Wheelchair Rugby: Life Always Goes On

Giorgi DolidzeCorrespondent IMarch 2, 2009

The gym reverberates with all the banging and clanging. Metal smashes against metal. Elbows fly. Cries of anguish pierce the air. Murderball has come to Irving.

Officially known as wheelchair rugby, the sport looks like pure mayhem. It's part dodge ball, part football and part basketball, with the aggression of hockey thrown in. The athletes can't move their legs, and most have limited use of their arms.

But don't tell them they can't dodge, block, or steal.

"It works on strength, endurance and confidence," said Lea Stewart, a wheelchair rugby athlete who easily keeps up with the men on the court.

Most importantly, adds Stewart, who became a quadriplegic after falling out of the back of a pickup when she was 17, "It helps you focus on the ability and not the disability."

A group of quadriplegic athletes in Canada started quad rugby about 30 years ago as an alternative to wheelchair basketball.

Although the sport was popular in North Texas in the 1980s, it had petered out, said Andrew Burton, 35, of Mesquite.

"I kept trying to form a team, but it was hard," he said.

Then Paul Gray founded the nonprofit RISE Adventures for people with disabilities and brought the sport to Irving about a year ago.

The athletes who gather every Friday at the Georgia Farrow Recreation Center are going strong. New players trickle in each week for the drills, scrimmages and a game.

"It's really encouraging to see newcomers here," said Burton, a team leader and captain.

Some jump right in; others tread lightly. Leaving your comfort zone takes time, Burton admits. But once players do, they don't look back. The choreography of teamwork does its magic.

Many of the players have sustained spinal injuries from car or motorcycle accidents. Too many were teenagers when tragedy struck. But none seems to wallow in pity. They've moved on.

Burton was just 17 when he tried to protect a friend from a gunshot.

"The bullet hit my spine, and that was it," he said.

Burton started playing quad rugby soon after his 1991 injury. Today, he plays for the Texas Stampede, the four-time national champions based in Austin, where he travels every weekend to train. 

Like Burton, Clint Caudle is a huge fan of the intense sport. The former Haltom High football player's life changed forever at age 17.

"I was driving too fast and struck a tree," he said. He ended up in the back seat with his head turned at a grisly angle.

Six months later, he turned to wheelchair rugby.

"I've achieved more in the 17 years since my injury than in the 17 years before it," Caudle said.

Many of the players are grateful for the opportunity to play through RISE, which stands for Recovery, Inspiration, Success and Empowerment.

Gray said his venture is thriving. It offers 21 different programs for people with disabilities. And with financial support from two major sponsors, C&R Medical and Lift Aids Inc., all of the programs are free.

"We continue to push the envelope in developing quality adaptive programs on a regular schedule," Gray said.

The wheelchair rugby players recently benefited from the talents of the Local Iron Workers No. 263 in Arlington. Crews there repaired some of the nonprofit's badly worn-out wheelchairs designed especially for the sport.

The wheelchairs can cost $3,000 to $5,000. RISE Adventures provides them to players at no cost.

RISE also relies on a host of volunteers. Randy Smith, owner of C&R Medical, serves as a team coach and referee for the rugby team.

Rick Brauer, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 16, is active not only with wheelchair rugby but also scuba diving, martial arts and other sports. He serves on the board for RISE and is also its program director.

And Wayne Holt was a volunteer until recently becoming the nonprofit's first salaried employee as an advocacy director.

A former mortgage consultant, Holt exudes enthusiasm about his new job.

"People can get broken but still have a life," said Holt, who has had more than 50 surgeries to repair damage after a fireplace collapsed on him when he was two years old. "If you never fall down, how can you learn to get up?"

Through wheelchair rugby and other adaptive sports, he hopes to inspire people with disabilities to "live a life worth living instead of watching the lives of others."

Murderball lives up to its original name as players collide on the court, chairs tip over and athletes feel the pain after an intense workout. There's even been a broken nose or two.

But the sport clearly raises spirits. Just watch all the sweaty, crimson faces as the players depart for the evening.

They all wear a smile.