Perhaps the first thing people see when they meet Caiden Hooks is that he can't see them in return.

Hooks lost both of his eyes to retinoblastoma in 2007, but blindness is only part of the package for the 14-year-old, who will be a freshman this coming school year at the new Olentangy Berlin High School.

Needing an outlet for their rambunctious son when he entered elementary school -- a time when he was coping not only with losing his sight but also a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism -- Jamie and Darci Hooks introduced him to wrestling.

"We could see he enjoyed heavy physical work with deep pressure, he enjoyed heavy sensory input," Jamie Hooks said. "When he lost his vision, he couldn't just be rambunctious. He couldn't just go out and play rough-and-tumble. Wrestling was a way we could get him all that kind of stuff."

Listening to his father tell the story before he participated in a Cardinal Wrestling Club practice June 19 at Otterbein University, the muscular, 5-foot-7, 140-pound Hooks nodded his head in agreement.

"This is where life sat me down," he said.

Lately, Hooks has spent time raising his arms in victory.

Representing DiSabato Wrestling Club, he finished second at 140 pounds in the Ohio Wrestling Association for Youth state tournament March 24 to earn a berth in the NUWAY Spring K-8 Duals held April 7 and 8 at Lansing, Michigan. Although he did not win a match in that tournament, he rebounded to win the gold medal in the 11th annual Wrestle Against Autism on April 22 at Otterbein -- an event at which he also sang the national anthem.

Hooks, who will turn 15 on Aug. 29, also plays the cello, piano and trumpet and is an aspiring writer. Among his efforts are fan fictions of Star Wars.

But when it comes to sports, wrestling has outlasted every other interest, including judo and swimming.

Visually impaired wrestlers must begin matches with both arms extended, one up and one down, to maintain constant contact.

"If a person breaks away, we have to go to the middle again. Nobody can back up and shoot," Hooks said. "I'm more a reaction-type guy, waiting for the opponent to make the first move so I can react appropriately and I don't have to take risks that could lose me points. If I end up on bottom, I'm good at escaping."

Hooks was raised near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was diagnosed with retinoblastoma before his second birthday. Aggressive chemotherapy did not kill the cancer, and to prolong his life, his left eye was removed in March 2007. Removal of the right eye followed six months later.

"He's had over 120 sedated procedures," Jamie Hooks said.

In search of better schooling for Caiden, Jamie and Darci Hooks moved the family to Columbus and enrolled him in the Ohio State School for the Blind. He attended that school and wrestled there until last year, when he went to Shanahan Middle School, which formerly fed exclusively into Olentangy High School.

Hooks enrolled in DiSabato Wrestling Club at age 9. He and coach Adam DiSabato, a two-time state champion at Ready (1987-88) and three-time All-American at Ohio State (1990, 1991, 1993), admittedly took time to learn the other's style.

"Only great pressure can turn coal into a diamond," Hooks said.

"When I was teaching the whole group, he didn't see exactly what he should do so he asked a lot of questions. I ended up having to tell him I'd help him more when I was able to," DiSabato said. "He wanted to know so bad, know why we were doing what we were doing. He learned and dealt with his challenges. That's benefited him because he's always wanted to better himself. He is hard on himself, sometimes too hard. He will dwell on the stuff he doesn't get right. He is a perfectionist.

"His strength is his strength. He has a good sense of balance and a good center of gravity. He listens. He will work hard for you if you push his buttons right."

During Cardinal Wrestling Club practices, teammate Jacob DeHart, from Mount Vernon, guided Hooks through pre-practice running and some drills, as did his coach at Berlin, Josh Heffernan. Heffernan also broke down instructions for Hooks as teammates watched demonstrations from other coaches.

"As a general rule, blind people are actually very independent," Hooks said. "We want to do everything everybody else is doing."

DiSabato cautioned that Hooks will face new challenges at Berlin.

"He's to the point where he understands that he must push himself through adversity and get to a different level heading into high school. It will be different for him, but he's used to that," DiSabato said. "There's nobody like Caiden. He's a unique kid."

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave