By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In San Diego, he played in a rugby match, got slammed out of his chair and onto the ground. "I like it rough," he says. "Wheelchair basketball players are sissies -- they bitch if you touch their chair."
He drove home to Houston determined to start a team.
Seventeen years ago, Alan was obsessed with coaching his daughters' softball team. He spent nights scouting other teams and strategizing. While he was driving his nine-year-old and five-year-old girls home from practice one April evening, a drunk driver crossed into Alan's lane and hit him head-on. Alan reached over to protect his daughters, his Chevy Blazer flipped, the axle broke and he flew through the window of the driver's-side door.
After Alan broke his neck, doctors and physical therapists told him he would never be self-sufficient, never drive a car or hold a job. His biggest goal in life was to be able to keep up with his wife while she walked through the mall without getting winded and needing her to push him.
At a bingo parlor a few years after Alan's accident, a paraplegic guy told Alan that Bobby was starting a rugby team.
Alan showed up for practice at the University of Houston -- Bobby was the only one there. He lent Alan a tape of Dallas winning the national tournament. They never talked about whether they should start a team -- they just talked about how they were going to be the best team. Alan says he lived half his life being able to do everything for himself without thinking about it, then suddenly he wasn't able to put on his socks. Watching the tape, he says, he saw something that he could do.
At rugby practice Alan saw teammates Steve Kearley driving a convertible red Mustang and David Bynum driving a Dodge pickup, so Alan traded in the van he had taught himself to drive. Alan ate with a fork attached to a cuff on his wrist, but when he saw the other players holding forks in their hands, he decided he could, too. He says he learned more from his teammates than he did in rehab.
"It's a brotherhood. We fed off each other," Alan says.
Alan trained every day doing sprints and strength drills; he rode his hand-cycle ten miles a day and did at least 30 laps around the gym. He coached the team planning twice-a-week workouts where they pushed five-gallon buckets of water down the basketball court, tossed medicine balls, sprinted and scrimmaged. When he first started playing, Alan could barely scoop the volleyball off his lap and throw it three feet; now he can pass it down-court.
With their wheelchairs painted green with a splash of orange, they dubbed themselves the Houston Hurricanes. The team ranked fourth in the nation in Division I for three years, before ranking third in 1999 out of 40 teams. In 2000, they were the Division II national champions. Two teammates played on the national team and they regularly had their pictures in Sports 'N Spokes magazine.
"It gives us something to wake up for," Alan says. "It gives you a reason to want to work out every day."
Steve Kearley has a Road Runner tattoo on his freckled right shoulder and a thin surgical scar running down the back of his neck where his spinal cord was fused. The 31-year-old can move the curved pinkie finger on his left hand, but he can't straighten it. The palms of his hands are callused because he uses them to push his chair with the same downward motion he would use to hoist himself out of a swimming pool.
He teaches economics and advanced-placement macroeconomics at Eisenhower High School and coaches the academic decathlon team. At the beginning of each school year he tells students how he got hurt -- he's a living after-school special. The football team's wide receiver, Steve wore parachute pants, said he was in the rock and roll club, and wanted to be a U.S. Marine. One Friday night, in the fall of his senior year, he was drinking Miller Lite. A drunk teammate had bought a maroon Mustang the day before and offered Steve a ride. The Ford flipped into the bayou and Steve's neck broke. He graduated with his class, studied at the University of Houston and now teaches at his high school alma mater.
Steve started playing rugby about seven months after his accident. He was an alternate for the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Team. And this year he was a member of Team USA; he quit at the top of his game to spend more time with his wife and five-year-old daughter.
On a Tuesday night, a week before Thanksgiving, Steve parks his white Jeep in one of 16 handicapped spots at the Verne Cox Multi-Purpose Center.
"Do nothelp me," he says, putting his wheelchair on the ground and transferring out of the Jeep.
Inside, he shifts himself into a custom-made sport chair -- chairs can cost up to $4,000 -- and since it's intended to be battered, it isn't covered by his health insurance. Sport chairs are bulkier and heavier than everyday chairs and have strong, solid frames that can't be folded. The wheels slope outward so they can turn in quick, smooth circles. Smaller casters on the back of the chair add stability.