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Author Barry Kienzle tells remarkable story about a boy with cerebral palsy who loved to lose at wrestling

By Maridith Yahl
NKyTribune reporter

Do you have one of those stories from the past that is so fantastic it’s hard to believe it happened? Life-long Northern Kentuckian and local author Barry Kienzle grew up with one such story, which he told in his first book, The Crossings.

The Crossings was based on the true story of my father, who in 1932 when he was 12, hopped a freight train in Decoursey Yards in Latonia and rode to New Orleans to see Mardi Gras,” said Kienzle.

The soft-spoken Kienzle may seem an unlikely candidate to write novels since he studied accounting in college and has spent the better part of his career as a CFO.

“I’m a good storyteller and I had some writing skills and that’s how I got started,” said Kienzle.

Kienzle, who grew up in Covington, always thought the family story was pretty neat, but he didn’t talk to his dad about it because it was “not a popular thing he did.” Kienzle wrote down what he knew. He had some facts and began to craft his novel.

Kienzle has since published a sequel to The Crossing titled The Indian. Indian refers to a motorcycle, but the character also ends up in Indian Territory out west. In this book, each chapter begins with an American Indian saying that corresponds to what is happening in the chapter. This is a technique Kienzle used again in his latest book.

Kienzle published Heart of a Lion: Our Journey of Faith and Courage last September.

Unlike his first two books, this one is a true story of perseverance and determination by a young boy, Willie Burton who has cerebral palsy. Nonetheless, he joined the wrestling team at Fairdale High School in Louisville.

Heart of a Lion tells the story of Willie Burton who wrestled for all four years of high school and lost every match, over 100, except one — his last match on senior night.

Kienzle with Willie and his mom, Brenda. (Photo provided)

Willie’s story was spotlighted on ESPN’s E:60 WILLPower. The video, linked on BarryKBooks, and Kienzle’s book explain how a brain bleed affected the part of Willie’s brain that governs how to walk and speak. Willie’s legs can’t support his body weight, so he is wheelchair-bound. He has limited strength in his right arm and has physical therapy every day. His mental capacity is not affected.

Why would one continue to push themselves so hard while losing every match? On the ESPN E:60 documentary, Willie says, “I belonged to the team. I was one of the brothers.”

“It’s a very compelling story,” said Kienzle. “This is such a unique story about someone who had to crawl out on the mat — and lose and lose.

“I needed to write it. I tell people, God sent me there to do it,” said Kienzle. “I’m the same age as his mother. It’s almost like I’m an uncle now,” said Kienzle.

Willie and his mother Brenda are Christians. Through a friend of a friend Kienzle was connected to them. Kienzle recounts that “at the end of the interview they said ‘we’d like to work with you but we have one question, are you Christian?’”

Willie — the boy who didn’t mind losing. He was part of a team of brothers. (Photo provided)

“I felt that I wanted to write this story and I felt I could because when I was a baby I had polio. I spent time in braces and had surgeries and used wheelchairs until I was 12-years-old. Then I got rid of that stuff because I had surgeries to help me walk. I knew what it was like,” said Kienzle.

The book was originally written in first-person using Willie’s voice. When going through editing Kienzle felt something was missing, Brenda’s voice. At their next encounter, Brenda and Willie told Kienzle they thought this was both of their stories. Kienzle then began to interview Brenda and intertwine her side of the story, a story of a caregiver and her struggles.

Each chapter of Heart of a Lion begins with a Bible verse that Willie and Brenda chose.

The book has won Mom’s Choice Award 2019 Gold Award – Young Adult Inspirational/Motivational and a 5-Star review from Readers Favorite.

All of Kienzle’s books can be purchased from BarryKBooks.

Currently, he is working on “a picture book for younger children about somebody who has physical disabilities and is in a wheelchair,” he said.

In the future, Kienzle will get back to his roots. “I wrote fiction. I crossed over into non-fiction which was a challenge for me because you have to stick with the facts. But you have to use your creative writing skills to make it interesting,” he said.

“People want me to write a sequel to the Indian. So I’m going to get back to the fictional side,” said Kienzle.

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