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Prep basketball: Willmar’s Damhof first Orth Foundation recipient to play in game

Tribune file photo Willmar’s Brady Damhof passes to a Cardinals teammate in a game earlier this season. Damhof will play in the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation “Jam the Gym” event on Saturday. He is the first beneficiary of the foundation to play in the game.

Just a few years ago, doctors evaluated the severe injuries Brady Damhof suffered in a hunting accident and told the 13-year-old Willmar school athlete that he’d never be able to participate in sports again.

On Saturday, after successful final seasons with the Willmar soccer and basketball teams — and as he awaits the start of his varsity golf season — Damhof will take to a prep basketball court for one last time in the Tim Orth Memorial Foundation’s 19th annual “Jam the Gym” game in Bird Island.

Damhof is the first recipient of TOMF funds to suit up and play in the “Jam the Gym” game.

“It’s something special,” said TOMF founder Bill Neubauer. “I think seeing Brady out there will give some other kids hope: If he can do it, I can do it, too.”

“(The foundation) called me about a month ago and asked if I would play and I said, ‘Yes, it would be an honor,’ ” Damhof said. “To be the first recipient to play in the game, it’s pretty special.”

The TOMF was founded in memory of Tim Orth, a BOLD athlete who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in December 1995. Neubauer, one of Orth’s coaches, and Neubauer’s wife, Janelle, organized the first “Jam the Gym” event in 1996 to raise funds for Orth.

Upon Orth’s death in February 1997, the foundation was founded in his honor. With the help of numerous volunteers dedicating countless hours, the foundation has sponsored many fundraisers in the area and has provided financial assistance for more than 200 families with children suffering from illnesses or accidents.

On Saturday, the TOMF will surpass the $2 million mark in funds raised, Bill Neubauer said.

“We saw it as a way that we can help other kids in Tim’s name,” he said.

Damhof was duck hunting with a party near Svea on Oct. 3, 2009, when one member of the party tripped and his gun accidentally discharged. The shotgun load hit Damhof in the left shoulder and arm.

“All I remember is hearing him fall in a hole and a gun going off and not being able to feel my left arm,” Damhof said.

Surgeons removed some of the shot and replaced an artery in his arm with one from his leg. The next day, they did more work when Damhof developed compartment syndrome in his arm. He lost much of the muscle in his arm and shoulder and all nerves were damaged. To this day, about half the shot remains in his body and he can feel some of them just under his skin.

During his eighth-grade and ninth-grade years, Damhof endured 13 surgeries and countless hours of occupational and physical therapy to regain and improve the use of his left arm.

But while the injuries wiped out his eighth-grade year in athletics, Damhof was back as a freshman, determined to not let them derail his goals. He stuck with basketball and switched from football to soccer and from baseball to golf.

“Just to become a three-sport athlete again, that was my goal,” Damhof said. “That’s what everybody knew me as — as an athlete. I didn’t want (the injuries) to be what people remembered about me so I was determined to get back on any court or field to prove to everybody that if you go through a major thing like this you can overcome all obstacles and get back to where you used to be.”

Playing defense on the Cardinals soccer team went well and even after the injury, Damhof didn’t have any problems playing golf. But reacquiring his level of skill in basketball proved more challenging. Dribbling was the most daunting task to relearn and it was particularly maddening for him because, even though he is a right-hander, he still was more adept at dribbling with his left hand.

“It was a struggle,” Damhof said. “When I was younger — not bragging — but I was one of the top players. And then to see myself sitting on the bench … . But I think sitting on the bench and then, this year, coming off the bench and doing what I could do was best, I think.”

Damhof played in all 26 of the Cardinals’ games this season and he averaged 1.5 points, a rebound and an assist per game. Willmar head coach Steve Grove said just having Damhof on the team was inspirational.

“From where he was, if you told me he’d be playing basketball as a senior, I never would have believed it,” Grove said. “After what he went through, he did a great job for us.”

Damhof said his arm is about 85 percent of what it used to be and while his range of motion is somewhat limited, all sensitivity has returned. Doctors have told him this might be as good as it gets.

But Damhof has defied predictions before and for that he thanks his friends, well-wishers and family, especially his older brother Jake, a St. John’s junior who played in the TOMF game following his senior prep season.

“Jake’s been there always,” Damhof said. “He’s the one who pushed me to get back to normal. He didn’t want me to not be able to play sports.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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