NIAGARA FALLS – As he prepared to walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls, Nik Wallenda had some advice for local schoolchildren.
Pursue your dreams, he told them. You can do anything you want to, he said, just look at me.
Perhaps “don’t try this at home” would have been more appropriate.
Taking Wallenda’s advice quite literally, an 11-year-old Niagara Falls boy is now paying tribute to Wallenda in a way only the stuntman could truly appreciate.
He’s not painting a picture of him, nor is he hanging up commemorative posters of Wallenda above his bed.
Vincenzo Bianco is taking to the wire himself.
The seventh-grader walks a small rope between two trees roughly 40 feet apart each Sunday evening.
For one day each week, the front yard of his stately College Avenue home is transformed into a young boy’s version of Niagara Falls.
There’s the ľ-inch rope – thinner than Wallenda’s – strung between the large oak trees and held taut by a steel winch.
There’s the swirling mist sprayed by his 5-year-old brother with the family’s garden hose.
And, oh yes, there’s a crowd of ardent supporters who “ooh” and “aah” with every step, every hesitation, every chance that something might go wrong.
After all, a family friend points out, he’s walking 4 feet above the ground, and there’s no tether in sight.
Neighbors peek out of their windows. Boys and girls from the neighborhood crowd the driveway, watching in suspense, and it’s hard to tell whether the children or their parents are more drawn in.
“They’re all waiting to see, what is he going to do next?” said Vincenzo’s mother, Diane Bianco.
It all began as the region geared up for Wallenda’s historic walk across the mighty cataracts.
Each day, the boy would read about Wallenda’s efforts to get permission for his stunt.
A hockey player and golfer, Vincenzo loves sports but developed a certain fascination for tightrope walking.
He even snuck into the boys’ bathroom at Maple Elementary School to dial for tickets to Wallenda’s walk.
Managing to get himself into the VIP area the night before the walk, the boy stood just steps from his newfound idol.
He acted cool and nonchalant, Vincenzo said, “but on the inside ... there’s nothing to compare [with how I felt].”
A day later, he watched the tightrope walk from Terrapin Point on the American side of the falls.
That’s the last time we’ll see a wire-walker on the American side for decades, many thought.
Vincenzo had other ideas.
He sold old toys at a garage sale and worked as a ball boy at the Porter Cup golf tournament until he could buy a slack-line to walk on.
He practiced walking a short distance between two short trees with a balance pole made from PVC pipe.
Soon, Vincenzo was ready to buy a thicker rope, move to the larger trees and develop a routine.
“We thought this phase would pass when Wallenda left town,” Diane Bianco said, “but it hasn’t.”
Vincent Bianco, the boy’s father, knew it was time to set some height restrictions when he glanced out the window of his second-story bedroom and saw his son walking in front of him.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, you need to lower that,’?” he said.
So, Vincenzo added a few new tricks, including a reverse walk and a Wallenda-esque fist-pump.
He hired a quick-witted public relations man – himself – to get the word out by stuffing fliers into mailboxes.
It quickly grew into quite the event.
“I was in my bathing suit in the backyard, and I looked out in the front yard and I said, ‘Oh my God.’ There were 30 to 40 people in our front yard,” Diane Bianco said.
Soon the walk became a family production.
Vincenzo makes the fliers, and fine-tunes the show.
Santino, his 5-year-old brother, paces alongside Vincenzo, a coach in the making.
Vincent, the proud father, wears a mix of pride and worry as his son calmly makes the walk.
And Diane, with soft drinks and ice cream, keeps the crowd happy.
“Lewiston has Artpark,” Diane says, “and College Avenue has the Biancos.”
A neighbor even made small replicas of Wallenda’s leather moccasins for the boys.
The sudden interest in tightrope walking came as somewhat of a surprise to Carol Gold, Vincenzo’s former principal.
But his family has long noticed a streak of determination in the boy wonder.
“He’s the kind of kid, if he’s determined to do something, he will do it come hell or high water,” said Celia Granto, his great-grandmother.
When he grows too big for the front yard, Vincenzo’s ultimate goal is to walk the second story of the Walden Galleria.
“Am I worried he’s going to go join the circus? Yeah, a little,” said his mother.
Vincenzo, though, says he’s not prepared to risk life and limb high atop a rope.
He wants to someday become a lawyer. After all, wire-walking has its drawbacks.
“On the wire all day today,” he recently wrote on Twitter. “It was so hot outside and the tension was terrible.”
But overall, it’s worth it, he said, because of the calm he finds up on the wire.
“Tightrope is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he wrote. “Life is a tightrope. Sometimes it gets difficult, but you always reach the other side.”
Those are the type of lessons he’d like to discuss with Wallenda, his idol, when he returns to the Falls later this year.
Vincenzo might even give him a few tips.
“I give him credit,” the boy said. “I’m still nowhere near as good as he is.”