Mikhail Sands was going to bench press 185 pounds, darnit. It didn’t matter if he had to physically tape the weights to his body to do it.
The bench was intimidating, and Sands didn’t know how he was going to lift the bar, or if he even could. All he knew is if he tried and failed, it wouldn’t hurt him nearly as much as if he didn’t try at all.
Sands was at the Kansas City Chiefs Training Center in April when he was assisted in connecting his left hand to a barbell with athletic tape. It was not a time to back down in the face of challenge — he was there to do what all the nation's other top high school players were doing at the Blue-Grey All-American Heartland Regional Combine.
But the 15-year-old Prairie View cornerback did it all with one hand.
“It was pretty tough and a little bit scary,” said Sands, who was born without any fingers on his left hand. “I was going against kids older than me, and the one thing I struggled with the most was the bench. It was a big thing to try, and I got it up halfway, but I didn’t complete it. Better luck next time.”
His “next time” came soon after at the Blue-Grey West Coast Super Combine over the second weekend in July in Oakland, despite Sands’ doubt of scoring an invite. Even though the one-handed cornerback struggles to get playing time at Prairie View, he continues getting invites to elite national football camps across the country and adds to the list of courageous athletes defying what people deem possible in sports.
“Why are you taking in a little boy who you know is going to die?”
Heather and Mike Sands decided to adopt kids because they couldn’t have any of their own. After searching through different adoption agencies, they landed on Nevada Foster Care in Las Vegas in 2000, and found foster brothers Mikhail and Matheu, who were nine and seven months old, respectively.
Originally, Heather and Mike were only going to adopt Matheu, until Heather saw Mikhail for the first time, off in his own world, chewing on his digit-less hand she affectionately refers to as “stubby.”
“I asked if I could hold Matheu, and as soon as he was put in my arms I knew he was mine,” Heather said. “I called back a few days later and asked if I could have Mikhail too.”
Both Mikhail and Matheu were born with various birth complications, including fetal alcohol syndrome and an addiction to crack. Mikhail was missing his fingers because either the amniotic band or umbilical cord wrapped around his hand in utero — much the same as former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott.
Heather was also warned that Mikhail had brittle bone disease and a life expectancy of five years. But that didn’t matter.
“All of my family was like, ‘Why are you taking in a little boy who you know is going to die?’” Heather said. “I couldn’t let Mikhail die in this system. For someone who has a baby born with cancer, do they say, ‘Oh I don’t want him,’ and turn him over to the state? No. They take the baby home and give them as much love as they can for their lifetime.”
After Heather and Mike brought the boys home and set Mikhail down on the living room floor, he was off — gone — just way too fast for a baby.
“As soon as he got stability on his legs, his feet would move so fast, he’d get tripped up and fall,” Heather said.
It was then Mikhail began falling in love with sports and becoming an athlete.
Inspiration from the Olympics
Mikhail was 4 years old living in New Mexico when he decided he wanted to be a professional athlete. Sands remembers watching superstar swimmer Michael Phelps win his first Olympic gold medal in 2004 in Athens in world record time.
“I saw him and wanted to be him. I wanted to do that,” Mikhail said.
Since then, all Mikhail has wanted to be is an athlete, regardless of sport. If he had two hands, swimming would have been his sport. But his entire life has been an athletic quest, and some parts have not come easy, and not just because of his disability.
“He came home in the first or second grade and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to be black anymore,’” Heather said.
Michael was quiet about it, but he was being bullied at his Albuquerque elementary school because he was black and his mom was white.
“His identity as a young, black male can sometimes be tough,” Prairie View football assistant coach Nate Howard said. But Howard said growing up in a biracial family is a big a part of what makes Mikhail really special and interesting.
“I asked him if he wanted to see a picture of the fastest man in the world,” Heather said. “So I pulled up a picture of Michael Johnson (former Olympic sprinter), and Mikhail was like, ‘He’s black… And he’s the fastest man in the world?’”
Heather explained that Johnson is an Olympian like Phelps — only he runs.
“I run. I could do that in the Olympics,” Mikhail said.
Fighting for a spot on the football field
After trying a slew of different sports growing up — soccer, track, rugby, basketball, lacrosse, football — the Sands gave Mikhail a choice: Olympics or football. Mikhail chose football.
“I want to be the first NFL player with one hand,” Mikhail said. “The minute I get drafted, the message goes out to all those players like me: if I can do it, you can do it.”
The Sands moved to Colorado when Mikhail was starting seventh grade at Prairie View Middle School. He played football, basketball and track. Mikhail shined in track, but got no playing time in football, which drew much frustration and grew worse the older he got.
Mikhail was ready to quit football freshman year at Prairie View, but he stuck it out with perseverance and support from players and coaches, especially Coach Howard.
“He tried to be a receiver first, but with Mikhail’s disability, it would be very difficult to be a receiver,” Howard said. “So we put him on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback and he’s progressing steadily to be a great defensive back.”
Mikhail said he’s really good at man coverage and pressing up hard against opponents.
“I keep them there and stop them from getting outside,” Mikhail said. “I get up in people’s faces and take them on.”
There are at least three senior cornerbacks on Prairie View's squad this year, which makes it all the more challenging for Mikhail to get playing time as a junior. But he anticipates being used to stop the running game.
Even though Mikhail chose football, he still has his sights set on the 2020 Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles. This past track season, Mikhail was able to cut his 300-meter hurdles time from 49 seconds to 43 seconds.
But his No. 1 goal is to get an athletic scholarship to a college where he can play football and run track. His dream school for football is Alabama or another Division I FBS powerhouse, but his realistic choice is a D-II school, and he’s interested in Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
The combines are a start to improve his skills for college recruiting. Especially when these national events feature the country’s top players to go against, and coaching tips from former NFL’ers, like Mark McMillian.
“I don’t look at it as a group of the top players,” Mikhail said. “I look at it as an opportunity to better myself.”
On the same day he was invited to USA Football’s national camp, he also received another in the mail: an invitation to the Blue-Grey Super Combine in Oakland. The Sands couldn’t afford to send Mikhail to both, so he chose the Super Combine.
At the two-day combine last weekend, Mikhail was faced with the bench press again. He got the bar up to his chest, but wasn't able to complete it. This time he had a little more confidence.
“And this time I did it without tape,” he said.