The Can-Do Kid : There's Nothing Artificial About Birmingham's Charlie Arango, a Wide Receiver Who Tossed His Prosthesis to Prove He Could Catch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charlie Arango watched a pass bounce off his left arm for the last time.

He was acutely aware of the problem and decided it was time to eliminate it--forever. When Arango arrived home one day after playing in a junior high, flag-football game, he took off the rubber prosthesis that covered his three-quarter length arm and never wore it again.

"One day he told me, 'Daddy, I don't need it. I feel more comfortable like this,' " Hugo Arango, Charlie's father, recalled.

Hugo Arango had mixed emotions. He had brought his family to Los Angeles from Guatemala in 1981 for the sole purpose of getting an artificial limb for his only child.

But Charlie saw no need to wear a substitute hand on his left arm, especially if the device would hinder his football career. His father reluctantly agreed.

"To me, this is normal," Arango said, pointing to his left arm during a practice session this week. "This is how I was born. I don't feel different."

Five years have passed since Arango tossed his rubber prosthesis into a closet. And he certainly doesn't miss it now that he is a starting wide receiver for Birmingham High.

"Charlie's a tough kid," said Paul Prince, the Braves' quarterback. "He dives for all the balls. He puts 110% effort into every single route he runs. He wants to prove to everyone that he can catch."

Arango proved long ago he was a football player, according to Birmingham Coach Chick Epstein. The 5-foot-9, 150-pound senior started three games at cornerback and a half-dozen others at outside linebacker last season in addition to his duties on special teams.

But while Arango feels the same as any other athlete on the field, he cannot escape the visible difference that some opponents ungraciously point out. Like the time nearly two weeks ago when Birmingham played University High.

"I went in for a punt return and (a University player) said, 'Oh, I got the guy with no hand. . . . I got the one-armer,' " Arango said.

Being the focal point of stares and rude comments is nothing new for Arango. People are always going to stare, he said. It's something he has learned to accept.

"I just smile because it doesn't hurt me," he said. "I went through it in junior high."

Until age 10, Arango shied away from sports. He had given in to his classmates' assumption that he could not play traditional American sports such as basketball, baseball and football.

But one Saturday, Arango had a change of heart. A friend, Elden Henry, persuaded Arango to play in a pick-up football game. Arango's ability to catch Elden's passes surprised many, including himself.

Before long, Elden and Charlie began envisioning themselves as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

"(Elden) used to always say, 'Montana to Rice,' " Arango said.

And a wide receiver was born. Arango redecorated his bedroom with pictures and posters of Jerry Rice. Catching passes and running for touchdowns was all Arango wanted to do.

Certain he was too small to play football as a freshman at Birmingham, Arango waited until his sophomore year to try out for the team. He was a wide receiver on the Bee team that year even though skeptical teammates doubted he would be able to contribute. He soon proved them wrong.

"He's the hardest worker out here," assistant coach Dave Lertzman said.

Arango is motivated by the nonbelievers.

"If there is something you could do and you have both hands and I can't do it, I'm gonna keep trying until I do it," he said. "I won't give up."

Ask Arango what is impossible for him and he will quickly answer, "climbing a rope." But feats beyond that, he said, have yet to be identified.

He bench presses 195 pounds with the help of three spotters and has a daily workout routine replete with push-ups and biceps curls. He learned to tie his shoes at age 5 and can do so as quickly as a two-handed person. And he drives a stick-shift Toyota Celica.

"He does everything," Hugo Arango said. "I never help him. I let him do it. He's got to try hard and learn it for himself."

Arango, who brings in the offensive play to the huddle, has started in each of the Braves' victories over Canoga Park, University and Reseda. But his dream of catching a touchdown pass has yet to be fulfilled. In fact, he is still waiting for his first catch. But, according to his coach, it's only a matter of time.

"He will catch a touchdown pass, no question about it," Epstein said.

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