“From the time I was born I had people telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do things, whether it was play sports or really have the active life style of another kid.”
Sam Kuhnert was always told he can’t, that he wasn’t good enough, that he’ll never make it.
Kuhnert, 25, was born without his left hand. He jokes that his parents knew he would be “okay” when he climbed up a TV antenna tower at just nine-months old. Adding that while he was growing up, his parents would never let him use his one hand as an excuse or a “crutch.”
Kuhnert doesn’t believe in excuses, and says it’s part of the reason he got as far as he did as an athlete. His obsession with sports started at a young age.
“From an early age [my dad] would try to give me toys and I would just throw them,” he laughs. “It’s a myth in my family that I was born with a ball in my hand because all I wanted to do was play ball, I never wanted to play with toys.
“It was always a baseball, basketball or football and I was always throwing it.”
He realized his dream of becoming a ball player could become a reality while watching Jim Abbott pitch. Abbott, who was born without his right hand, pitched in the major leagues for a decade in the 90’s.
“We would sit there and we’d watch Jim Abbott and I would just watch this guy and I was like ‘whoa, he’s got one hand like me and he’s playing on a major league stage, this is awesome.’” Kuhnert tells Sports Retriever. “It was like watching yourself on TV.”
So he would watch Jim Abbott’s games, then go outside and try to perfect the same glove transfer. While Abbott’s move didn’t work for Kuhnert, he found his own way of doing it.
As a young boy, he would hang around his older brother’s baseball practices for the chance to hit and field balls once the team finished drills. He even became somewhat of a spectacle, everyone was “coming around to watch the one-handed kid.” By the time he was five years old he was playing as a substitute on his brother’s team.
He didn’t stop at just baseball. Kuhnert became a three-sport athlete, playing the center position in basketball – he’s 6’6” – and wide receiver in football.
But it didn’t matter how much he proved himself, Kuhnert says there were always doubters along the way. Even his high school baseball coach didn’t think he was good enough.
“Every year I would hear the same thing, ‘you’re not good enough to play at the next level,’” Kuhnert says. The same thing happened his junior year, when he approached his pitching coach, whom he had worked with for several years, and told him he thinks he can play college baseball.
“He said, ‘well Sam, you throw hard but there’s not very many one-handed college baseball players, I just don’t think you can do it.’”
But Kuhnert took the negativity and turned it into fuel. He went from pitching three to four games a season against teams the coaches thought they would lose to regardless, to leading his high school to States during his senior year.
When he finally sat down to sign with Greenville College as a scholarship athlete to pitch for their baseball team, he made sure his coach, that same one who told him he wasn’t good enough, was sitting right beside him.
Kuhnert had always played sports alongside regular kids. But while working at a camp for kids with disabilities when he was 17 years old, he realized most kids with limb differences stick to sports that don’t involve their missing limb. Kids without an arm were playing soccer, because their chances of failing and feeling as if they were different were much lower.
Kuhnert, who had pitched, fielded, played wide receiver and shot free throws, wouldn’t accept that kids were limiting themselves because they were afraid. Which is why he founded NubAbility, a camp for children with limb differences and amputees, in 2011.
The camp opens for four days every Spring in his home town of Du Quoin, IL. It has grown from 19 kids, seven types of sports and seven coaches he recruited as volunteers, to 152 kids from 42 different states in the USA and two from abroad. They have over 20 sports offered at the camp, including archery, football, golf, tennis, volleyball, wakeboarding and, of course, baseball. Over 80 athletes have come to volunteer as coaches.
Hayden Filson, who has been coaching at NubAbility since its first year, says it’s “crazy” how the camp has grown. “A lot of it has been through word of mouth and social media,” she tells Sports Retriever.
Filson, 24, was born without her left arm below the elbow, and says “there was nothing like this” when she and Kuhnert were growing up. The most important thing for her is to help kids build confidence, so they understand they can play mainstream sports with other children. They use normal summer activities to boost their confidence, she explains, including playing on a slip n’ slide to help the kids get on the ground and learn how to slide into bases.
For Kuhnert, it’s important that the kids learn to tune out the noise around them. “The big thing I tell them is, you know there will always be people who doubt you but the only person who can limit you is you,” he says. “The only person who can tell you you can’t, is you.”
Shaquem Griffin is also proving that you “don’t need two.” Griffin, an offensive linebacker who lost his left hand because of a pre-natal condition, put on one of the most impressive performances at this year’s NFL Combine, impressing coaches as well as the league’s top players. Kuhnert reached out to 22-year-old Griffin in hopes that he would come coach at the camp. “What he did at the combine would be a surprise from players his size with two hands,” Kuhnert says of Griffin.
“He spreads the NubAbility attitude of owning his difference and proving all that doubt him wrong. I believe that Shaquem is going to bring something to the game that the NFL has never seen before. He is not only inspiring children born with limb differences and amputees but all the people with four limbs who have ever doubted themselves.”