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Celebrating Dennis

A week after Dennis McDermott died in an ATV crash, family and friends came together Sunday to celebrate his life.

Packing St. Edward’s Corcoran Center to the point that many stood along the walls, they remembered a vivacious young man who touched so many lives throughout the Austin community.

“This day is a time to remember,” said Father Joe Fogal, who led the ceremony. “And (Dennis) will stay alive in our hearts.”

McDermott, 18, was the inspirational leader of the Austin High School wrestling team. Despite having Down syndrome, he passionately pursued the sport, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Jimmy.

A number of Dennis’ former teammates gathered in front of the crowd Sunday to tell stories about their friend. One remembered how Dennis would consume a milkshake too fast, then bang his head yelling “brain freeze.” Another wrestler recalled how Dennis would call him “worm boy” for a game he’d play on his cell phone.

After each story, the crowd cheered, and the young wrestlers shared bittersweet smiles.

Then Howie Underwood, among the team’s best athletes the last few seasons, took the microphone to honor his friend and wrestling partner. In the spirit of the movie “Talladega Nights,” he had the crowd raise a fist with him, as Underwood celebrated with one last “shake-and-bake” — a routine he and Dennis went through many times during meets.

“I think Dennis touched all of our hearts in some way,” Underwood said.

That sentiment was certainly apparent inside the Corcoran Center, as many mixed chuckles with tears as they heard a number of stories about Dennis’ life. Jeff Brinkman, who coached Dennis as a youth wrestler, struggled to keep his composure as he talked about a boy who taught him more than he ever taught the boy.

“One thing I learned in my life through Dennis is to never take anything too seriously,” Brinkman said of the fun-loving McDermott.

The coach added: “He broke down those barriers that no one else could break down.”

Dennis’ life was very much about breaking down barriers. In addition to pursuing wrestling, he served on student council in elementary school and maintained high grades throughout his 18 years. His parents, James and Caron, said they always tried to just let Dennis be Dennis.

If that meant wearing a three-piece suit to class — as Dennis famously did — hitting on girls during wrestling matches, or watching the “Dukes of Hazzard” nonstop, the McDermotts let him go.

“We just always let him be who and what he was,” James McDermott said.

His Sunday ceremony, which was more celebration than funeral, reflected Dennis’ independent spirit. After a few words by Father Fogal, the first song played was “Good Ol’ Boys” from the “Dukes of Hazzard.” The last song? Dennis’ favorite — “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. And, of course, the main course was also inspired by Dennis, as guests chowed down on pizza.

As they ate, they talked about a special young man who showed love for them all and made quite the lasting mark in Austin — even though he only lived for 18 years.

“Dennis was a great guy,” his cousin, Martha, said. “He was quite the character.”

Amid tears and laughter, everyone gathered Sunday could agree with that.

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