It is a little past 1 p.m. Friday at Priefert Pavilion at South Point. Dozens of the world’s best archers are practicing for the Vegas Shoot — the Super Bowl of their sport — in an subterranean alcove where one needs a special wristband to be allowed inside.
A gaggle of Robin Hoods are lined up at the door of the makeshift Sherwood Forest, overloaded with huge carbon fiber bows and quivers. A young woman checks for special wristbands.
An exception is made for 36-year-old Matt Stutzman of Fairfield, Iowa.
They let him go by.
Stutzman was born without arms.
His other defining characteristics are closely cropped blonde hair, a round face, sturdy legs and a sunny disposition. He stands 5 feet, 6 inches. Many of the archers who know him say hello by tapping him on the shoulder. The ones who don’t know him gather behind in small pockets as he sits low in a chair and begins to practice.
Stutzman uses a calloused right foot to load an arrow into his bow. He hooks the arrow into a release, and the release to a shoulder harness. He draws back on the bow by extending his right foot. He aims by putting his chin on a small bar.
He slowly leans forward …
The arrow finds its target.
The archers who have been standing in small pockets behind Matt Stutzman try not to stare.
When he was born without arms — no medical rhyme or reason for it — his biological parents abandoned him. He was adopted by Jean and Leon Stutzman, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Like hitting the lottery, Stutzman said.
He was raised with seven brothers and sisters. Growing up on a farm, he was expected to do chores. As siblings are wont, they picked on little Matt sometimes.
It made him feel as if he belonged.
“My sisters, they always picked on me,” Stutzman said. “They would steal my Hershey’s Kisses. One day I put them under my armpit to hide them. They looked and looked and looked. When I finally showed them where they were, they had melted.”
He laughed at the memory.
“My older brother would throw apples at me. One day I picked one up and threw it back at him with my foot. I hit him right between the eyes. He never threw apples at me again.”
Stutzman eats bananas with his feet. He answers email with his feet. He drives with his feet. He doesn’t iron clothes with his feet, but one of the archers who knows him said that’s only because he chooses not to.
After he was married and had kids, he learned how to shoot arrows with his feet. It was a way for him to put food on the table. To be a provider. He found sponsors and began to enter archery tournaments.
One day a buddy gave it to him straight. “Matt, the reason they sponsor you is because you have no arms and draw attention to their product. It’s not because you’re good.”
So Matt Stutzman decided he would get good.
That was in 2010.
Feats with feet
With his home surrounded by cornfields and a lot of free time on his feet, he could shoot 300 or 400 arrows every day. If he missed, no big deal. On the farm, you didn’t have to be accurate. There was nothing to hit except a wide open space.
It wasn’t long before he began to hit the target. Then he began to hit the middle of it.
In 2012, Matt Stutzman won the silver medal at the Paralympic Games in London.
In 2015, he set a world record by hitting a target 310 yards away.
Over the weekend, he finished 40th among the 270 able-bodied archers in the top flight of the Vegas Shoot.
A guy from Italy won. These foreign guys are pretty tough. So are the ones from Arkansas and rural Pennsylvania.
“I realize this is much bigger than just shooting a bow with my feet,” Stutzman says about balancing competition with a responsibility to inspire others he now feels. “There’s a bigger message here than just being the best archer. I want to make people’s lives better.”
A short time later, he’s back in the practice pavilion in the bowels of the South Point, where pockets of spectators have gathered to watch him shoot arrows with his feet.
The buzzer sounds; the archers stroll to where the targets are to retrieve their arrows. Stutzman pulls three from the bull’s-eye with his teeth.
People are still staring.
By the end of the tournament, he probably will sign an autograph for some of them by putting a Sharpie between his toes.
If they ask, Matt Stutzman will tell them there’s nothing he would change about his life, unless it were to be a little taller.