Brad Hennefer is a jock. He’s been featured in Sports Illustrated, teaches people how to drain 3-point basketball shots, and enjoys immense respect on the golf course. Beyond those accomplishments, he likes to help others achieve their personal best.
“I love teaching kids how to play golf,” the all-around athlete says.
Hennefer, who has Down syndrome, has made it his mission to inform others about the condition, and to show families affected by it that they can create lives that are just as fulfilling as his.
It was at age 3 that Hennefer began walking golf courses with his dad and his brother, Bobby. As a youngster, he played basketball with his grandfather and joined local baseball teams. His parents also exposed him to bowling, skiing, skating, swimming and tennis.
In high school, the multitalented player found himself gravitating toward basketball, earning a spot on the Cherry Hill (NJ) High School varsity team all four years, often coming off the bench late in the game and nailing 3-pointers to an eruption of cheers. He participated in the Special Olympics in basketball, weightlifting and golf. But his favorite sport of them all is golf.
Since graduating from high school in 2008 with two varsity letters (basketball and golf), Hennefer has dedicated his life to traveling the country as an advocate for his condition. He uses golf not only to teach youths with Down syndrome a new skill, but also to help them build confidence. Along the way, he develops friendships with them and their families. “I like being around the kids,” he says. “They’re my best friends.”
At the beginning of this year, Hennefer was scheduled to participate in 32 golf events, including the recent 10th annual Pujols Celebrity Golf Classic in Missouri, held by Major League Baseball slugger Albert Pujols and his family’s foundation, and then the Mile High Down Syndrome Association (MHDSA) third annual golf tournament.
The event, held in Englewood, CO, just outside Denver, raises awareness and funds to help the family members and caregivers of Colorado’s children with Down syndrome get the information, tools and resources they need.
Hennefer, who participated in the event last year, was eager to compete again this year with friend and MHDSA executive director Mac Macsovits. “I love Denver because of Mac,” he says. “Mac’s a great man and just like family. I can’t wait to beat him in golf.”
Macsovits, likewise, cherishes his competitive friendship with Hennefer. “Of all my friends, Brad is one of the more competitive,” he says. “If you are eating steak and french fries with him, he will want to eat more, faster, and then he will let you know that he did both.”
Bob Hennefer, the golfer’s father, gives MHDSA high marks for what it accomplishes off the course: “They help people not only in Denver but all over the country. It’s one of our favorite places to go because of how they treat Brad out there. It’s a great organization.”
Tournament participants and families will have the opportunity to not only witness Hennefer’s superior golfing skills, but also see what people with Down syndrome can achieve, no matter what barriers society places before them.
“People with Down syndrome are just like everybody else,” Hennefer says.
His father and others who have been around the young athlete say he inspires people.
“He brings hope to a lot of young families,” Bob Hennefer says. “Wherever we go, it’s no secret that I’m Brad’s dad. I don’t even have a name. They come to see him, and they want to see what he’s accomplished.”
A lot of Brad’s kudos come from parents who now feel more confident encouraging their children to be socially active while living with Down syndrome, a common genetic variation that typically causes a delay in physical, intellectual and language development. The National Down Syndrome Congress estimates that the condition affects 1 in every 700 births in the United States.
Some parents, in their effort to protect their children from rejection or injury, hesitate to enroll them in sports programs and other social activities. The Hennefers took the opposite tack.
“A lot of the families, especially the young dads, ask me how Brad got involved in playing sports,” Bob Hennefer says, noting that his own work as a coach helped expose his son to a number of athletic contests. “He definitely has a great impact on young families.”
“When these parents ask what the stumbling blocks were,” Bob points out, he shifts the focus. “We just say that we gave Brad opportunities, and he took the ball and ran with it. Now there are so many individuals (with disabilities) who are involved in their high school sports as managers for the teams, or who play on the teams. More and more you see kids with disabilities getting involved in these programs. That’s a phenomenal thing.”
Macsovits says having a strong family support system is vital. “We have found that those living with Down syndrome are successful due to the impact that their parents, siblings, aunts, nieces, etc., have had on their lives,” he says. “It is one thing to believe internally that you are capable of achieving something, but it makes life just a little easier when you have a cheering section behind you that supports and understands you.”
Greater numbers of athletes with disabilities also help shatter stereotypes and break down barriers while, at the same time, building relationships.
“Brad has become a real role model for young folks with Down syndrome across the country,” Macsovits says. “Kids look up to him like they do Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning and other stand-up athletes. Brad has accomplished much in his life that, not too many other people with or without Down syndrome, will ever accomplish.”
by Josh Pate
Mile High Down Syndrome Association