Roller Derby

Wheelchair basketball is for wussies. And park your pity at the door. Welcome to quad rugby, where quadriplegics slam their opponents into the hardwood.

At 4:45 a.m. Alan Bailey gets into his wheelchair, rolls down the hall to the kitchen and drinks a glass of water. Two inches above his nipples is where the feeling in his body starts and stops. He has a two-pound grip and can make a fist with his right hand, except his index finger stays up; he can't close the fingers on his left hand. He's a 48-year-old quadriplegic who hasn't walked in 17 years -- not since the night he was driving his young daughters home from softball practice and he got hit by a drunk driver.

His weekday mornings are very controlled, very precise, dominated by a routine that gets him where he needs to be. He takes Aleve every day for the ache in his shoulders from pushing the chair the day before. He showers while sitting on a black air cushion in the tub. Then it's back to his bed, where he lies down so he can get dressed.

Crossing one leg over the other, he pulls a pants leg over his foot, then straightens his leg and repeats the process. Flat on his back, he rolls side to side, wriggling his pants up to his waist. He pulls on zippered sneakers (socks are too tough to put on), transfers into his chair and selects a pullover from his closet. Buttons take too much time.

Alan says rugby gives him a reason to wake up in the morning.
Troy Fields
Alan says rugby gives him a reason to wake up in the morning.
After Alan Bailey broke his neck, doctors said he would never drive.
Troy Fields
After Alan Bailey broke his neck, doctors said he would never drive.

He skips breakfast because he's trying to lose weight. By 6:30, he and his wife climb into their red Firebird convertible. Sitting in the driver's seat, Alan removes the wheels from his wheelchair, puts them in the backseat and folds up the chair. He presses a lever to brake and to accelerate. He drives 60 miles to the Howco Group, where he works in the purchasing department confirming and expediting shipments from outside vendors.

Two evenings a week, Alan switches gears. He gets himself over to a gym, straps himself into his chair with a back brace and ties down both thighs so they won't bounce. He wheels himself onto the floor and hurls himself at other quadriplegic men.

They chase a ball and each other up and down the court. They run up on each other, tear into each other, race each other, and if they fall over, well, so be it, someone will wrestle them back upright and they'll go again.

You can hold a match to the legs of these men and most of them won't feel a thing. The injuries that have made them vulnerable make them indestructible for this sport.

Officially, the hybrid game is called quad rugby.

But its real name is murder ball.

Around the world, murder ball is played by former athletes and thrill seekers whose extreme-sport brains didn't shut down when other parts of their bodies did.

"It's what keeps us churning," Alan says.

Wheelchair sports originated after World War II, at the Spinal Injuries Centre in Aylesbury, England. The late neurologist and neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttman used sports in his rehab clinic treating paralyzed World War II veterans. He started with stationary, solitary sports like archery, the shot put and the javelin toss, but that grew to bowling, badminton and basketball.

In 1976, Duncan Campbell and three other quadriplegics were tossing a volleyball around the gym in a Manitoba rehab center. The Canadians had grown up playing hockey, and they missed it. They didn't have the upper body strength to shoot hoops, so they created a new game combining rugby, hockey and basketball. "We knew it was good," Duncan says. The scoring system is taken from rugby, the strategies and penalty box are lifted from hockey, and the fouls and rule book match basketball's. In murder ball, knocking someone out of his chair and unconscious is totally legal.

When the game first started, chairs broke and players weren't strapped in, so they fell out and went flying across the court. "Someone would run on the floor, pick you up and throw you back in," Duncan says.

"The quads wanted to display that they could take these hits and bumps," says Ben Harnish, who wrote the original rule book. "They wanted to show that they weren't made out of glass, they weren't delicate.

"They're a gutsy group. I always felt the do-gooders overprotected them," Ben says. "They don't like to be pampered. They don't like to be stroked."

Duncan and his teammates toured Saskatchewan playing exhibition games. Three hours south of Winnipeg, they played at the University of North Dakota; after that, 20-year-old college student Brad Mikkelson started a U.S. team and eventually changed the name to quad rugby (because it was hard to convince sponsors, doctors and physical therapists that it was a good idea for quadriplegics to try to kill each other) and began recruiting other American players.

Houstonian Bobby Richardson saw an exhibition game at the 1989 San Diego Veterans Wheelchair Games. Bobby served in the U.S. Navy two months before he was injured. Five days before his 19th birthday, he did a somersault off another soldier's shoulders, landed flat on the ground and broke his neck. "I didn't feel nothing," Bobby says. "I haven't felt anything since."

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