Back in 2009, I was alone in a bar near the University of Arizona, talking to my then-girlfriend on the phone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw 3 guys in wheelchairs playing pool. For whatever reason I thought, I should talk to these guys. So I finished my beer, stumbled off the bar stool, and glided over to them on my skateboard.
"Hey, do you guys play any sports for the U of A?"
They seemed surprised - probably not by my question but that some dude with no legs had just rolled up to them on a skateboard.
(Side note: Even in the disability world, I get stared at for not being in a wheelchair.)
They looked me up and down, smiled at the idea, and said, "Yeah, give us your number, and we'll call you."
I thought, Damn, I sound like a fool. I’m an old guy, out of shape, don’t even have a wheelchair, and I think I can just join a university athletic team - like I'm Rudy? I figured they would lose my number, and I’d never get a chance to play.
To my surprise, they called me a few days later: “We have open try-outs, so just come by the U of A on Wednesday or Saturday mornings, and we’ll get you a chair.”
My heart sank.
Choosing between what you want to do and want you need to do for your family can be tough. It's hard to know which one is right, and sometimes being selfish can work out for everyone. However, with a full-time job, custody of my 4- and 6-year old daughters on the weekend, and no childcare back-up plan, I couldn’t see how I would squeeze in rugby practice. I told them I couldn’t make it.
Not long after, a DIII men’s wheelchair basketball team, the Tucson Lobos, invited me to play with them. With Tuesday and Thursday night practices that were close to my office, I could make this work.
For 5 years, I played with the Lobos - improving in every area, except shooting. Our coach would laugh at me, saying that, with only 4 fingers on one hand and 2 on the other, I really didn't have the hands for basketball. He suggested I play wheelchair rugby.
I continued to play wheelchair basketball.
Fast forward to 2015. My former girlfriend Emily and I are happily married, my kids are older, and a Danish man who looks like the actor Chris Elliot randomly shows up at our basketball practice. He said he was there to play basketball, but his lack of arm strength made us question his motives.
At the end of practice, he came up to me and said, "You need to try wheelchair rugby. We practice Saturday mornings". I politely declined, “No, I spend that time with my kids." He came to the next practice and urged me again. I declined again. By the 3rd week of him coming to basketball practice, I finally said, "OK."
At first I was afraid... I was petrified...
I had a lot of fears before I even started. I didn't think I could handle the sport, I wasn’t sure I would fit in with a group of college-age guys, and I felt like I was abandoning my kids. Though I knew my wife could handle them, I had never left them alone with her, and I thought they would be upset. (It turns out they barely noticed I was gone!)
So Saturday morning, my wife watched the kids while I went to try out for the team. I got there at 9 am, as they had suggested, and quickly learned a new term: “Quad Time.” Between the massive amount of equipment they need and the limited function they have in their arms and legs (mostly due to spinal cord injuries), it took an hour for them to get ready. By 10am, we were finally on the court, ready to play.
The chair they set aside for me had giant red wheels and looked like a small armored tank - and seemed to weigh just as much! I thought, How am I supposed to push this thing around? Also, with a deep bucket seat meant for guys with no feeling in their legs, it was very uncomfortable. I felt like a sardine crammed into a tiny tin can.
"So, in this game you are the high pointer. You carry the ball, and, if you are good, you score every play," the coach explained to me. I didn't understand. In basketball, I was teased for having bad hands, and now I'm being told to handle the ball in every play? In fact, they said that, if I throw the ball to anyone else, it might cause a turnover, and they didn't want that.
So we played a game, and, besides my speed, I was really awful. I passed the ball so many times and had so many turnovers that even they started to think maybe this was a mistake. They joked about how much I dribbled and played like a basketball player, yet they insisted, “In this sport you have the best hands... You are the #1 option… Slow down… Follow your pickers… Stop throwing the ball!”
Huh? How could I be the #1 guy in this sport? I felt like a failure and had no clue why they thought I would be any good.
But I didn't give up.
Not only did I keep going to practice every Saturday morning, but my wife and I drove up to Phoenix every Wednesday night so I could practice with the Phoenix Heat at Ability 360, a multi-sport facility in Phoenix.
There, I met USA Paralympian Nick Springer, a fellow amputee, who took me under his wing and helped me suck less at the game. Without knowing me from a pile of bricks, he coached me on the court and made me feel as if I belonged there.
Here was a guy who lost his hands and legs to meningitis when he was 14 - and he is a Paralympic champion! He never gave up, never complained, and pushed faster than anyone else out there. After seeing him play, I knew that, with my 6 fingers, I could improve.
(Even sider note: I have informally surveyed paralyzed people and single leg amputees on which they would choose: a leg infection or amputation? No one chooses amputation. They would rather have a bad leg than none at all. And that is why I have great respect for Nick. Just like me, he never had the option. Being amputees helped us connect. Plus, we share a similar sense of humor.)
Also on the Phoenix team are Team USA Captain Joe Delagrave and former Team USA player and Phoenix coach, Scott Hogsett (who is also featured in thewheelchair rugby documentary Murderball). They taught me many of the finer points of wheelchair rugby. I learned to move my "tank" like a nimble wrecking ball and stopped dribbling the ball all the time. I still wasn't the best player when it came to strategy, but I got a better sense of my abilities and gained confidence in working with my teammates.
As the summer ended, I had the option of joining 3 teams: the University of Arizona, the Phoenix Heat, and the Tucson Renegades. I decided to join the Tucson Renegades - not only because they are in Tucson but also because I would be playing with 4 Team USA players: Chad Cohn, Josh Wheeler, Derrick Helton, and Adam Scaturro. The Danish guy, Leon "The Professional" Jorgensen, had gone back home to play on the Danish team, so there was room on the Renegades for a short guy with some speed.
The Renegades gladly took me under their wing and, to my surprise, asked me to join them in Phoenix to train in a closed session with Team USA. I wasn't being considered for the team, but I would act as a developmental player and learn from the other players and staff.
My roommate, a young energetic guy by the name of Kory Puderbaugh, was also being evaluated by the team. Meeting Kory was like meeting a younger me: he is almost half my age, does not have legs, and has two fingers on one hand (no arm below the elbow on the other). Born in Poland and adopted by American parents, he has a heart of gold and is strong as an ox without giving up any speed or flexibility. He must have asked me a million questions that first night, and I answered each and every one. Right away, I knew he was a good guy.
In fact, everyone on Team USA is really “Good People”. They gave me advice on how to improve my speed, work smarter instead of harder, and take on leadership roles on and off the court. I listened and soaked up as much as I could, not knowing what I didn’t know and quickly figuring out my role with each player line up. We spent 8 hours a day running drills and scrimmages so the coaches could determine who on Team USA was prepared to play in the upcoming international games. This experience was priceless and a great eye-opener on how seriously they took the game.
After the team selections were made and we all went back to our club teams, I kept in contact with Kory. I offered to give him any advice or support he may need. I figured maybe I could be his mentor or at the very least help him stay out of trouble. In either case, he accepted and I've done my best to share what I've learned over time.
The official wheelchair rugby season began with "Duel in the Desert" at Ability 360. Standing Amputee Basketball, Wheelchair Basketball, Power-Chair Soccer, and Quad Rugby were all played at this tournament, allowing cross-sport interactions between players of various levels of disability.
I had played this tournament the previous year with my basketball team, but, at Duel in the Desert 2015, I did something that may never have been done before: I played both Quad Rugby and Wheelchair Basketball at the same event. Games were within minutes of each other, so I switched back and forth between chairs. Totaling 6 games in 2 days, it was a test of my endurance - and the patience of my two teams!
While I did well in Rugby, I quickly fouled out of my first two basketball games. After playing the high-contact sport of Quad Rugby all summer, the "no contact" rule of wheelchair basketball seemed utterly ridiculous. It was easy to see that rugby not only favored my need for physical contact, but that basketball was probably safer without me.
As the Quad Rugby season continued, my team competed at numerous tournaments in San Diego, Tucson, Alabama, and Phoenix. I gained more experience on the court, learned strategy while on the sidelines, used my pickers, and even improved my defense - to the point where my teammates trusted me enough to start a few games. At Sectionals, our final meet of the season, I played more minutes than I had nearly the entire season.
Also, while reviewing game film in my free time, I noticed that we were missing key opportunities against our rival team. Based on this discovery, I shared an idea with the coach, who changed up our defensive pressure, and we easily defeated the team to win Sectionals!
At the end of 2015, Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) agreed to fund a custom rugby wheelchair for me by made by Vesco Metal Craft. I received the chair in March - just in time to face my greatest challenge as an athlete: I was invited to try out for the Team USA wheelchair rugby training squad for the 2016 Paralympics in Riode Janeiro!
Day One started with a written exam on the rules of the game. While a few of us had studied the night before, it asked for more than I could remember. After the test, we went to the gym and prepared for the Lakeshore mile, which consisted of 8 laps around a track that circled 3 basketball courts. I had trained for the mile by doing 2 miles twice a week for a month. It really helped with my confidence and endurance, but it didn’t prepare me for the jumbled mess that was 16 wheelchairs at once on a track, all vying for a good position. Nevertheless, I finished only 30 seconds slower than my usual track time, which is 6:25. The remainder of the day was all about fitness and accuracy drills: we threw the ball at targets and did shorter time trial events. I performed well, even getting the fastest time in the full-court sprint!
Day Two was scrimmaging. I struggled to make sense of all the new plays and focused on scoring as much as possible. I soon realized that, even though 4 of my Tucson Renegade teammates where there, they were also competing for a spot on the team and didn't have time to coach me, as they had done all season. I found myself on the bad end of a lot of plays and pretty frustrated.
Day Three I felt like I was performing better, scoring more readily, and following my pickers. However, after several poor passes in key scoring situations, I could tell it wasn’t going well. Sadly, by the afternoon of Day Three, my training was over. I was at lunch when a player who'd seen the cut list offered up his condolences. I went back to my room and called my wife with the news.
"Hey, life is tough for a 38-year-old rookie," I told her. It's not like I wanted to make excuses, but I was the second oldest person to try out. Also, as the USA coach said to me in my exit interview, I need more time on the court to learn the game. He said I should study tape and talk to my coaches. Though I've made huge strides in less than one year, I was not yet ready for the big league.
Despite the outcome at Lakeshore, I still have a lot to celebrate. Less than a year after sitting in my first rugby wheelchair, I got to play with the USA Team twice, I tried out for the Paralympics, my team finished our club season with a huge win, and I met a lot of really great people along the way.
Thanks to my time at Lakeshore, I know what I need to do to prepare for next year. Now that we're in the off-season, I plan to watch a lot of game tape, work on my pushing technique, and ask lots of questions of my coaches. I’m also going to a summer training camp at the U of A adaptive athletics and looking forward to all I can learn.
Having been born without legs and only 6 fingers, I used to say, "I'm the most disabled person I know." However, that's because I had had limited involvement with the disabled community. Being involved with Quad Rugby has taught me lessons greater than just the strategy of the sport. I have seen people with less mobility than I play with Team USA levels of fitness and skill. I have been humbled meeting others who face greater adversity than I. And I have learned to care for my teammates like they are my brothers.
In wheelchair rugby, we are "classed" according to our unique levels of function. However, I have learned that class means something far more than just one's ability to play the game.
(Final side note: Disabled athletes don't just deal with sports injuries - many deal with health issues that caused them to be disabled or that come with being disabled, and they persevere despite a great amount of pain and adversity. One of our players is having some health challenges, so I pray for him and hope he makes it back next season, even stronger than before.)
I feel proud of how far I have come in my first year of Quad Rugby, and I am grateful to the people who have worked hard to coach me and support me.
Thank you, wheelchair rugby world, for letting me into your club. I know you didn't have to. As I raise my game to the next level, I hope it can match the level of respect I have for all of you.