From Fields to Films: The power of positive youth sports experiences
By Greg Bach
The backyard of Brad William Henke’s youth is where his love of football and relentless pursuit of improvement were on full display year-round in the thin Colorado air.
“My freshman year of high school I saw that they had these new blocking sleds so I asked what they were doing with the old ones and they said they were throwing them out – so I asked if I could have one,” says Henke, who would go on to play for the Denver Broncos and now is an accomplished actor. “So I would drive that sled in my backyard all day.”
Those sweat-soaked sessions featured lots of memorable moments with his dad that are still cherished decades later, too.
“My dad was always an assistant coach on my teams and that was really good bonding for us,” Henke says. “He didn’t even coach my position, but it was just driving in the car together and just being around each other and being close with him. And being in our backyard practicing plays with him is something I’ll always remember.”
STARTING IN SOCCER, FINISHING IN FOOTBALL
Deemed too small for football as a youngster, his family steered him to soccer for his first organized sport.
“Believe it or not, I was a little kid,” says Henke, who by the time he was a senior in high school stood 6-feet-4 with his frame layered in muscle.
Once his family green lighted football and he was able to step on the field he loved every minute of it.
“What was cool was that I was small enough to play quarterback and fullback and running back,” he says. “So, I got to play all those fun skill positions.”
He went on to play a variety of sports throughout his youth, snatching benefits from all of them. He’s a huge proponent of kids being exposed to multiple sports rather than settling on one too soon and missing out on some mighty valuable experiences along the way.
“I feel when you play multiple sports first of all you’re going to meet multiple friends and different people and that’s going to be good for you,” he says. “Sometimes people treat youth sports like their kids are already in the NFL, but let’s let them have great competition.”
STEPHEN KING'S THE STAND
Henke’s NFL career was derailed by injury, but he’s become a successful actor these days with a resume oozing with impressive credits.
He’s currently part of the star-laden cast of THE STAND, the limited series adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic 1978 novel now streaming on CBS All Access. Henke plays the role of Tom Cullen opposite Whoopi Goldberg, James Marsden, and others. The nine-episode series is airing weekly.
“I have always been a Stephen King fan,” Henke says. “I was really honored that they wanted me on the show and that they wanted me to play such a challenging role. It was a big thrill for me.”
Henke has also appeared in several popular television series, including Lost, Orange is the New Black and Justified, as well as several films, including Sherrybaby opposite Maggie Gyllenhaal; and Choke, opposite Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston.
Working on movies and television series, he continually draws on his experiences in sports to navigate the challenges.
“Being part of a team is it’s not always about you,” he says. “When I’m acting very rarely am I the quarterback, but sometimes I’m the running back and a lot of times I’m the right guard, and I’ve got to be happy with that and know my role. You have to learn where you fit in and where you function.”
Henke attributes some of his success in front of the camera to the many life lessons he scooped up during his journey through athletics.
“Sports helped my confidence so much,” he says.
And he’s thankful his parents weren’t pushy or pressuring along the way.
“My parents were supportive, but they weren’t putting pressure on me or living through me,” he says. “Parents have to realize that youth sports are for the kids. We’re not playing youth sports to determine our professional sports status. Put it this way, the kid who was the best pitcher on my Little League team didn’t make it to the pros and I was not the best player at all when I was young, and I did make it. Youth sports are meant to give kids the chance to be active and to learn a sport and to work on balance and core strength and to meet people – and competition is a part of it.”
When parents make the participation about themselves, and not what’s best for their child, that’s when the season often derails and the opportunity for growth and development is spoiled.
“You can’t have parents who are living through the kids,” Henke says. “That’s a hard pressure on kids. You need to be supporting them. I really think parents should take a class when they start youth sports to talk about what it’s all about and how we can be competitive without being overbearing, and how it can be fun without being disorganized.”
The pursuit of improvement, and conquering challenges along the way, is what Henke found incredibly rewarding throughout his days as a youth and teen athlete.
“Even as a kid I felt accomplishment in the preparation,” he says. “I just felt like the hard work was part of the fun.”
He recalls with a smile how he used to closely monitor his efforts, too.
“When I was a kid, I liked to see how long it would take me to run around the track and then how long it would take me the following week and the week after that,” he says. “I would write it all down. I liked to watch myself improve.”
And he remembers those coaches who impacted his life through their words and interactions.
“I always liked the coaches who motivated by saying ‘Let’s be awesome’ instead of ‘Let’s not screw up,’” he says. “I liked the coaches who were positive and made things fun – and fun doesn’t mean goofing around. Fun means working hard and accomplishing things.”
Henke’s journey figures to feature plenty more accomplishments in the coming years, and part of that success can be traced back to the athletic fields of his youth.
“I think sports really help you in life,” he says. “I look back on my youth football days as my favorite years of playing football.”
You can follow Brad William Henke on Instagram.
Brad William Henke
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