EDITOR’S NOTE: In July, we profiled Kevin Hensley, who — as a rising soccer star — suffered a stroke during his freshman year at Collierville High School. We asked Kevin to share some observations and thoughts from his experience earlier this month at the Paralympic Games in Rio.
My first Paralympic Games in Rio was an incredible experience. The pride everyone in red, white, and blue showed to represent our country is indescribable.
We played the Netherlands in our first game, the day after the opening ceremonies. We had been preparing for it for months. They were projected to beat us, but we scored twice to earn a draw and an important point in the standings.
But let’s rewind. International soccer games have a walk-out, each team walking side-by-side out of the locker room with the referees leading us onto the field. As the USPNT Captain, I am honored and privileged to lead my teammates and brothers onto that field. When the National Anthem begins, we always face the flag, hands over our hearts. Some players close their eyes and pray or sing as loudly as they can. Personally, I stare right at the American flag, but I am never fully there. I always think about my childhood playing soccer. Playing with my friends in the back yard. How much fun it was. How lucky I am to be able to play the game that I love so much. I also think about the freedom my country and the men who fought for this country, including members of my team, have given me. It's always an experience that gives me goosebumps and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. For my parents, it was an emotional culmination of a long journey since my stroke in 2006.
Another highlight of my Paralympic experience was life in the athlete’s village. I was able to witness some pretty incredible things there. There was a blind goal-ball athlete playing guitar and singing. (And not just strumming a couple chords!) He was playing the guitar like a champ. A few other athletes and I sat next to him and listened for almost half an hour. I also witnessed an athlete with no legs skateboarding in the skate park. He was using his hands to balance and gain speed. He went up and down quarter pipes and skated for hours. It's things like this that make the Paralympics so great: challenges for people with disabilities, but people overcoming these challenges and at such a high level.
Finally, there are the closing ceremonies. It's a massive concert. Athletes walk in with athletes from other countries and can sit wherever they want and just enjoy the experience. It begins with the flags of every country being paraded in by a specially selected athlete from that country. The US Paralympic Soccer Team was excited and proud to have one of its members chosen for this honor: Josh Brunais, a decorated army veteran. He has one of the most incredible stories I have ever heard. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone love and show so much pride in representing the United States of America. It was fitting he would be the flag bearer for Team USA. Josh broke the rules carrying the flag. He wasn't supposed to do anything but carry the flag — resting on his shoulder — and stand in his assigned spot.
Knowing Josh, though, we all knew that wasn't going to happen. He waved the flag left and right like his life depended on it. When he was finally stopped, he held it just slightly higher than every other country. Although that might not seem like a big deal for many people, every U.S. athlete I spoke to afterward noticed. Every U.S. athlete has that everlasting pride for the Stars and Stripes and Josh holding the flag slightly higher than everyone else's is what representing your country is all about.