KEARNEY — On Wednesday, Kearney’s Challenger baseball program for intellectually and physically challenged kids will get a boost with the dedication of a special ball field at Patriot Park.
“Patriot Park is an awesome facility, but now it’s for everybody,” said Scott Hayden, Kearney Park and Recreation director.
The new field has features to enhance the experience for players, regardless of their challenges, and it’s named after Brad Bowman, a Kearney man who was left with one leg longer and stronger than the other because of polio. He contracted the illness at age 2½ and suffered its effects his entire life.
According to his family, polio couldn’t prevent Bowman from competing in high school sports, and his love of baseball and golf stayed with him throughout his life.
Bowman, 67, died in 2017, but his family has honored his memory by helping fund the Brad Bowman Field.
“When my brother-in-law passed away I thought this might be something to honor him,” said Jerry Hellman of Kearney. Bowman was the brother of Hellman’s wife, Tami.
Hellman said Kearney City Manager Michael Morgan and Park and Recreation Director Scott Hayden had envisioned a Challenger field, and the idea was a winner with the Bowman/Hellman family.
“As a family we said, ‘What can we do to make this happen sooner than later?’” Hellman said.
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The $470,000 facility is near the heart of the new Patriot Park baseball and softball complex in east Kearney. It features level surfaces, low-pile artificial turf and wide dugouts to accommodate wheelchairs. Also, the field is a bit smaller, explained Hayden.
“It’s really the only field of its kind in Nebraska,” Hayden said about Bowman Field’s special design. “The field will be for kids and young adults. As time allows, we’ll have parent and child youth sports programs.”
Kearney’s TOPSoccer players and volunteers used Bowman Field earlier in the spring. Wednesday will be the first time it will be used for Challenger baseball.
Kearney Little League adopted Challenger baseball in 1990.
Using a special field and rules, the program adapts baseball so youths with physical and intellectual challenges can experience the fun and excitement of American’s pastime, just like other kids.
Today, 30-50 young players participate in Challenger baseball in Kearney.
Bowman’s widow, Kay, paused silently when asked what it would mean to her late husband that Kearney’s handicap-accessible field is named in his honor.
“He wore a special brace. Polio left him with one leg longer than the other, but he was able to overcome it. He really enjoyed sports,” Kay said.
Their son Brett Bowman of Kearney will speak at Wednesday’s dedication.
The Bowman/Hellman family explained its support for Bowman Field in a statement: “With his first love being baseball, his family wishes to honor his lifetime of strength and courage by dedicating a field in his name so that all children, no matter their limitations, will be able to experience the same exhilaration and joy that he experienced while participating in outdoor sports.”
After the dedication, Challenger participants will play the first game of their 2019 season on Bowman Field.
Kearney Little League President Todd Herges said that Challenger baseball has a special place in Little League. He said that thousands attend the Challenger games that are a part of regional tournaments and the Little League World Series, but people don’t need to go to Williamsport, Pa., to feel the magic of Challenger baseball.
“I can’t tell you what a neat experience it is. The smiles of the Challengers and their buddies are awesome,” Herges said.
Kearney Little League supports the Challenger program because it gives players with cognitive and mobility challenges a chance to enjoy baseball the same as other children, Herges said.
In addition, the buddies on the field who assist Challengers players with batting, base running and fielding, also experience something special as they get to know the Challengers players, he said.
Jared Wegner, a former Kearney Little Leaguer, still is a friend of a Challengers player he met during the Little League World Series.
“We were so happy that the Bowman family made this happen,” Herges said. “We thought it would be several years down the road, but here we are with the new field opening.”
Hayden said support for Bowman Field came from a number of organizations, as well as Bowman’s family, including his mother, Dottie Bowman.
Hellman said he’s pleased to see his brother-in-law’s name on Brad Bowman Field. “He did well with his handicap, was successful and fought through it. He would like kids with disabilities to enjoy sports the same as kids without disabilities.”