George Rosner admits he was a bit naive, and that's saying a lot from someone who has coached high school sports for over 30 years.
When Danny Orlando came out for Rosner's Streamwood boys golf team last year as a junior, it presented Rosner with a challenge like none he'd ever had in all his years coaching golf and girls basketball.
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Danny Orlando has Down syndrome. It's a condition that affects the cognitive ability as well as physical growth. The normal young adult with Down syndrome has an IQ of 50.
But many people with Down syndrome still lead normal lives, albeit a little slower, or in Danny's case on the golf course, a little faster.
"He's an incredible kid," said Rosner prior to the Sabres' home meet with South Elgin earlier this week at Streamwood Oaks. "The two years I've had him have been a real eye-opener for me. And he can play."
Granted, Danny is what golfers call a "ready" player. He's ready to swing away right after his last shot. The pace he needs to play at doesn't allow him to play in big meets, conference or postseason but that hasn't kept him from becoming every bit a member of the Streamwood team as anyone else.
"He's a blast," says senior Cody Stonebraker, who is often Danny's playing partner and also competes with Danny on the Streamwood boys bowling team. "He's got such a great personality. He's so fun and he's always happy. He has his own way of communicating. He's one of my favorite players on the team."
Orlando, who lives in Bartlett and would have been a South Elgin student, started playing golf at the age of 8 through the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association. He's qualified five times for state competition in Special Olympics.
"He was always at the driving range when he was young," says his mom, Kim, noting that Danny went along with his dad, Nick, and grandfather Ron Palacz. "You never know when they're young what their abilities are going to be but we knew it was something he could handle and he's handled it quite well."
How into golf is Danny? Enough so that on Sept. 7 he took a day off school so he could play with his dad in the Friends of Nathan Foundation fundraiser at The Bridges of Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates. The Friends of Nathan is a not-for- profit corporation that was founded to provide support to children with cerebral palsy and other debilitating diseases.
"That was all about a special needs kid giving back," said Kim with a gleam in her eye.
Danny also participated in the Ryder Cup skills challenge at Randall Oaks in July and will attend the Ryder Cup competition at Medinah next weekend.
But more than anything, his mom, who serves as Danny's caddie on the course, is appreciative of the acceptance her only child has gotten around the Streamwood program.
"Just to see the camaraderie he's got with some of these guys," she said. "The guys all talk to him. They'll say 'Good shot,' or 'Great job Danny'. They are very respectable and respectful guys. To see him enjoy himself is key. He is excelling at this because he enjoys it. It's the same thing with bowling. He's happiest when he's doing something. He might get a 10 on a hole but when the ball goes in he still celebrates it. His emotions are really into it."
Rosner, who says the challenges of communication and how his other players would react to Danny's presence were minimal and short-lived, has also had his share of funny moments with Danny. Like on the driving range when Danny first joined the team.
"We'd get every kid a big bucket of balls to hit," Rosner says, "and I set the bucket down by Danny and he started hitting. I got distracted and turned away for a second, then when I looked back he was halfway through the bucket. I looked at Kim and said 'How do I slow him down?' She just said if you can figure it out go for it. I took the bucket away from Danny and he gave me a look -- boy was he mad. Now we just give him smaller buckets to hit."
Danny, who can be educated in Elgin Area School District U-46 until his 22nd birthday, certainly has left an impression on Stonebraker and the rest of the Sabres.
"He's been such a good influence on me," Stonebraker said. "He makes me want to be better, more happy and carefree. He understands more than I do and he's always got something to say back."
Kim Orlando has nothing but praise for Rosner's role. In fact, she made sure Rosner received a certificate of recognition last year from the United Parent Support for Down syndrome organization (UPS for Downs).
"Kudos to George Rosner," she said. "He was so accepting and welcomed Danny with open arms."
And Rosner will miss Danny, who has played his final match as a Sabre.
"We're really going to miss him," Rosner said. "It's been a pleasure to have him here the last two years. He's really changed my perspective on how I look at some things."
Just as Danny has for all the Sabres.