CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thursday is World Down Syndrome Day, and the Down Syndrome Association will be celebrating all weekend long with their 3-2-1 Dash. 

As part of NBC Charlotte's Carolina Has Heart series, the Down Syndrome Association nominated the Hammekkes for inspiring the Charlotte community. 

Brendan Hammekke is a huge Carolina Panthers fan and competes in the Special Olympics. His love of sports led him to compete in the Special Olympics in multiple events. 

"I did weightlifting, skiing, ice skating, bowling, gymnastics, softball, basketball and swimming," Hammekke said. 

Sports have always kept the Hammekke family close. 

"Sports mirrors life and you have to learn how to share, you have to learn how to accept defeat — that was hard for one person we won't mention," Brendan's father Pat quipped. 

Brendan competed in Iowa in the U.S. National Special Olympics Games. His dad became his coach and was a Special Olympics director for more than 10 years. 

"Just learn the capabilities of people with Down syndrome, they can do so much," Pat said. 

Brendan's older sister Casey is probably his biggest supporter. She wrote a two-page nomination for her brother for Special Olympics Athlete of the Year. And he won. 

"I wanted to do something big," Casey Hammekke said. "He got it!"

Brendan and Casey both have jobs and live on their own with the help of the Independence Project. Brendan works at Harris Teeter and Casey mentors other kids with Down syndrome at St. Patrick's School. 

"I love mentoring at the school. It's so much fun to help my friends and skills like that," Casey said. "I say, 'oh my gosh, you're doing great.' I love giving back."

The Hammekke family inspired NBC Charlotte's Charlotte Today host and former Carolina Panther Eugene Robinson. He wanted to do something special for such a huge Panthers fan like Brendan. 

That's when he offered him the surprise of a lifetime — a pair of Luke Kuechly's cleats. 

"On behalf of the Panthers and Luke Kuechly, they belong to you Brendan," Robinson said. 

If you have someone you want to nominate for Carolina Has Heart, click here or email Sarah French at


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