Polio struck Willie Hernandez when he was 3 months old. Yet if you ask the 36-year-old co-founder and president of Per4max Medical LLC—one of the most respected manufacturers of high-performance wheelchairs—the childhood disease brought a lifetime of blessings.
The two-time wheelchair basketball All-American lost the use of his legs, but it turns out he didn’t need them to succeed in life.
Hernandez (’96 BSME) grins as he talks about growing up in El Salvador. Instead of accepting a sedentary future, young Willie seemed more like a monkey to his mother, her description of the son she always found climbing trees and getting into normal boyhood mischief.
“My mother had it tough,” he says today, describing his mom raising three children alone.
She moved the family to California in search of better medical help. Shortly after the move, Willie became the Easter Seals Society poster child. That led to television appearances and three McDonald’s commercials, which helped ease the family’s financial problems.
About that time, Hernandez’s mother thought her son would excel in the new sport of wheelchair basketball. UT Arlington coach Jim Hayes recalls the first time he saw the kid play.
Two players shredded Hayes’ 1987 team. One was Hernandez, the other Jesus Alamillo. Hayes tried to recruit Hernandez, but the shooting guard said no unless Alamillo received a scholarship, too.
It was money well spent. The two took the Movin’ Mavs to three consecutive National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball championships. Both had their jerseys retired. Both also earned mechanical engineering degrees.
“It was [academically] risky at best to bring both of them in,” Hayes said. “I knew they’d have to learn how to be students. I expected them to struggle. To make a long story short, they made the most of their opportunities.”
Today, Hernandez spins through the tight hallways of Grand Prairie-based Per4max and reminisces, if asked, about his past. Sure, it was nice meeting President Clinton twice during his gold medal Paralympic days, and playing now for the semi-pro Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks keeps him as busy as he wants to be.
Yet it is the performance of Per4max that matters most.
Its genesis in 1999 was dissatisfaction with the clunky wheelchairs Hernandez knew could be made better.
Fellow classmates Alamillo, Chhay Mak and Phung Tran approached engineering Professor Stephen Kugle with the idea. He gave the four a crash course in computer-aided design. Then fellow alumnus and friend Tim Criswell agreed to help start the company.
Per4max employees produce Hernandez’s dream chairs every day for athletes worldwide. Each year the company manufactures around 400 highly engineered chairs that weigh less than half of their predecessors.
Among the athletes who use Per4max chairs are most of the Movin’ Mavs. Hayes believes that Hernandez having played basketball gives him an advantage.
“When he measures someone for a chair, he asks a lot of questions,” Hayes said. “He takes the time to get to know the lifestyle of the person, not just the body measurements.”
Hernandez is pleased with the chairs, and also with his place in life. His blessings include his wife of three years, Angi, and 2-year-old Willie Jr.
“My disability has given me opportunities,” he said. “My sport has given me the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball, tennis and track. I’ve been on ESPN, flown everywhere, been honored by world leaders and represented my country, the United States.”
But that’s only part of the reason he sits so proudly today.
“We’re changing a lot of people’s lives here,” he said of Per4max. “We’re helping people who might have been in bed their entire lives by giving them the very best tools to become more independent. That’s a great feeling.”
— David Van Meter
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