NAPOLEON - Brian Hummer recalls the trip he and his friend, Brad Heinrichs, made to Cedar Point when they were in grade school.
"I realized that people were staring at him, and I didn't understand why," Hummer said. "It started to bother me, but it didn't bother him one bit.
"So I started standing on his left side so people couldn't look at his leg."
People were staring at a prosthesis that Heinrichs was wearing on his left leg. He was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that occurs during the first month of pregnancy.
The malady caused his left leg to be shorter than his right leg. In his early years, Heinrichs' left foot dangled near his right knee. That left foot was amputated when Heinrichs was 8, one of 23 major surgeries he has endured on his legs or back.
Heinrichs has spent so much time in hospitals, he plans to study radiologic technology when he begins college this fall.
The medical condition is just one of the many hard knocks that Heinrichs has endured.
But missing out on sports hasn't been one of those knocks.
Brad Heinrichs loves football. Loves football.
But spina bifida made playing football out of the question. So he did the next-best thing: for the past five years he served as manager for the Napoleon High School team.
"He's done it all for us - setting up the field, helping with equipment problems, you name it," Wildcats football coach John Snoad said. "We have some grade-school ball boys, and he helps monitor them to keep them in line.
"Those ball boys have some tackle games after practice, and I would guess he was involved in those, too."
But there seemed to be no chance for Heinrichs to play in a game.
Just before the Wildcats' final home game against Marion Harding, Snoad talked with Harding coach John Brady. The idea was simple. If the game was decided, in the final seconds Heinrichs would take the field for a play. He would stand out at wide receiver, and the Harding players would be instructed not to hit him.
As the game wound down, it seemed the plan wouldn't take place as Napoleon led by only a touchdown. But Brady graciously got the attention of the refs, and suddenly Heinrichs was experiencing the thrill of a lifetime.
"His eyes were like silver dollars as he went on the field," Hummer said of Heinrichs. "He kept saying, 'Thank you. Thank you.' He was in awe that it was happening.
"That gave me goose bumps. I had to hold back tears as it was happening."
The ball was snapped, Heinrichs was on the field for a play, and the game ended. But the tribute to Heinrichs didn't.
"After the play, the Marion Harding defensive back came up and gave him a hug," Hummer said. "Then the other Harding players gave him a pat on the back."
"Then Brad raised his arms, and everyone was cheering," Snoad said. "There was quite a roar from our sideline."
That roar confirmed what everyone inside the program knew: Brad Heinrichs was truly a member of Napoleon's football team.
"He's one of the members of the team. He's part of the family," Snoad said. "There's no degree of separation."
Hummer agreed, adding, "He's one of the players. He's one of us. The passion he brings to the sport, the love for the game, is contagious.
"I heard one of the guys say, 'His heart is so big, it equals the size of all of our hearts.' And that's the best way I can describe it."
Talk about a crazy twist of fate. Brad Heinrichs became a wrestler because his older brother, Curt, got cut from the high school basketball team.
"Growing up, we were a big basketball family," Brad Heinrichs said. "But when Curt got cut from the basketball team as a sophomore, he still wanted to do something. So he tried wrestling, and he loved it.
"One day he pulled me aside and said, 'Not to hurt your feelings, but you're not Michael Jordan. Wrestling is something you can do.' "
So in seventh grade the kid with spina bifida - the kid with a prosthetic leg - joined the wrestling team.
"I didn't know what to think [when Brad came out for wrestling]," said Napoleon wrestling coach Jason Seiler, who knew of Heinrich's condition because he was one of Heinrichs' teachers in sixth grade. "I didn't know what he was capable of."
At first, the answer was not much. Heinrichs had a 10-12 record as a seventh grader, and five of those victories were forfeits.
Heinrichs got better, but things became more difficult when he entered high school. There already were more experienced wrestlers at his natural weight class of 103 pounds, so Heinrichs had to wrestle at 112.
When you weigh only 80 pounds, that's a disadvantage.
"It was tough to stay positive when I was getting the crap beat out of me," Heinrichs said. "It took a toll, especially with injuries, because my body wasn't used to [the beating].
"It was disheartening. But it just made me work harder."
But this was supposed to be Heinrichs' year.
All the hard work of years past, as well as all of the experience gained wrestling heavier opponents, was expected to pay off when the senior moved down to a more natural weight class.
"He has the upper-body strength of a much heavier wrestler," Seiler said. "He can be intimidating with his upper-body strength and hand strength.
"And when he wrestles down on the mat, a lot of kids are unsure what to do. That's to his advantage."
Heinrichs won the 103-pound title at the Southview Invitational and finished fourth at the Perrysburg Invitational.
"All year I've thought, 'This is my year,'•" Heinrichs said. "I can't let anything or anybody get in my way."
But something got in his way. At the PIT Heinrichs broke his wrist 20 seconds into one of his matches. In typical fashion, he wrestled despite the injury and finished fourth.
"I knew immediately something was wrong, something bad," Heinrichs said. "But I had come that far, I figured I should finish the match. I was going to go down on my terms."
Three weeks ago Heinrichs still had a wrist-to-elbow cast on the arm, and his season seemed to be over. But during a doctor's appointment where the cast was supposed to be cut down, Heinrichs received one of the few good "breaks" of his life.
"The doctor took a look at the X-ray, and he said, 'I don't see the fracture any more,'•" Heinrichs said.
So Heinrichs was cleared to wrestle again. But he needed to win a wrestle-off to reclaim his spot at 103 and, in a bitter twist to a happy ending, he lost.
No problem. Heinrichs never complained about not returning to 103 pounds. Instead he filled an opening in the lineup at 119 and posted a 3-1 record as Napoleon won the Greater Buckeye Conference title. Last weekend he again wrestled at 119 in the Division II sectional at Oak Harbor but was knocked out of the state tournament after a win and two losses.
"I just thought, 'If that's what I've got to do, I'll do it,'•" Heinrichs said of the move. "It's my senior year. I'd rather go down trying than not try to wrestle at all."
The thought of quitting, or of letting another setback force him to the sidelines, never enters Brad Heinrichs' mind. And that has made him a special athlete in the minds of his coaches.
"It may be a cliche, but I think he's been an inspiration to the other kids," Snoad said. "When it's August, and a kid feels sorry for himself as he's working in the heat, all he has to do is look at Brad and know what Brad would give just to be in his shoes.
"Brad has done two things. First, he's taught us to be grateful for what we have, and second, he's taught us to make the most of what we have. I've never heard Brad complain about his situation."
And what's to complain about, Heinrichs asks.
"I look at myself as normal - just a lot shorter," Heinrichs said.
"If people see that and are inspired, well, that's awesome."
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