As a volunteer coach and mentor in sports and recreation activities for adults with special needs, Bruce Flowers ’79 has found a way to give back through sports after a successful athletic career of his own.
In his work with the Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association (NEDSRA), a Chicago-area non-profit that aims to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities by providing them with recreational and social programs, Flowers encounters friendship and joy each day.
He traces his interest in this work back to his undergraduate days at Notre Dame when he volunteered at Logan Center, which supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities so they can achieve their desired quality of life. It was his first exposure to working with people with developmental disabilities in sports, a passion that would become central to his life in the years to come.
“I was volunteering in their swimming program,” Flowers says. “I found it very fulfilling at that time. I worked with a young kid who didn’t speak, so they began swimming therapy in hopes that if they got him moving around and having fun, he would come out of his shell. I would jump in the water, and he’d jump in behind me and chase me all while laughing and smiling. I remember one day when he was chasing me he yelled ‘Mama!’ I thought it was a breakthrough, so I told his therapist. She said it was, because he had verbalized something. I really enjoyed being around him and giving him my time. I was helping him by really just being a friend.”
A Passion for Hoops
Flowers’ experience at Notre Dame also further strengthened his interest in basketball—a passion since childhood.
“Sports was huge for me growing up,” Flowers says. “Our outdoor basketball court attracted college players in the summertime. It really helped me to become a very competitive basketball player because the winner stayed on the court and the loser had to go to the back of the line—and sometimes those lines got to be pretty big. It molded my competitive nature to try to stay on the basketball court and win.”
That competitive drive helped him succeed at Notre Dame, where he played basketball for Digger Phelps’ squad as a freshman. The team was on the rise, coming off its stunning 1974 upset of UCLA.
“I just felt fortunate to be able to play at Notre Dame because we got a lot of exposure,” Flowers says. “The competition and playing at a high level was key in my career and really made me a better basketball player.”
After graduating from Notre Dame, playing professional basketball in Italy for several seasons, and playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers for one year, Flowers retired from the sport at age 30 and settled into a marketing career with Keebler Company. Although he stepped back from playing, basketball remained a part of Flowers’ life as he coached for his son’s AAU team.
A New Calling
“Sports kind of took a back seat at that point,” Flowers says. “I was more worried about becoming a good product manager at Keebler. My youngest son, Peter, got into basketball when he was in sixth grade. I started coaching him, and that was a lot of fun because the competitive juices came back, we were a pretty good team, and as a coach, winning was just as exciting as playing.”
When his son went to high school, Flowers found himself with extra free time and began calling around to various organizations, looking to keep coaching. He landed at NEDSRA and began as an assistant basketball coach, quickly becoming invested in the organization’s mission and offering his skills to a number of different programs.
“It was completely different than anything else I’d ever experienced before,” he says. “Coaching with special needs adults is really being a cheerleader, a friend, and a positive role model. I started in 2003, and by 2008 I was coaching golf, weight lifting, and volleyball. Each season was doing something a little different. I got my license to drive the vans, so I’m the van driver now for NEDSRA.”
Flowers says the best part of his position with NEDSRA is being around the people.
“The special needs adults live in the present,” he says. “Sometimes I forget to live in the present. When I’m around them whether it’s in a van, at a sporting event, or in a program, they’re always living the way God meant us to live—moment by moment and day by day. There’s very few worries with this population, and I admire that. They’re in this very loving, fun, positive environment, and it’s just a great experience to be a part of that.”