By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The quad rugby association gives each player a point classification ranging from .5 to 3.5, based not on skill but on level of disability. A team of four players has to add up to less than eight points, which ensures that more-disabled people get to play. The kids who would normally be picked last for dodgeball -- the ones with the least skills -- are essential to the game because they balance out the numbers.
Because he's a ball handler, Steve's chair has rounded metal wings so players who bash into him slide off. Athletes with the least amount of upper body movement (who can't carry or throw or pass the ball) act as human shields to block and protect the ball handler. Their wheels have sticky red rims to trip people and special hooks on the front so they can lock horns.
"I'm like an offensive lineman," says Jamie DuBose, the newest player on the team, who is classified as a 1. "I free my quarterback to go. Steve follows me. When there's an opening, he'll take off and score I won't touch the ball the entire game. I just block."
When the chairs collide, a player's entire body jolts. "I can't feel it," says Bobby, the guy who started the team. "Hell, I can't feel my ass."
Steve's mother doesn't come to his games -- he doesn't tell her when he plays because she's afraid he'll get hurt. "The chairs take most of the impact," he says. Still, Steve once went to the emergency room when he flipped out of his chair and hit his head on the court. Having broken his neck, Steve has a different perspective on what qualifies as an injury. A concussion is just a headache, he says. His hand often swells up, and he's not sure if he's broken or dislocated any bones. "It's hard to tell," he says, since he can't move nine of his ten fingers.
David heard his ankle snap during one game and broke a couple of ribs during another -- he can't say exactly when they broke, because he can't feel his ribs. He finished out the season playing six weeks with broken bones that caused his body to spasm and made it hard to breathe since they broke below his lungs.
It's colder in the gym than it is outside. The thermostat is set at about 50 degrees, but after a few minutes Steve's skin feels like he's been sitting in the sun. Most quadriplegics can't sweat because the nerve endings that control the sweat glands are located below the injury. They keep squirt bottles on the sidelines and spray themselves down to cool off and keep from overheating and having a heart attack.
At practice two weeks before the tournament the team is hosting, Steve, David and Alan huddle up and discuss a new defense. Alan doesn't think it will work. "No defenses work," he says. "It's an offensive game."
Other teams say Houston teammates know each other so well they know what the other one is going to be doing. "It's like watching magic out on the court," says John Bailey, manager of Team USA (no relation to Alan). "They just seem to have a sixth sense. The other team might have one of the guys picked with his back to the play and he'll have the ball and without looking he'll throw the ball over his shoulder and one of the team members will catch it and score."
The game doesn't have set plays. "You don't go to a huddle and come out knowing what you want to do," David says. Because David has the strongest arm muscles on the team and the highest point classification, he's the key ball carrier.
On the court, Steve's aluminum wheels spin like solid silver hubcaps. It sounds like a car wreck every 30 seconds. Imagine if a sudden snowstorm blew over I-10 on prom night and teenage drunk drivers who've never driven in snow or ice slam into each other totaling car after car after car. But the tow truck drivers never show up so they keep driving and keep banging into each other in an endless game of chicken.
When an axle breaks, the game stops and players and support staff swarm around the player like an Indy 500 pit crew. The goal is to keep him on the court, break off the wheel, replace it and repair it and get him back into the game.
Tim Deason rides up on a guy's wheels, and another player knocks into Tim, making Tim's entire chair flip over backward. A few minutes later another player, Alan Montross, is knocked onto his back. He was strapped to the back of his chair, but the part he was attached to came off, so his back hits the ground. Alan Montross, 24, has spina bifida and says that before he found wheelchair sports he went to school and went home and didn't have any friends. Alan Bailey recruited him from wheelchair basketball a few years ago to practice with the rugby team because his upper body strength challenges David and Steve; he can't legally play in games because he isn't a quadriplegic. Since Alan Montross isn't paralyzed, he can feel it when his head hits the floor. "Ow, ow, ow," he says.