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Northport student-athlete is “One-armed wonder”

So who comes away the most dumbfounded after an encounter with Josh Konkler?

Is it the baseball coach who waves his outfielders in close, assuming the batter who swings with just his left arm can’t go deep, and then watches him smack one over the center fielder’s head for a double?

Is it the defensive back, matched up across from a receiver with no right hand, who gives up on a long pass he just knows is uncatchable – only to see it go for a touchdown?

Is it the basketball opponent who knows the player he’s guarding can only go to his left, yet still falls for even the suggestion of a crossover dribble that doesn’t exist and gets beat anyway?

Or is it the stranger who discovers in the course of conversation that Josh Konkler is not just a three-sport pony?

He’s driven his brother’s race car – yes, a stick shift – in one of those pitmen’s dirt track free-for-alls at Northport Raceway. He immersed himself in taekwondo last summer and jumped up two belts in the space of a week. He took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and scored 98, and carries one of those show-off GPAs with a load that includes AP classes and a foreign language – even though some nights he might let homework slide because he’s polishing off 300 pages of “Eragon”

or some other recreational read.

“Once I know I can do something,” he said, “I guess I try to make it a little bit harder.”

Here’s the latest challenge: Konkler and his Northport High School basketball teammates are trying to reach Spokane for the state tournament for the first time in 36 years. The Mustangs actually made the State 1B field last year when the tournament’s first two rounds were scattered to satellite gyms across Washington, but were ousted before the final eight convened at the Arena.

They’re off to an 8-1 start, and it can’t hurt that the 6-foot junior guard has been in double figures three of the last five games, a circumstance that surely mystifies opponents – though not as much as some of their reactions mystify coach Erik Stark.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Even coaches will come up to me and say, ‘My gosh, it’s so good you let him play.’ Let him? He beat out other kids. I probably could have played him sooner, but he’s matured and waited his turn and earned it.

“The other night he scores on an awesome half-court pass on the fast-break. He stops the ball in the air one-handed, corrals it and shoots. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘OK, that’s a pretty good play for a kid with two hands.’ He can make plays and so, OK, maybe you cut him a little slack, give him a couple extra turnovers. But the fact is, he’s just pretty solid.”

And every time Konkler leaves opponents shaking their heads, teammate David Higgins knows what they’re thinking.

“The one-armed wonder,” he said.

When Michelle Konkler was pregnant with her first son, she had a dream that he was going to be born missing his left hand. Her doctor sent her to a counselor to deal with the angst of becoming a first-time mother, and Adrian was delivered with all his limbs working.

Her second pregnancy two years later was more problematic. She was diagnosed with placenta previa and had four ultrasounds that were meticulously studied, and yet it wasn’t until Josh was born that it was revealed his right arm had not fully formed. The doctor, Michelle remembered, began crying.

“I said, ‘I don’t care – let me hold him,’” she said. “He was the cutest little guy.”

And happy. Smiled constantly. Almost never cried. His mother called him, “Joker.”

For some, the challenges of parenting a limb-deficient child begin with simple acceptance. This wasn’t Michelle’s issue – at Seattle Children’s Hospital, in fact, she was drafted into a program to help other mothers who were uncomfortable with their babies. Beyond the hospital’s walls, however, she encountered some dismaying cruelty.

“My first experience taking Joshua outside was in the summer – he was a May baby – and I had him in just a cloth diaper, so his arm was exposed,” she recalled. “You know how people always want to come up and see a newborn? I had a crotchety old lady come up to me and when she saw him, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s missing his arm – you brought him home from the hospital?’”

Michelle suggested the woman was missing a heart.

Possibly the language got a little rougher after that initial rejoinder.

In any case, the resolve in the Konkler home grew not just to accept, but achieve – and in this cause, Allan and Michelle Konkler had a particularly driven accomplice in their older son.

The family moved to Northport from the Monroe area in 1999, after Allan had been disabled in a logging accident, crushed under a hurtling carriage. They settled on 23 acres down the road near Marble, hoping to find a “mellow, warm community,” according to Michelle – and they’ve found out how warm in many ways. When Josh was selected for a People-to-People leadership forum in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago, Northport residents chipped in to pay half the tab.

Meanwhile, Adrian Konkler “made it my personal goal to makes sure he’s twice the person I am.”

He’d take Josh along with him to junior high basketball practice, and make sure that his younger brother didn’t shy from physical challenges – but took them on safely. And he’d let people know they shouldn’t treat Josh differently.

“He used to read a lot and wouldn’t want to leave his room,” Adrian said, “so I’d get him to come out and do something with me – though the only time I really had to insist was when he had a book in his hands. I think he’s a lot more goal-oriented now, and more disciplined. He used to sleep all day, get up, read a book, eat food and go back to bed. Now he’s up at 6 a.m., going to a morning practice, helping my mom at school.”

The brothers played basketball, baseball and soccer together, but a chronic dislocated kneecap kept Adrian from playing football when Northport revived football last season. The Konklers didn’t allow Josh to go out either – until Adrian went to work on them.

“I’m the one who made my parents let him play,” Adrian insisted. “I knew he’d do well. He’s fast, strong – and I knew it would be another thing to shove in the world’s face, this one-handed kid playing football.”

Play? He played receiver. Caught eight touchdown passes. Was all-league.

The coaches’ vote was unanimous.

Josh Konkler isn’t overly self-effacing, but that football distinction is one he likes to put out there.

“It meant people were noticing me,” he said, “not because I had one arm, but because I can play.”

Here’s another: In his plunge into taekwondo last summer, he managed to submit “the biggest guy they had there – he was like 6-foot-2, 230 pounds.”

In many respects, the martial arts mentality – using an opponent’s leverage against him – carries Konkler through his days. He used to stick out his nubbin when approached to shake hands, though now he rotates his left hand to greet people. If he notices a younger child staring at him, he might go up to him and to see if he wants to touch it, or talk about it.

And the approach certainly works in sports.

“In football, the first two or three games, people would see my arm and instead of trying to tackle me, they’d go for the ball,” he said.

“Because of that, I’d get another 10 yards.”

And in basketball?

“I’ve found even though someone is always trying to keep me from going to my left, you give them one fake and they go back to what they instinctively do – even though they know I can’t go that way. Then they’re right back at my level again.”

For the Northport boys who’ve grown up with him, the incongruity of Josh Konkler is almost taken for granted.

“He’s like everyone else – but he’s unique,” Higgins said. “We don’t look at him as anything different, but is he inspirational? Absolutely. This one-armed kid, making the touchdown catch time and time again? When it’s hard for us to keep going, you look to this kid and he’s still trouping with a smile on his face, it sure moves me to live my life to the best of my ability.”

A mother’s eyes tell Michelle Konkler something else.

“Josh has a tendency to make you believe in miracles, I think,” she said.