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Disabled players relish ferocious competition of wheelchair rugby

Wheelchair rugby was originally called murderball, and for good reason. It’s a fierce game with metal-on-metal and sometimes skin-on-floor contact.

Members of the Akron Rhinos quad rugby team stretch before practice at Weaver Learning Center in Tallmadge, Ohio, on January 17, 2014. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
Members of the Akron Rhinos quad rugby team stretch before practice at Weaver Learning Center in Tallmadge, Ohio, on January 17, 2014. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)Read more

(MCT) AKRON, Ohio — The gladiators' legs were tucked inside their machines. On their hands, they placed a foam-like wrap, followed by gloves and duct tape, sticky side up. It was time to do battle.

Wheelchair rugby was originally called murderball, and for good reason. It's a fierce game with metal-on-metal and sometimes skin-on-floor contact.

The six guys who make up this team, which practices for about three hours each Friday night in Tallmadge, Ohio, are all quadriplegics, meaning that they have varying loss of function in all four limbs, mostly from injuries suffered in accidents.

At the age of 16, Nathan Gay was accidentally shot in the neck when a friend was putting away a shotgun they had used while hunting.

Austin Geib, at 15, was hanging upside down on a pull-up bar when the bar fell, breaking his neck.

In high school, Adam Sweeney was injured in a car accident that killed his brother.

Yianni Thallas was about 20 when he got hurt diving off a roof into a pool.

Stephen Zuravel was just a teen when he was severely injured in a one-car accident.

And Jamal Saxton was born with muscular dystrophy.

As might be expected, such serious disabilities can be devastating. What once was natural, like buttoning a shirt, is now a chore, or impossible. For some, depression can take a toll, and finding an escape from their suddenly sedentary lifestyles can be a challenge.

"I have been competitive all of my life. But once I broke my neck, I didn't know what I was going to do," said Geib, now 18, who attends high school online. "This (wheelchair rugby) brought back that competitive edge."

The sport, once known as murderball because the idea was to "murder" the competition, is a mix of basketball and demolition derby.

"It lifts my spirit and makes me feel normal," said Gay, 27, a recent Kent State grad from Streetsboro, Ohio. It was a comment that was repeated by most of his teammates.

Zuravel, 23, of Stow, Ohio, was in search of something that would push his physical limitations and decided to attend a practice.

"I remember when I was on my way there, I shoved a couple of pieces of pizza down and thought to myself, 'This isn't going to be hard. I've done marathons (on a hand cycle).' So I was pretty cocky going into it. Very quickly I was humbled," said the University of Akron mechanical engineering student, laughing. "Sometimes when I go to tournaments there are guys twice my age who I'm having a hard time keeping up with on the court. So it put me in my place pretty quick."

Adam Sweeney, 34, who has a master's degree in social work from Youngstown State University, said there was only one thing missing after his accident.

"I accepted my life right away. I decided that I was still going to get everything that I've ever wanted — a job, a house and a wife. And that's what I have," said Sweeney, a service support administrator for Mahoning County's Board of Developmental Disabilities. "So when I heard about rugby, I said, 'That's the last component to put my life back to normal.'"

The athletes, some of whom admit the game is much less violent than people think, play for the Buckeye Blitz wheelchair rugby team in Columbus. Come next season, starting in September, they will break off to become their own team, the Akron Rhinos. And that means they are aggressively looking for new players who have some form of impairment in at least three limbs.

Zuravel is known by his teammates as "Queen Bee" because of his nudging and encouragement of players to do their best, as well as his persistent lobbying of others with physical disabilities to give the game a try.

"You might think it's weird and not for you, but just come to a practice and try the sport — for the betterment of your health," said Zuravel. "See what it does for you."

Able-bodied men and women are also needed to play with the team during practices, added Thallas, 32, a network engineer from Parma Heights, Ohio.

Coach Megan Haas, 24, who works in Springfield Township, Ohio, at a private school for children with autism, explained that exercise for those with spinal cord injuries is even more important than for those who have never been hurt.

"We can walk everywhere; they can't. With a physical disability like they have ... they are dependent on somebody else after their accident," said Haas, who has a master's degree in adaptive physical activity. "It's so awesome to see people with disabilities play at a competitive level and become more independent."

Both the Columbus team and the local rugby players are sponsored by the Adaptive Sports Program of Ohio (ASPO), based in Wooster. The nonprofit association is designed to help folks with physical disabilities by providing competitive and recreational adaptive sports opportunities throughout the state. In addition to wheelchair rugby, ASPO offers sports including swimming, archery, sled hockey, soccer and softball.

Special wheelchairs are needed to play rugby and are provided by ASPO.

Since there are so few wheelchair rugby teams, most of the games are played outside Ohio, though ASPO Executive Director Lisa Followay and Zuravel are in search of a local indoor basketball court, or several courts, large enough to hold a wheelchair rugby tournament.

During a recent scrimmage on practice night inside the gym at the Summit DD administration building, Sarah Lucas, an independent home care provider for Austin, explained that the duct tape, turned sticky side up, is used to give the players a better grip. Each player wrapped layer after layer of the stuff around his hands and arms.

"Because most don't have fingers that can grab, the duct tape helps," said Lucas, of Conneaut, Ohio. Additionally, she added, the sports pre-wrap, gloves and tape keep the skin on their hands and arms protected from injury.

In their armored wheelchairs, the players went onto the court inside, looks of determination on their faces. The Queen Bee kept a close eye on his teammates. The chairs slammed into each other, giving off a thundering smack.

Saxton, a senior in criminal justice at the University of Akron, is 25, a mountain of a man from Bedford. A grin spread on his face when he saw a defensive player coming his way.


Off the court, he chuckled. "I love hitting people."


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