A coach. A wrestler with Down syndrome. A match that changed their lives: 'Anybody can succeed'

Posted at 3:56 PM, Dec 16, 2021

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- The sport of wrestling isn't for everyone. But like almost every other sport, those that get into it early can get hooked for life.

Mike Stefanko, the wrestling coach at Cosby High School in Chesterfield, began when he was a freshman at Hampton High. The same goes for coach Matt Henshaw at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico. They both hope to teach the same fundamentals to their athletes that they were taught through wrestling.

"Hard work, discipline. A real sense of team, togetherness," Henshaw said.

"You didn't have to be the fastest, you didn't have to be the tallest, you didn't have to be the strongest but you could by sheer hard work and determination make yourself a good wrestler," Stefanko added.

Many of their athletes are participating in wrestling for the first time.

Daniel Bendl is a freshman at Cosby wrestling at 106 pounds. His older brother also wrestled for the Titans, but his decision to come out for the team was his alone. It is a decision he does not regret.

"You'd think it's overwhelming learning all this new stuff, but when you get into the matches, you find a few moves that you really like from each position and you tend to stick with that. It's been a super positive experience," Bendl said.

"A lot of them come here and have no confidence, are shy," Stefanko said. "This brings them out because it's a one-on-one thing. It makes you more self-confident, more assertive."

Freeman High School also has students who have come out for the first time. Freshman Brady Burnham is one of those new wrestlers.

Unlike his teammates, Brady lives with Down syndrome. While the condition does not dampen Burnham's enthusiasm, it did give his parents and coaches pause when he first asked if he could go out for the team.

Freeman wrestler 03.png

"I had reservations about his safety and about whether he would be a distraction to the rest of the team," mother Lisa Burnham said.

"I checked in with his mom, we talked before, and I told her what we would do and how we would look out after him and bring him along so he could learn and have fun with the team," Henshaw added. "He follows and he's learning and he's still a child at heart. He just wants to have fun."

Much of Brady's contributions have been as a spectator. But earlier this season, he was surprised with the chance to be a full-fledged part of the team.

"I didn't even expect to see him dressed out and when I saw him in a singlet I was amazed first just to see him dressed out, I had not seen that before," Lisa Burnham said. "And then to find out midway through that he was indeed going to go out on the mat."

Freeman wrestler 04.png

Across the mat, it was the first-ever meet for Cosby's Daniel Bendl as well. He won his first two matches and was then asked if he would take part in a third.

"We were a little worried because Daniel hadn't wrestled," Stefanko said. "This is maybe his fourth week of wrestling that he didn't know how to fall the right way, but he handled himself perfectly."

Daniel was asked to wrestle Brady, a match that came with special instructions.

Since Brady tends to get claustrophobic, Daniel was made aware and adjusted accordingly.

The rest of the match, he did on his own.

"I just had the experience two times of winning. I couldn't imagine what it's like for him in just day-to-day life. So of course, I'd want to give him that experience, that good experience that feeling of winning," Daniel said. "When he got his hand raised, he was so happy the whole time."

"To have the patience and the courage and to take out the time to help him out to achieve his goals is just tremendous. To be in that Adaptive PE role, that's all I want to see for my kids," Henshaw said. "Anybody can succeed given the chance. And that's what I want them to know."

Freeman wrestler 01.png

Coach Stefanko preaches that wins and losses in the beginning of the season don't really matter, but this one clearly did.

Lisa Burnham said she hoped gestures like this lead to more kindness and generosity towards anyone with disabilities.

Watch for Lane Casadonte's features on CBS 6 News and If you know someone Lane should profile, email him

Find unique, award-winning stories every day on CBS 6 News.