Like Golf, a Mental Game
Jacob May Keeps Eye on the Ball
Sports fan Jacob May recalls how his grandma would humor him when he was a small child and loved to recite team rosters to her. Now 23, he is still passionate about sports – especially golf.
May attended GCC from 2010-2012. He started with four classes, back-to-back, taking Criminal Justice and dreaming of being a canine officer in the military or police department.
A year into his college career, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. When his neurologist recommended reducing his load to one class per week, May’s dreams nearly skidded to a stop. With military service seemingly out of reach, he was forced to contemplate a different career path.
Despite health challenges since birth, including a genetic heart condition, May has persevered. For the last five years, he has competed in the Special Olympics USA Games at The College of New Jersey. He participates in the Unified Golf Team play, accompanied by his mother, Shannon. They play “alternate shot.” (He hits, then she hits, etc.)
But it’s the third member of the team that Jacob views as his own special weapon, despite the fact that she hits nary a golf ball. Her name is Nala, and she is Jacob’s constant companion and helper. Despite being a central member of the family, her lineage is clearly canine: Boxer and Greyhound, to be more specific.
“If you were to see her run, you’d see the greyhound in her,” said May. “But her personality is classic Boxer: when she knows someone is dog-friendly, she’ll wag her whole body.”
The Special Olympics, with participants from age eight to 80, gave Nala a chance to meet lots of new two-legged friends. As a rule, people are not allowed to pet service dogs without the owner’s permission. “Nala adjusted so well that we just told people to go ahead,” said May.
Despite the oppressive summer heat, Nala wouldn’t leave May’s side. She finished the games with her own participation ribbon – presumably for golf, and not for chasing pigeons around the campus each morning.
Because he had speech problems as a child, May’s first language was sign language. He took three years of it in high school, then more classes at GCC. He’s taught Nala basic commands. “She’s a major bird dog, and she gets ‘No,’ ‘Sit,’ ‘Stay,’ and ‘Down,’”said May. Aware that his hearing will continue to deteriorate, May embraces sign language pragmatically. “It’s good to get better, to continue learning,” he says.
Pragmatism in the face of challenges is apparently a family trait. When May’s diagnosis of epilepsy required a dramatic reduction in his activities, it was May’s mother who pushed her son to consider working with a dog.
“All through his life, Jacob was kind of a quiet person,” she said. “But I knew he was good with dogs.” In high school, May had trained a service dog for the Foundation for Service Dog Support (FSDS). Seeking to pull her son out of the doldrums after his epilepsy diagnosis, May’s mother reached out to the same foundation, asking for help.
FSDS responded by introducing Jacob to Nala. It was a perfect pairing, as the person who had originally trained Nala had attended Arizona State University. That meant Nala was already comfortable being on a college campus. “Working with Nala forced Jacob to open up,” said his mother. “In fact, he eventually became known as ‘The Dog Whisperer.’”
Nala, now four years old, was trained to alert someone when May was having a seizure. She can now sense an impending seizure before it begins. With May around the clock, the dog’s loyalty runs deep. Always alert to his needs, she places herself between him and other people if she senses the need for security.
In contemplating his future, May is matter-of-fact. Acknowledging he’s on a slow trajectory toward losing his hearing, he’s focused on being prepared. A recent move to Fayetteville, North Carolina will put him closer to his dream. He plans to attend Fayetteville Tech Community College and to pursue a degree in broadcasting; one career option would be to work with local sports teams.
And although his epilepsy may keep him from serving in uniform, military service is still on his mind. Now living near Fort Bragg, May has some ideas about how to make that happen. “They have canine-unit training there, where they train dogs for the US Army Rangers; I’d like to do kennel work and take Nala to work with me.” Once again, May demonstrates the pragmatic thinking that has helped him accomplish other goals in life.
May’s mother is there every step of the way. Having completed a bachelor’s degree in special education already, she plans to enroll in a sign-language-interpreter class at Fayetteville Tech. Her goal is to earn an associate degree in sign language and eventually, a national certificate. That way, she can hone her skills to help her son as his hearing diminishes. She couldn’t be more proud of how her son has met life’s challenges. “He could have taken the epilepsy diagnosis and stopped, but he pushed forward,” she said. “And with Nala, he can have continued success.”
Nala is up to the task. “She’s got her head on his shoulder even as we speak,” said May’s mother during a recent conversation. “It’s very sweet.”
“And she knows what we’re talking about right now, by the way.”