m gaining my ability each day. I’m gaining.”

Thompson does not deny that the wheelchair has been a burden on him at times. But he also says it’s no different from anyone else’s struggles.

“I don’t want any violins to be played for me… Everybody has bad days, you know?” he said.

Whenever his disability weighs heavily on him, he always manages to stay motivated because he says he is not just representing himself going into public, but all disabled people.

“One of the biggest titles I carry, besides trying to be the best son to my mother, and [the] best family member to my relatives, is also being a positive representative of people with disabilities.”

That is why Thompson encourages people to ask him questions about his disability. He says no matter how many questions he may get out of the blue, he is not insulted, but he welcomes them.

“Because I don’t know. I might be the first interaction somebody [has] had with a person with a disability.”

Thompson is thankful though that, in his career in communications, almost everyone he has met has been entirely accepting and understanding of him. In his experience, people are always glad to move a seat over when he pulls his wheelchair up. 

“I feel like the field of communications, it’s a very, very big fraternity… [it] is about being inclusive and thinking outside the box to give people with disabilities a fair chance at success. I wish all the fields would be like that because some fields are just not inclusive,” he said.

In Thompson’s job with the Boulders, his colleague Brad Sarno said he has never seen anyone view John differently because of his disability. “We’re always out there, helping him out, no matter what.”

When the Boulders won their first championship in 2014, Sarno said, “other than the players celebrating on the field, he was the first person that we made sure and that management made sure was on the field celebrating in that championship situation… You could just see it in his face and in his eyes that he was ecstatic about being part of something like that.”

With such supportive colleagues and such a positive attitude, Sarno believes Thompson will continue to be successful.

“He’s a star among those who are in the field, and I wanna see great things for him no matter what it is that he winds up doing.”

Boulders president Shawn Reilly spoke similarly of how receptive all Thompson’s colleagues are, and how Thompson’s passion for sports has made him synonymous with the team.

People know him now as Johnny Boulders… A few years back I was watching [the movie] Johnny Dangerously and the next time I saw John, it just came out; ‘Hey Johnny Boulders!’” 

“But he really is the face of the franchise,” Reilly said. “I think that some day when he finally realizes how impactful and inspirational he is, others will realize how gifted he truly is.” 

He echoed Sarno’s confidence in Thompson’s future, saying “whatever he decides to do, he will do it and do it well!”

To others with disabilities unsure of their own future prospects, Thompson said “Everyone fails sometimes. It’s your resilience during those times that matter. And frankly, I will tell you, people with disabilities are very resilient because life’s challenges help us build that resilience.”

For those who may look at him differently because of his condition, Thompson says he would tell them “no big deal.”

He only asks one thing of them.

“I would only encourage them to look at what’s in here,” he said pointing to his head, “instead of looking here first,” pointing to his chair.

“Because, you know, all capabilities aside, everybody should be judged on what they can do and who they are on the inside, no matter what the outside shows.”