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Mercer Island native continues work on 'accidental' sport
Years ago, Don Bennett discovered a new sport by accident. The Island native, who used to live on West Mercer Way, lost his leg in an accident on Lake Washington. One afternoon, while standing in his driveway watching his sons Tom and Matt play basketball, they missed a shot and it bounced toward Bennett. Without much thought, he swung on his crutches and kicked the ball back to them with his remaining leg. It doesn't seem like much — simply a father helping his sons out — but it turned out to be the birth of amputee soccer.
"I give them credit for being bad at basketball," said Bennett. "Without them there would not be a world cup of amputee soccer."
Next month in Argentina, teams from across the world will compete in the World Amputee Football world cup. What originally started in 1980 as a rag tag group of guys whom Bennett knew, largely from a group of skiing friends, playing at Mercer Island High School, has become an international event.
All players are amputees, with players on the field typically missing a leg. All goalies have lost an arm. Team members use their crutches on the field, but cannot touch the ball with it.
Bennett, now 80 and recently retired, said that after years of taking a back seat to the effort, he will be getting more involved. He'll be traveling to Argentina to give the Don Bennett Golden Foot Award to the player who scored the most goals during the tournament. It's the first time that the trophy has been given, but he expects it to become a lasting part of the tournament.
Bennett said teams have gained popularity in countries which have been ravaged by war and disasters. Countries playing in the 2010 world cup include: Brazil, England, France, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Turkey, the United States and Uzbekistan. Bennett said one of the newest countries to form a team was Haiti, as people who lost limbs in the aftermath of the earthquake look for ways to stay active.
"You have to be in good physical shape, but it's pretty easy to pick up," said Bennett. "There's always going to be a need."
He said for him personally, it gave him something to do, and helped relieve him of the depression that often comes with being an amputee. He tells the story of an El Salvador player in the late 1980s who was just 18 when he lost a leg. The lifelong soccer player nicknamed Rambo was contemplating suicide when he was introduced to the sport. Bennett said the sport saved his life and in 1987 the team from El Salvador, led by Rambo, won the world cup.
While the sport hasn't gained a ton of traction in the United States yet, Bennett said because they've been focused on the international side of things, he expects it to pick up. He said with the large numbers of wounded young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is only a matter of time before people are interested in forming teams.
"In a lot of countries, it's younger guys who fought in wars," said Bennett of the typical player overseas. Beyond being an amputee, there aren't many requirements, he said. Men and women play on the same teams, and players of all ages can be found on the field.
"It's exciting to watch them play," he said. "My objective, now that I'm retired, is working on bringing it to people's attention. A lot of these countries are poorer. They can't buy uniforms, and need crutches." He said his major goal is to hopefully find a large sponsor for the organization to help people play.
"Our objective will be to have teams in major cities (across the U.S.)," said Bennett.
To learn more about the organization visit their Web site or e-mail Bennett at email@example.com.