Father’s Day 2014: Son’s ingenuity lets his blind father enjoy hunting

So Mike Franco is blind. So what?

It hasn’t stopped him from providing for his wife and five children — he’s the only blind court reporter in the country — hasn’t stopped him from an occasional fishing trip, hasn’t stopped him from woodworking, nor cooking family meals, nor from building furniture, nor from becoming Mr. Fix It around his home that borders the UNO campus.

What it stopped the now-56-year-old from doing was piling up those rare moments other dads were turning into memories.

“I missed the sporting activities with my children, to go out and simply play football with them. Driving is out of the picture,” Franco said.

That’s what retinitis pigmentosa did.

It’s like this: Franco’s sight began to fade when he was 6 and, he said, “... by the time I was 18 to 20 (years old), I was blind.” The Foundation Fighting Blindness estimates there are 100,000 in the U.S. with the inherited disease.

After graduating from Brother Martin High in 1975, he attended court reporting school at UNO.

He married and the children came, and he said, “It was the kids who had to adapt. Their lives were different than their buddies’ lives, but they never complained.

“I felt stripped of my masculinity sometimes, but I never felt like I have a lot of regrets, but there are a couple.”

Taking his kids into the outdoors is one.

“I love being outdoors, and when I’m not working, I’m outside, and missing out on the outdoors thing has been a killer to me,” Franco said. “I feel like I cheated my kids.”

Along about right here is where Mike Franco’s life takes a dramatic turn.

It started with his 19-year-old son, Nick: “He’s an outdoor person,” Mike Franco said of his LSU student son. “He started dating a young lady from Baton Rouge and her family, like ours, is an outdoorsy family.”

Turned out that Nick Franco had a lot in common with the young lady, Rebecca Andries. Both were cross country runners, and darned good ones in high school. That’s how they met.

Rebecca ran for St. Joseph’s Academy, and Mike Franco said when she crossed the finish line to take the state title, she collapsed.

“Nick said he saw her and she stayed down, so he ran to her with a water bottle trying to help her,” Mike Franco said. “They didn’t know each other then and Nick came home one day and said he met her through a sorority (at LSU) and they put two and two together from that chance meeting and started dating.”

Rebecca’s dad, Bryan, is a hunter and makes sure to include his family.

“He started hunting with her family and I was glad he was getting that experience, ’cause one of my regrets was that I was not able to take our kids hunting,” Mike Franco said.

Nick admitted feeling his dad’s pain, and started wondering aloud after a hunt with the Andries whether he could somehow come up with a way to get his dad into a deer stand, not necessarily to become a hunter, but to experience the thrill of being on the hunt.

Nick Franco said Bryan Andries believed it could be more, much more.

“The idea of my dad hunting really started with my girlfriend’s father,” Nick said. “He’s an engineer, and it was his idea from the beginning to find a way for dad to hunt with us.

“So we brainstormed. He’s very creative, and we came up with a way.”

In rapid-fire succession, Nick Franco went through the stages, first to look at a rifle and the way to mount two different brackets on a scope, to mounting a dual-sighting device and make it work so that Nick could be his father’s eyes in a deer stand.

“(Bryan Andries) drew it up and drilled the holes for the mount and put screws in,” Nick Franco said. “Apple has a product called iScope, and it was a simpler form of what we had first figured out what we needed. Basically the iScope clamps on the back of the (rifle) scope. It isn’t for people who are blind. It’s to film hunts with an iPhone. We didn’t use it. It was more fun for Mr. Bryan and I to do it ourselves. We did for $100.

“That’s when Mr. Bryan told my dad that one day he was going to get him out there (on a hunt) and that he knew he could get him out there,” Nick said.

Just before last hunting season, Nick told his dad to put his hands out and, Mike Franco said, “He put a big rifle (a .270 caliber) in my hands. I never shot a rifle before in my life, but Nick said all we had to do was work out a method to learn how to hunt together.”

And his son came up with the plan. Using the crosshairs on the iPhone mount, the father-son team had to come up with a system of nonverbal commands that would allow Nick to sight the rifle for Mike.

They practiced at home with Nick’s system. The son, sighting through the phone’s screen, placed his left index finger on the back of his dad’s neck and moved it right, left, up and down to bring the crosshairs to the target. When Mike Franco held the crosshairs on the target, Nick double-tapped his finger on his dad’s neck, and Mike squeezed the trigger.

They practiced live firing at the Honey Island Swamp range.

“Jim Bearden, the range officer there, came over one day and asked if we had practiced there recently,” Mike Franco recalled. “He said he was off that day and he said one of the (park) rangers asked him what the range’s policy was on blind shooters. He told the ranger that there wasn’t a policy, and he said the ranger told him that we’ve got one (blind shooter) out here, and that the guy was hitting that pan at 100 yards. He asked if we minded if he shot video, not as a marketing video, but just a good story to show that Honey Island Swamp had shooters of all kinds.”

The end of this father-son tale came a couple of months later.

The first hunt, in the St. Francisville area, showed Mike Franco the frustrations all deer hunters endure: “Lots of deer everywhere ... I could hear them blowing, but none came out,” Nick Franco said.

A few days later, still during the first days of the whitetail deer season, it was time for Mike Franco to climb into another stand.

“Within the first 45 minutes, a deer came out. I could feel his heart pumping through his finger,” Mike Franco said. “By that time we could read each other like a book. I guess I can attribute Nick’s ability to playing all those video games, but he had control over me and I felt I had full control over where I’m aiming.”

Then came the double-tap.

He missed, but only by inches, and Nick said he figured both of them were nervous.

Surprised as he said he was, Nick lined his dad up for a second shot — “Never heard of anybody getting a second shot,” Nick Franco said.

But there was, and the finger started moving across the back of dad’s neck and the double-tap came again.

Mike Franco had his deer: “He started crying, gave me a bear hug and said, ‘You did it,’ and I told him, ‘No, we did it.’ ”

The father-son team took more later in the season.

“I can’t express deeply enough the warm feeling I get from knowing Nick has devoted his efforts and thoughts toward my satisfaction. Enthusiasm, excitement and ultimate success coming from a 19-year-old boy loving his father,” Mike Franco said. “How can one man be blessed any more?”