By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
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."
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 not help 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.
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.
South Houston High School presented Alan Bailey with an outstanding alumnus award. "Pity," he says, his voice filled with disgust. "People look at me and pity me. They feel bad for the poor guy in the chair -- being in a wheelchair is the least of my problems."
Rolling down the driveway to get his mail doesn't bother him. It bothers him that he can't ride a Harley or sit on a boat and fish in the sun all day. It bothers him that he can't stand up to pull his pants on. It bothers him that when he's driving in the rain he knows he's going to get drenched getting out of the car because it takes him several minutes to pull the wheels out of the backseat, attach them to the chair, put up the brakes, transfer into the chair and then close the door.
At rugby games no one pities him, he says; they understand him. "I know every fucker out here," Alan says gesturing at 50-some quadriplegic rugby players gathered at a Pasadena tournament. He knows all of their wives and girlfriends and children and dogs and asks about them by name. At rugby meets, the people who can walk and use their hands are the freaks, says his wife, Marsha Bailey. "It's a wheelchair world," she says.
On the sidelines, Alan swallows a red and yellow diet pill to get an energy boost before the match. "It's the only way I can get through the game," he says. Other players swig sports drinks and take over-the-counter truck driver stimulants filled with fat-burning ephedra for extra energy.
Recently renamed the Pasadena Texans, Alan's team is playing the San Diego Sharp Edge on the second day of a three-day tournament. They have to win this game to qualify for the championship.
Alan smashes his gloved hands against his metal wheels. "Let's go," he says.
On the court spokes break, tires deflate and players are knocked flat on their back or facedown into others' laps. Steve holds on to the ball with both hands and wheels with his bloody, scarred-up elbows. Three players on the other team trap him. He doesn't have room to dribble the ball or anyone to pass it to.
Racing down the court, David screams for a time-out.
On the sidelines Steve drenches himself with water. "Want the ball," Steve tells him. "Want the ball."
Out of breath, David tells him he tried but he just couldn't get there fast enough. Steve's five-year-old daughter brings him a bottle of water. Steve sweetly thanks her then turns to his teammates.
"Guys, put somebody over," Steve says. "Nail somebody -- legal or not -- just fucking hit them."
Alan smashes into the guy holding the ball, who swerves and continues three feet down the court, where Jamie knocks into him. There are four seconds on the clock when Jamie backs across the goal line and scores.
Every time they score the Texans seem too tired and run-down to prevent the other team from scoring. They're losing.
Steve is so angry he throws the volleyball at the back of another player. He takes himself out of the game. Alan looks up at the scoreboard -- he thinks Steve is giving up on the team. He throws a water bottle at Steve and rolls back onto the court.
Alan's out of breath, he has to pee, and his face is getting redder and redder. Quads can't control their bladders, and if he doesn't get a catheter and relieve himself, his blood pressure could skyrocket and cause a stroke. But a distended bladder, Alan says, gives him an extra energy burst. "A quad will piss on himself in a game before he will take himself out," Alan says. "I'm so fucking pumped, I'm gonna kick some motherfucker's ass -- if I don't win this rugby match I'm gonna get in a fistfight."
Back on the court, David pushes a player out of bounds and scores. Steve catches the ball and scores. But it isn't enough; they lose the game by four points.
Alan goes home, lies down on his bed and changes into dry clothes. Then he drives himself back to the gym and plays another game.