NORWAY — Shane Fantozzi has been an avid angler since he was a little kid and when a debilitating disease robbed him use of his legs and some of his vision, he didn’t let that stop him from enjoying his lifelong hobby.
Oftentimes when the weather is clear, you can find him out on Norway Lake, ice fishing in his wheelchair with his friends and his dog, Bentley. The 33-year-old Norway resident got Bentley eight years ago when he began losing his vision. He credits the dog with saving him from being hit by a speeding car when he was still walking by stopping and refusing to cross the street.
Bentley is a beefy, laid back yellow lab, who goes everywhere with Fantozzi. And he’s thankful for his dog’s size and muscles.
“If he wasn’t as big as he is, he wouldn’t be able to pull me across the ice,” Fantozzi says. “I got really lucky. I got one of the smartest dogs I know.”
Thus far, he’s been out ice fishing twice this season and has another trip planned this week at his friend’s camp on Keewaydin Lake in Stoneham.
“It all depends on the weather and how much snow is on the ice,” Fantozzi says about the challenges of wheeling around on the ice.
And if there’s too much snow, his friends aren’t afraid to pull him around in a sled.
“My friends don’t seem to care,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to go ice fishings if I didn’t have good friends. … They help me out a lot.”
And Fantozzi is not only thankful for his friends, but his family as well in helping him deal with the life-changing effects of Devic’s disease – an autoimmune disorder that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The cause is unknown and there is currently no known cure.
“I guess it’s pretty rare. They haven’t seen a lot of it,” Fantozzi says, adding it took a year and a half to diagnose, thanks to a Scarborough neurologist. “Just like anything else, it is what it is.”
It was circa 2008 when Fantozzi began to lose his eyesight. He was shoveling snow at the time and thought he was snow blind. He went to the hospital, where he was told he had an infection in his eye. The problem was, his vision never came back.
“Then I woke up on the second day after my 25th birthday, I couldn’t move my legs. Shortly after that I started losing vision in the other eye,” Fantozzi says. “I have lost my vision five times. It comes back [but] I lose a little bit every time. It’s progressive disease [with] permanent damage.”
The same thing would happen with his legs and he would crawl around for a month and then regain use of them. Fantozzi discussed the options of chemotherapy and dialysis with his father, Norm, who, he noted, is Italian.
“I remember him telling me one thing that will always stick with me … he told me, ‘You have MS, MS doesn’t have you.’” Fantozzi recalls. “That is the kind of attitude I got from him. I owe a lot to him. I’ve got good family, good support system, good friends.”
Fantozzi wasn’t wheelchair bound until about two years ago. He had a bad attack from the disease and ended up in the hospital for two months. At the same time, his father, Norm, had a major heart attack.
“We kind of lost everything all at once. It was a bad month. My poor mother,” Fantozzi says about his mom, Anita. “She is strong. I have a really strong family. They come from the old period where they just do stuff and get it done.”
He credits his parents for his strong mental capacity. At one point, Fantozzi was taking 52 pills as a result of Devic’s disease, including the highly addictive opioid methadone.
“I was on a lot of stuff – it just wasn’t me. I changed a lot. People started noticing,” Fantozzi says.
It was then he realized, “I am eating more pills than food.” And that had to change.
“I threw them all out. I went in the woods with the dog for a week. … I decided I just needed to stop,” he says. “If you don’t have a strong mind, it will kill you. I don’t believe I was ever really addicted. … It was easy for me to say, ‘I don’t need this.’”
Even before his major attack two years ago, Fantozzi continued to run his Norway tackle shop – Tozzi’s Tackle, an ode to his nickname while at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
His first location was on Main Street where his son, Kody, helped him set up the shop and the second at the old Snow’s Marina on Route 117, kitty corner from the Lake Store.
“I was in the hospital that’s why we closed down the shop,” Fantozzi says. “I couldn’t be in two places at once.”
What Fantozzi misses the most about running a tackle shop is the interaction with his customers.
“You could come into my shop and I could tell you how to catch the fish, what lures to use,” he says. “I didn’t do it to make money. I love just talking about fishing and showing kids how to fish – that was my favorite part – and everybody loved the dog.”
Since Fantozzi grew up fishing on Norway Lake in a canoe, he knows the best fishing spots and when and where to catch the big fish that sometimes hide in the body of water. He says you have to know when the fish run and it’s something he loves to share with Kody, who is now 12 years old.
“He loves fishing. He goes whenever he can,” Fantozzi says about his son.
Fantozzi is not the kind of guy who likes to sit around so even wheelchair bound, he makes sure he is still in shape. This includes wheeling himself up the incredibly steep Pikes Hill for exercise. A lot of people compliment him on his achievement, but he says he doesn’t do it for praise, just to see if he could actually conquer the hill.
“That is the steepest hill I have ever seen,” he says. “If I can do that, I can go anywhere.”
While Fantozzi is currently on disability, he is trying to get a gig at Lost Valley as a skiing and binding technician. Before he lost use of his legs, he snowboarded for 16 years and worked the same job at Sunday River.
And he recently put in an application with Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation to get him back flying down the mountain.
“That is going to be really fun,” Fantozzi says with a smile.