Ken Rossi can neither see nor walk, but there was a time the well-known Santa Rosa native ran strong and proudly for Piner High’s track and cross-country teams.
Typically teammates would take turns running at his left, guiding him by holding onto his Prospectors shirt.
“They just tugged me a little when they wanted me to turn left,” said Rossi, who’s now 50 and eagerly anticipating a big event on Saturday night.
At a banquet at the Santa Rosa Golf & County Club, he’ll be one of several former Piner athletes, teams and coaches inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
Rossi, of the Class of 1985, will be inducted by his former coach, the renowned Jim Underhill, a man to whom Rossi has always been grateful.
“He really bent over backwards for me,” Rossi said. “He went out of his way to adapt things.”
Rossi had lost most of his vision to progressive glaucoma when he entered Piner, and by his junior year he was entirely blind. The support of Underhill, his teammates and Mort Gray of the Empire Runners allowed him to show himself and his community what he could do on the track and also on the cross-country course
Rossi did well at Piner, then even better in the United States Association of Blind Athletes. Traveling to Long Beach, New York City and elsewhere for USABA meets, he became a state champion in the 800- and 1,500-meter runs, and he set two records in the nationals.
Rossi is a recreational swimmer now, and he stays strong by propelling himself about Santa Rosa in a manual wheelchair.
He wasn’t long out of high school when he lost his ability to walk to sensory motor disorder. In 2006, he suffered a spinal-cord injury when a car slammed into him as he wheeled himself across Montgomery Drive in a crosswalk.
Through it all, Rossi remains active and upbeat. An artist, he was featured on the “Today” show in a January, 2014, segment that showed him demonstrating his technique to children at the Sonoma County Museum.
Today he counts the minutes to Saturday’s Piner Hall of Fame celebration.
“It was a great surprise,” the former runner said. “I’m very honored.”