Getting Back in the Game

At Walter Reed, Wheelchair Basketball Helps Wounded Vets See the Possibilities

Coaches and players from Edinboro University hold a wheelchair basketball clinic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for wounded veterans. Video by Atkinson & Co.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's Thursday afternoon, and that means basketball at the Wagner Sports Center on the campus of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After about 90 minutes of drills organized and led by a couple of college players and their coach, the patients get into a little five-on-five fullcourt.

Army Spec. Bryan Wagner grabs a rebound and flexes his arms to ward off Spec. Alex Knapp from trying to sneak in from behind for a steal. Wagner heaves an outlet pass to Spec. Andrew Hill, who brings the ball upcourt and feeds Marine Lance Cpl. Nate Knowles filling the lane for an easy bucket.

And before you think this sounds like an ordinary schoolyard game, watch, then, as Hill, Knowles and their teammates each grab the sides of their wheelchairs, pivot and head back downcourt on defense.

Each of the 10 men on the court, none older than 26, has lost at least one limb in combat. And many of them said no activity has provided better physical or emotional therapy than their time on the hardwood every Thursday.

"Playing this, you forget about your injuries. You really do," said Knowles, 23, who lost his left leg a year ago from battlefield injuries suffered in Afghanistan.

On this particular Thursday, the patients received a visit from members of the Edinboro (Pa.) University wheelchair basketball team -- one of 10 men's intercollegiate outfits in the country. Coach Jim Glatch, who also heads the U.S. under-23 team that will compete in Paris starting today at the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation Junior World Championships, brought along two of his standout players from both Edinboro and the national team: Tommie Gray, a rising senior from Warner Robins, Ga., who lost both limbs because of spinal meningitis when he was 4; and Trevon Jenifer, a 2006 graduate of Huntingtown High School, who was born without legs.

"When the war [in Iraq] started I heard about these guys coming home and I wanted to do something to give back," said Glatch, who is not disabled and has coached at Edinboro since 1995. "These guys think athletics are shut off from them, but they're not."

That was the first lesson Knapp had to learn. He lost both of his legs to a makeshift bomb in Iraq in March 2008. As someone who had grown up playing hockey in Shelby Township, Mich., Knapp, 23, was crushed by the thought of living without sports.

"At first, I did think it was over," he said. "Then I learned how much there is for us to do. It surprised me, for sure. None of us believe we've left anything behind."

Before they hit the court, though, each patient needs to leave a critical item at the door: his memory. All of them viewed getting a prosthesis as monumental progress in their rehabilitation. It meant increased mobility and a clear path toward eventual independence.

But when they got onto the basketball court, took off their prostheses and sat back in their wheelchairs, many returned to a place they hoped never to encounter again. Glatch acknowledged, "There's this thought that amputees should not get involved in wheelchair sports," because it could be a psychological setback.

"It's more of an emotional barrier," said Tiffany Smith, a recreational therapist in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Walter Reed who coordinates a different athletic activity for the patients each weekday. "The challenge is getting them back to the chair. When they get back to the wheelchair, they think back to that horrible time when they were first in there."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company