ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Art can take many forms — providing its creator an avenue for expression.
For Zach Waldraff, drawing is therapeutic.
"It kind of just relaxes me," he said. "It makes me happy."
Zach has been an artist for as long as he can remember.
"Me and my mom used to draw all the time," he said. "And I’m kind of competitive, so I always try to draw better than her."
A 2022 graduate of West Seneca West high school, he’s won awards and recognition for his work.
His ability is remarkable when you consider Zach is legally blind. He has a condition called aniridia, along with nystagmus.
"The further away something is, the less detail and the smaller it gets and the fuzzier it gets," Zach said of his vision.
Visual impairments run in Zach’s family. That includes his mom Trisha, who first taught him how to draw and is also legally blind.
"Things are getting blurrier now, and I can’t see as well as I used to," Trisha said. "Now, I’m kind of leaning on him to help me draw and he’s been a big inspiration for me even."
Doctors have told Zach he has a 50/50 chance of his vision worsening as he gets older. Still, he doesn’t let it stop him from doing what he loves.
"I don’t see it as a challenge, to be honest. I just see it as a label," he said.
Zach hopes to one day go to college to study art. He credits many staff members and faculty at the West Seneca school district, including his aide, Jessica Rautenstrauch, and art teacher, Christopher Galley, for helping him through high school and its many challenges.
Along with art, Zach also loves sports. He participated in hockey for the blind and unified basketball, but football was always a passion. As a senior at West Seneca West, he finally joined the varsity team and saw action in some of the games as a defensive lineman. Coach Mike Vastola gave him a chance, and he made the most of it.
"If I was ever on the field, they’d have a player relaying the play call to me because they would do silent gestures on the sideline," Zach said.
He has a can-do attitude, despite the roadblocks set in front of him.
"Yeah, I’m visually impaired but I can do this or do that. I don’t let it affect my life," Zach said.
Combining his passion for drawing and sports, his favorite team, the Buffalo Bills, is a frequent subject of his artwork. After the Bills signed star edge rusher Von Miller, Zach went to work on a special project.
"I’ve always admired his game and just Von Miller on and off the field," Zach said.
He drew a portrait of Miller — made even more special because Miller has also dealt with vision issues for much of his life. His foundation, Von’s Vision, provides eye care, glasses and contacts to low-income students.
"It just kind of shows like even him, with his vision issues, he’s an NFL player and he’s one of the best players to ever play at his position and perform at his best," Zach said.
After Miller suffered a season-ending injury in November, Waldraff wanted to give the artwork to Miller himself as a get-well gift. With the help of Hope Rises, a post on social media went viral, and Miller saw it and responded.
"Wow. This is truly amazing. Just wow. That’s love for real, for real. Thank you," a tweet from Miller read.
Miller was so touched by the piece, he and the Bills invited Waldraff to the team’s headquarters so Zach could give the art to him in person.
"It was great artwork, first and foremost," Miller said. "And you see the obstacles he had to overcome just to draw that. It’s incredible, man."
On the big day, Zach could barely describe his emotions.
"I’m so excited. I don’t even know what to say," Waldraff said. I’m so happy."
He hopped in the car along with his mom and sister, and made the short trip over to Highmark Stadium.
"This is going to be like my first time going to the stadium, so it’s going to be cool," he said.
"It’s awesome. It’s incredible," Trisha said. "I’m so happy for Zach. He deserves the recognition and I’m just so proud of him."
During an afternoon filled with surprises, Waldraff met a host of players and coaches, from Josh Allen and Sean McDermott to Stefon Diggs and Dion Dawkins.
But the main event was a chance to meet Miller and deliver his artwork along with a message for the Bills superstar.
"I’m so thankful because you do the Von’s Vision thing," Waldraff told Miller after the two embraced inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center. "That’s a big thing for kids like me with the visual impairments. Sincerely, thank you."
"Man, thank you," Miller replied. "I’ve had eye problems my whole entire life so starting Von’s Vision in 2012, that was a no-brainer for me. To meet guys like you, man. It’s worthwhile, man, and I appreciate you.
"It means that much more than you did this, under the circumstances. It shows that you can do anything, man."
For Waldraff, an autographed jersey and helmet are the physical reminders of his special day, but the unforgettable moment is the most precious gift. It's the realization of a vision where art and life are one and the same.
"It means so much. I never thought this would happen," he said. "Probably the best day of my life."