The Great Migratory Patterns of Bill Schindler
by Zach Epstein
Bill Schindler could barely see a thing. Home from college – this time for good, after a second attempt to make it work at Ohio State University failed – his mother asked him to look at something on the computer screen. Schindler had no chance.
“I literally couldn’t read a book that was sitting on the desk in front of me,” he says.
Schindler hadn’t been back to his hometown of Shrewsbury, New Jersey much during his time in Columbus. Only now realizing how limited his sight had become, his mother burst into tears.
“It was her life’s mission at that moment to figure out what was wrong.”
This is the story of Bill Schindler: Division I wrestler. College dropout. College professor. Television star.
Wrestling in the Dark
During high school, Schindler was a sought-after wrestling prospect and his eyesight was still perfectly intact. Anthropology, the field that would eventually make him famous, wasn’t even on his radar.
“I was very keen on going to a Division I school,” Schindler says. “That was my main focus. Academically, I was still a little bit unsure about what I was really interested in.”
Schindler chose to attend Ohio State, which boasted one of the finest wrestling programs in the country. But as his freshman year as a Buckeye wore on, he began to notice that his sight was gradually worsening.
They couldn’t tell me anything else. Nobody figure out what the reason was.
“Something was going on with eyes and I couldn’t figure it out,” he says. “I’ve worn contacts or glasses most of my life, but something new was happening.”
Schindler began searching for answers. Ohio State’s doctors were unable to help.
“The best they could tell me was my eyes were getting worse and worse and worse,” he says. “They couldn’t tell me anything else. Nobody figure out what the reason was.”
As the next few years passed, Schindler’s vision continued to suffer. While his deteriorating eyesight hampered his performance in the classroom, Schindler’s abilities on the wrestling mat impressed. By his junior year, he was Ohio State’s first-string wrestler in his weight class.
That’s the year that everything truly fell apart.
He blew out his knee, ending his season. His eyes were so bad that he was declared legally blind. He failed out of school.
Schindler was forced to take a yearlong leave of absence, most of which he spent on a pig farm, living virtually rent-free in exchange for work. He also moonlighted at a bait-and-tackle shop, where he memorized the prices of every item in the store, unable to read the price tags. His return to school went about as smoothly as his junior year. After a disastrous semester, he made his way back to Shrewsbury.
Word spread about Schindler's return to New Jersey among some of the Division III wrestling coaches who'd recruited him years earlier. With a year of eligibility remaining — and some improvement in his sight, thanks to new doctors and his mother's persistence — he started over at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), acting essentially as a fifth-year freshman. There were a few false starts in Schindler’s story, but it wasn’t until he received corneal transplants in both eyes that everything changed for the better.
Schindler was moving forward — migrating closer to home — and that’s all that mattered.
Here I am sitting in front of one of the most renowned archaeologists in eastern North America. And he’s telling me that he had almost the same experience. And I’m confident that that’s partly why they accepted me. They took a chance on me.
Schindler graduated in 2000 with a double major in history and secondary education and became a high school history teacher. He loved teaching, but quickly found he wasn’t as interested in high school. Or history.
Again at a crossroads, he went back to his professors at TCNJ for advice. He spoke to one that was writing a book about the history of hunting. Schindler, an outdoorsman who’d hunted his entire life, had a revelation—that he could turn his passions into a profession.
"You can go to school for whatever you want,” Schindler recalls his professor asking him. “Do you understand that?”
He recognized that anthropology and archaeology were the perfect academic avenues to pursue his interests, so Schindler applied to Temple’s anthropology PhD program. In Associate Professor Emeritus Michael Stewart, Schindler found a kindred spirit, whose journey to graduate school was not unlike his own.
“Here I am sitting in front of one of the most renowned archaeologists in eastern North America,” says Schindler. “And he’s telling me that he had almost the same experience. And I’m confident that that’s partly why they accepted me. They took a chance on me.”
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Schindler obtained his PhD in anthropology from Temple in 2006.
“I finally found what I was truly passionate about and I dove in in a way that I never thought I could,” he says.
He soon began teaching at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, sharing his expertise in primitive skills and tools with his students.
“I have them do things they never would have imagined they would do: butcher carcasses with stone tools, or eat things they might have never thought they would be eating. And I hope they learn a lot about themselves and what they’re capable of doing, and I’m hoping I spark an interest that carries with them the rest of their lives.”
Students weren’t the only ones intrigued by Schindler’s unique mix of hands-on teaching and field experience. National Geographic had an idea for Schindler—if they could get in touch with him.
Clearing out the junk folder in his email in January of 2015, Schindler found a notification that he’d received a message on LinkedIn, a service he rarely used.
“I do the stone tool stuff really well; my wife is still helping me out with the digital age technologies,” he says.
It was from a casting director describing the network’s idea for a new program, chronicling human existence through time. Schindler thought it was too good to be true: he was developing a course that was nearly identical to the concept of the show. So Schindler responded to the message.
“By May, I was in Tanzania filming this thing,” he says.
The show, The Great Human Race, endeavors to teach the audience about the human past. Schindler is a natural on camera, his knowledge of the show's subject matter matched only by his signature exuberance.
Schindler, along with co-star Cat Bigney, travels the world to represent humans at important points in prehistory, beginning 2.5 million years ago in Tanzania. Following a hypothesized migratory pattern all the way to the new world, they concluded their journey about 5,000 years ago in Oregon, making 10 stops along the way. The voyage put the show’s stars in real situations faced by their ancestors—which, at times, meant very real danger.
“The scariest moment for me was that moment in Uganda when we were surrounded by hyenas, and then that lion came out,” Schindler says, referring to a scene from early in the season.
He took it upon himself to live as authentically as possible while filming. “Starting in episode three, I made every piece of clothing that I wore,” he says.
New episodes of The Great Human Race air on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on National Geographic. The show’s inaugural season concludes next month.