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Bennetts are thankful for son's life

By Dave Campbell

Associated Press

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Darren Bennett was watching last season's Super Bowl with his son, Will, an 8-year-old who has shown a keen sense of awareness about the game that provides a living for their family.

New England had the ball. It was third-and-9. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was under center.

"Why isn't Brady in shotgun? He's always in shotgun on third-and-long," Will exclaimed as Brady, as if on cue, stepped back in the familiar shotgun formation and promptly completed a pass for a first down.

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"I was just dumbfounded, watching the TV," Bennett said this week. "He has an incredible memory."

This probably wouldn't be worth a story if Bennett and his wife, Rosemary, simply had a son who excelled at sports trivia and noticed details most adults easily missed.

The Bennetts wish that were the case, that Will could run around the yard with his younger brother, Tom, and go fishing and play catch with his pro football-playing father.

But Will cannot walk anymore, having been stricken by a debilitating genetic disorder known as muscular dystrophy. Will has Duchenne MD, the most common and severe type that affects one out of every 3,300 boys. He was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago.

"He's had a pretty big backward step this year," said Bennett, a 39-year-old Australian punter who signed with the Minnesota Vikings before this season. "He stopped walking in May, right around minicamp time, which is pretty devastating to us."

Will went through a growth spurt this year, putting him solidly over 4 feet. That's the worst thing that can happen for an MD sufferer, because that accelerates the disease's clutch on the body.

Bennett is an affable fellow who normally speaks quickly and confidently in his noticeable accent. His voice trails off slightly when explaining that most people with MD don't live past their late teens or early twenties.

"We're just trying to help him as long as we can," Bennett said, noting that researchers have high hopes for a cure. "We just stay as positive as we can, because we don't know how long we're going to have him. It could be 20 years. It could be 10 years. We try not to focus on that. We try to focus on the quality of life while we have him."

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It's Thanksgiving week, so -- even though the family could be excused for not doing so -- the Bennetts have found several ways in which to give thanks. (It's not celebrated Down Under, but the boys are American citizens and the holiday is gladly observed in their household each year.)

Bennett hasn't punted this year as well as he, or the team, would like. And he and his wife are finding it tougher to lift Will in his wheelchair into the car. But the boy's positive attitude is a big plus.

After spending nine seasons with the Chargers, raising their children in the sun and shine of San Diego, the Bennetts have enjoyed their move to the Midwest. They love Will's doctors, the Edina elementary school both boys attend, and the University of Minnesota is a leader in stem cell research -- which is aiding scientists in their quest for a cure for MD.

Teammates have helped support Bennett's Pro Player Foundation, which supports MD research, and the club's community and public relations people have provided invaluable assistance.

And, believe it or not, they're eagerly awaiting a real winter.

"It's a nice rounded upbringing for the boys, coming here," Bennett said. "We like to do diverse things with the kids. Will's looking forward to going sledding in his first snow."

They haven't disclosed to Will or Tom everything they know about MD, because much of the information would undoubtedly be too difficult for a kid to digest.

"As we come to those bridges, we'll talk to him about it," Bennett said. "But at the moment he should just be a happy-go-lucky 8-year-old who just isn't able to run around like his brother. So that's the way we try to approach it, and that's really the only way. If you reflect too much, then it really gets you down."

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