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Hafer family trying to turn tragedy into triumph

Kyle Duwel was talking about his first cousin, Brian Hafer, who was 6-foot-5, a solid 200 pounds, had good looks, charisma and an overload of talent.

“Brian was the guy every other guy wanted to be,” the Dayton attorney said. “He could have been a D-I football player, could have been a D-I golfer, but he wanted to play college basketball and he did. He started a band in Florida that got semi-big time. He went out with the prettiest girls, had lots of friends, was loved by his family.

“He was just THAT guy.”

But these days his family is doing everything it can to make sure other boys — and girls — don’t end up like THAT guy.

Everyone who knew Brian Hafer will tell you he was “bigger than life.” In fact, those were the exact words his older sister, Laura — now a kindergarten teacher at Eastmont Elementary — used on Monday.

And yet her brother has gotten even bigger in death.

That point will be made again next Monday when the 4th annual Brian Hafer Memorial Golf Outing will take place at Dayton Country Club. The gala affair benefits some special youth mentoring organizations in southwest Ohio — specifically First Tee of Greater Miami Valley and Girls On the Run — and in the process, it is giving Brian the kind of legacy he should have rather than the tragic one that claimed him at age 33 in late October of 2009.

As gifted and embraced as he was, Brian struggled with inner demons that he tried to subdue with alcohol and drugs. There had been previous overdoses and hospital trips, rehab stints and admirable periods of sobriety.

In fact, just before he died, he seemed to be doing pretty well, family members said. He had a beautiful young daughter, a promising job, was active in the SouthBrook Christian Church in Miamisburg, was teaching handicapped kids and was about to begin coaching a youth basketball team.

Then came another stumble.

Separated from his wife, he was living in an apartment in Miamisburg. When he didn’t show up to some family functions, his dad, Bill Hafer — the longtime bailiff for Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara Gorman — went looking for him. He found him behind a locked bathroom door in his apartment.

He was dead, still holding the needle in his hand. He had overdosed from a drug cocktail that included heroin, cocaine and Vicodin.

The family was crushed and, at first — especially for Bill and Brian’s mom, Velvet, who lives in Texas — it was just a matter of trying to make it from one day to the next under the weight of the staggering loss.

Then with the help of others — especially Kyle Duwel and his brother Todd — the Hafer family took a firm step forward in the healing process and sought to pull positives from the numbing loss by stressing prevention and education.

“This is a very, very real problem that can affect anyone,” Laura said. “People are sadly mistaken when they think, ‘It can’t happen to our family. It can’t happen to our son or daughter.’

“It can happen to people who seem to have everything going for them. Look at the Glee star (Cory Monteith) who just died. He had the beautiful girlfriend, Lea Michele, the career and he was killed shooting up heroin, too.

“Drugs are a weapon. They kill. Whether you pull the trigger of a gun or shoot substances up your arm, to me it’s no different. Drugs will take you down fast and no one — no one — is immune to it.”

That’s part of message upon which the Brian Hafer Foundation was built.

“Right after Brian died, we put together a little family golf outing just to get Bill’s mind off things for a day,” Kyle said. “But almost right away we began to realize we could do more. We could raise some money and help people out.”

Since Brian died, the organization has become involved with area elementary schools and with groups like the First Tee — which teaches golf and life lessons to kids from southwest Ohio — and Girls On The Run, an organization that dovetails running and mentoring area girls from the third to eighth grade.

To fund the efforts, the foundation has the annual golf outing and banquet that is taking place Monday. There is also the Christmas Joy celebration that includes an evening’s celebration surrounded by Bill’s vast collection of Christmas ornaments and art work at a local golf course, or, this year, possibly at Dayton Children’s Hospital.

“The foundation is continuing to grow,” said Kyle Duwel, who like brother Todd is on the Board of Directors. “Last year we were able to give about $27,000 to local organizations.”

Besides the money, there is the heartfelt message Bill delivers whenever he can.

Retired from his bailiff job and dedicated full-time to his son’s foundation, he makes presentations — while giving out t-shirts, buttons and wrist bands — to schools, youth groups and parents, anyone he can. He doesn’t want another family to experience what his family has, nor does he want another child lost the way Brian was.

“I was at Shaker Run Golf Club last week — they have a good First Tee program there — and basically I stood there and just told everyone the story of our family and what happened to Brian,” he said quietly. “Afterward an older couple came up and the man had tears in his eyes.

“As I was talking to him I felt a tug on my leg and heard a little voice. I looked down and there was this little girl — she couldn’t have been more than three feet tall — looking up at me.

“She said, ‘I won’t do drugs. I promise, I won’t.’ ”

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