One quadriplegic furiously chases down another as the two men move from their locked positions. Their wheelchairs race and then WHACK! The clang of metal on metal rings out and one wheelchair crashes on its side, its occupant suspended helplessly. In any other setting, this would bring people running to assist, but here, a referee casually walks over and picks up the ball before someone rights the dangling player.
This is Quad Rugby, a.k.a. Murderball, and it’s all just part of the action. And having been to several games, I can tell you — there’s plenty of action. The rules are pretty simple. Each team tries to get the ball through the goal on their respective side of the court. The offense passes or carries the ball, while the defensive team blocks. There are fouls, rebounds and a lot of back and forth. It’s kind of like basketball, but without the hoops or dribbling. And, in my opinion, it’s more exciting. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this video of the Brooks Bandits (Brooks Adaptive Sports and Recreation Program) playing in the recent 5th Annual Southern Slam Quad Rugby Tournament.
It’s disconcerting at first, watching people in wheelchairs slam into each other. But then you realize, these guys are defying stereotypes and redefining what it means to be handicapped. While a friend and I watched an away game in Atlanta at one of the premier rehab hospitals in the country, a woman next to us had just met the parents of a 16 year-old who’d been severely injured in an accident. “Bring him down here,” she told them in the elevator that led from patient rooms to the indoor arena. “He needs to see what’s possible.”
I read a memoir by disabled cartoonist John Callahan in which he says he never forgot his first sight of wheelchair basketball players darting around and popping wheelies in the halls of his hospital. It gave him hope through the dark days to come. And the message? Life goes on. Goes on well. In fact, in the disabled world, inviting the Quad Rugby guys to your party is like inviting the football players back in high school. They’re the cool kids on the disabled schoolyard.
For those of you not in the know, quadriplegia means without good use of any of the four limbs (not to be confused with paraplegia, the loss of use of two limbs, usually by spinal cord injury.) Quadriplegics come in all shapes and sizes with greatly differing injuries and abilities. For example, I’m a quadriplegic. And I couldn’t catch or throw a ball if my life depended on it. Unless it was a beach ball. And even that’s questionable. Plus, I’m sure my double vision would get in the way if anyone was foolish enough to let me out on a court. There are quads who can walk (usually brain injured,) but many have suffered a spinal cord injury where the break was high enough to affect hand motor function or grip strength. I’ve seen double amputees playing Quad Rugby and one gentleman in Atlanta, wheeling his chair with a duct-taped elbow, making the former massage therapist in me cringe at the repetitive motion injury he was undoubtedly causing. Then I remembered — he has bigger problems to worry about.
Regardless of the difference in our abilities, we’re all disabled. We want, like anyone else, to belong somewhere, be part of something. These guys like being physical again and playing as part of a team. I enjoy the individual sports, like horseback riding or swimming, but with the camaraderie of a group of people to who, in many ways, I can relate. Everyone wants to look in the mirror of society and see themselves reflected there. And what you get from these games, or any adaptive sport, either as a participant or a spectator, is the sense that life is not over. Not by a long shot.