Unforgettable hurt from bullying

Before corrective surgery, Dick Vitale was teased as a child for having a drifting left eye. Courtesy Dick Vitale

The subject of bullying in America has become a major conversation. As it is a problem that has really left a mark on our society, I want to share a story about my background.

As a kid, I wasn't familiar with the word "bullying." I always believed it was just teasing at the time, but I was teased big time. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I lost vision in my left eye in an accident with a pencil. I had no control of my left eye, so it would drift. I had no ability to look people directly in the eye.

It drove me wild.

My peers didn't make it any easier. I was teased over and over, but I was afraid to complain about it to a teacher or coach because I felt I would be labeled as soft or weak. I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I just wanted the name-calling to stop.

I remember sitting in my room crying while I stared in the mirror trying to cover up the fact that I couldn't look people in the eye.

Having fun at my expense was the norm. My peers never realized the pain they caused when they made nasty comments to me, but I was deeply hurt.

I pitched in Little League, and opposing players and even parents would shout, "Can you even see the plate?!" They thought they were being so cool. Their words cut me like a knife.

But I went out there, I sucked it up, and I played.

This would be a much better world if people treated each other with honor and decency. There is no reason to be cruel to someone who is down or has a problem.

Some people have even suggested that my eye problems were the reason for my upbeat personality, energy and enthusiasm. They said I was trying to make up for feeling inferior by being overly energetic.

When I was a teenager, I was so shy about approaching girls to ask them out on a date because I was embarrassed about my eye.

As an adult in the world of television, my problem led to a difficult situation.

One time in the 1980s, I came out of the studio and asked one of the assistants how everything was going. I was told everything was great except for this one fan who kept calling, saying "ESPN should get rid of that one-eyed wacko. His eye is going all over the place."

I was devastated.

After that conversation, I called up my boss, Steve Anderson, then vice president in charge of production. I told him that maybe I should get out of the TV business. I told him the story and expressed to him that I did not want to embarrass the network. Anderson put me at ease by explaining that I was hired for my basketball knowledge and enthusiasm.

One day, my daughters went to Dr. Conrad Giles for an eye checkup. A big basketball fan, he knew about my eye situation and thought he could help. He could not restore the vision that was lost, but he could prevent my eye from drifting.

He told me he would have to operate on the good eye to fix the other. He assured me that he had never lost vision in the eye of a patient during surgery, though there was no guarantee.

I called Anderson back and told him what was going on. He told me not to worry about getting surgery and to continue doing my job. It was tough because the teasing had really bothered me. I had felt miserable for years.

I finally decided to have the surgery. I am so glad that I did because it alleviated the problem with my eye drifting and I was eventually fitted to wear contacts. I felt like a new person.

I hope my story inspires people to show compassion when they see someone with a problem. Help them and do the right thing. Don't make them feel worse. So many people out there cannot handle bullying. I have read about situations where victims can't take it anymore and commit suicide. It is truly a tragic situation.

I'm 74 years old, and I have been so lucky and blessed. There have been some bumps in the road, but I have lived a dream. And today, if you're being bullied, you do not have to just suck it up.

If you have a problem, tell the authorities. Speak with your parents, teachers or church leaders and talk about the pain. There are a lot of people out there who provide guidance and counseling.

Share your story. Do not be afraid.