On wheelchairs made for the street, the wheels tilt inward only slightly. However, Will says that his wheels are slanted at a 15 degree pitch--this gives the chair more speed and a faster response time. A metal plate welded crudely across the front as a no-nonsense fender, and the dented hubcaps, add a certain, sneering intimidation to his ride, like a discarded prop from the Mad Max movies.
Part of the Portland Pounders, a "chair rugby" team, Will and another ten quadriplegics are gathered inside a local high school gym for their Sunday morning practice. The basketball hoops are pulled up, and one quad rushes in his chair across the court; he grabs one of his tires and spins out in a move that would make the Duke Boys of Hazard County envious. "I think he banged his head hard in his accident," jokes an older player, observing his teammate's hotrodding.
Above the din of tire-squeaking and trash-talking, Will explains the basic rules for "chair rugby." Four players per team. Ten-second hold rule. One point each time a player carries the ball across the goal line. No hitting behind the axle. The game is a frenetic hybrid--a cross between basketball, arena football, and Roman chariot racing.
When the scrimmage finally begins, and Will rolls onto the court, he's a bit timid. The newest player to join the Pounders, Will was a nuclear electrician, a Navy Seal diver, an avid mountain biker and snowboarder less than a year ago. In his mid-20s, he has arresting good looks and a level stare. Last August, while stationed in Virginia Beach, he had a motorcycle accident that he doesn't remember much about; he was in the hospital for six months and was just released this past March.
As Will's team charges down the court, one defender patrols the goal line, traversing back and forth like a slow-moving shark. Will's teammate passes the ball to him. But as the ball arcs towards Will, the defender charges forward and, in a move that is adopted either from bumper cars or the Lakers' precision pic-and-rolls, slams his chair into Will, bringing him to a standstill. The ball skitters to the floor and the other team scoops it up.
Like many of the players, Will was recruited while languishing in a rehab center. So far, he's only been to three other practices; it's an initiation into a new world and a chance to test out the physical boundaries that now define his life. It's also a chance to regain some of the independence that was stolen after months spent in hospitals, feeling constantly fussed over by friends and family.
"I couldn't see myself sitting around," he says calmly. Nevertheless, he still looks a bit uncertain, like a college freshman sussing out the beginning to a new chapter of his life.
In 1988, the US Quad Rugby League launched with six teams. Since then, the sport has ballooned to 40 teams around the country. Although the game is technically a recreational sport--played by quads in their time away from full-time jobs and family--it's taken on with a seriousness matched by aspiring, minor league ballplayers. There are fierce rivalries, during which the hottest players are recruited to hop from team to team, even moving to new cities. The brainchild of two Canadian quads, the sport was invented in the late '70s, when the two became frustrated over being sidelined from physical therapy programs like wheelchair basketball.
Unlike paraplegics, for quads, the spinal chord is severed closer to the neck; depending on the exact vertebrate where the break occurs, varying levels of mobility are left intact. Usually triceps are rendered immobile, and since quads cannot raise their arms, the dexterity necessary to shoot hoops is eliminated. Other, more perfunctory functions, like the fine-tuned muscle movements necessary to grasp a ball, are curbed. For sports like basketball, football, rugby--where clasping and carrying a ball is imperative, such limitations can easily sideline a player. But, in chair rugby, players shovel-pass the ball to each other and cradle it in their laps as they rush up and down the court.
"The biggest question is, 'How could that be?'" says Ed Suhr, the Pounders' captain. "Most people think of Christopher Reeves; if you can push a chair, then they think you're paraplegic, not a quad," he explains. A West Point graduate and former turf rugby player, Suhr was injured in a car accident more than ten years ago.
Even in the marginalized world of disabled athletes, quads were delegated to an even lower, inactive echelon until only about a decade ago. But chair rugby has been a lifeline. With the passage of the American Disability Act in 1990--the equivalent of the Civil Right Acts in the '60s, demanding full-fledged accommodations for disabled Americans--disabled sports have become increasingly prominent over the past decade. Colleges have begun to introduce all sorts of chair sport teams, from skiing to basketball. At the lead is University of Arizona, with a full-time athletic director for chair sports. Increasingly, the ParaOlympics have been folded into actual Olympic competition, and has been validated with media coverage. (The US chair rugby team edged out the Australians in 2000 for gold.) There is even a magazine, Sport n' Spokes, devoted entirely to disabled sports. These small steps are not unlike the humble beginnings of women's sports, which eventually exploded thanks to Title IX, 30 years ago.
Within the first six minutes of the scrimmage, Will's team falls behind, five-two. A flash of metal and spinning spokes, the chairs storm towards the far goal line. As the game gathers speed, Will begins pushing through the traffic jams, and on this run, slants off towards the end zone.
In any sport, athletes are measured by their virtues; a sharp-shooting point guard may lead offensive attacks, but fade on the defensive plays. In chair rugby, these strengths and weaknesses are even more apparent. Categorized medically, players are rated from 3.0 down to 0.5, depending on the extent of their mobility; any team may only have a combined 8.0 on the field at a time. Rated at 3.0, the team is grooming Will to be an aggressive scorer for the Pounders.
As Will's team pushes towards the goal line, their opponents organize into a defensive stance. When Will floats towards the far corner, his teammate rushes with the ball towards the opposite side. It's a classic post pattern, and the defenders charge full-speed towards him; a metal-crunching collision is inevitable. At the last moment, the ball-carrier screeches to a halt and lobs the ball to wide-open Will, who reaches as high as he can and cradles the ball into his lap. It is a beautiful play that unfolds with the precision of a Pac-10 flea flicker. Will rolls no more than six inches into the end-zone.
It really is no surprise that the competition is so intense. Most para-and quadriplegics in America are young, hyper-kinetic males who suffered a back-breaking injury doing something risky and active--skiing and surfing accidents, motorcycle wrecks, rock climbing falls.
"These are active people out doing stupid and risky stuff," explains Suhr. "Cars don't generally back through the living room and hit you while watching t.v.," he quips.
While most people slowly lose their physical prowess over time, as their bodies age and sag, disabled athletes suffer the loss of their strength, dexterity, and agility in a blink of an eye. But, while their bodies may be damaged in a split second, the mind is less likely to accept these confines.
It is perhaps this dichotomy that explains the ferociousness of disabled sports. While recreational, able-bodied, adult sport leagues--largely populated with former high school athletes trying to recapture some former glory--have a certain competitive edge, disabled athletes hold onto an amplified desire to prove to themselves, and others, that their disability has not made them physically incapable.
The Portland Pounders currently stand at the top of the second tier of teams; ranked 12th nationally, they are knocking on the door of the most elite teams in the country. At the recent national championships, they were edged from the coveted top ten by a speedier team from San Francisco.
Players like Will may be enough to joust the Pounders into the new level of competition, and team members eye these top teams--like the Texas Stampede and the Lakeshore Demolition, who won the most recent national championships--with a certain tone of awe, fear, and anxiety. "He's just a monster," says Suhr, talking about one of the Texans who is notorious for ramming chairs and jousting players up into the air. "Everyone has a story about being thrown by him."
But considering what these guys have been through, it'll take more than just a monster from Texas to stop them.
The regular "Chair Rugby" season begins in September. Games are free and open to the public. For more information, contact, Ed Suhr, 238-1324 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.