The scrum of rugby players were deadlocked around a live ball when the Shepherd Smash’s Rob Deller barreled in at full speed, smashing into the crush of athletes with a thundering clack, as the ball skittered out of play.
“Dammit,” Deller yelled, moments after a teammate had dropped the ball — and failed to chase after it, prompting the rush. “Keep hustling!”
It was one moment in a Maryland gym Sunday that encapsulated the intensity of wheelchair rugby, a contact sport combining agility and quick-witted maneuvering with strength and vigorous defensive stands. A 2005 documentary on the sport reflected its smash-mouth attitude: “Murderball.”
“It’s jarring,” said Lauren DeBruicker, 45, of Philadelphia. “We sort of liken it to a combination of ice hockey, football and bumper cars.”
Said 28-year-old Eric Ingram of Alexandria, “It’s the fast pace of basketball combined with the hard hits of football, all in one sport.”
Over the weekend, 10 teams and about 100 of the East Coast’s best wheelchair rugby players gathered in Fort Washington, Md., for the U.S. Quad Rugby Association’s 2018 Atlantic Sectional Tournament. The game, played over four eight-minute quarters, involves two opposing four-on-four squads attempting to outscore each other by carrying a volleyball across a goal line the most times. But even the quickest offensive players are met by brutish defense.
“I’m a lineman, basically,” said DeBruicker, an assistant U.S. attorney who plays for the Philadelphia-area Magee Eagles. “I try to get in the way of their faster players just to slow them down.”
Though, she concedes: “Given the guys that I’m playing with, the laws of physics are not on my side.”
The sport is coed. Players are rated on a classification system based on their abilities. To level the playing field, teams cannot field a four-player lineup whose combined rating exceeds eight.
The event, sponsored by the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network and the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, was held at Prince George’s County’s Southern Regional Technology and Recreation Complex.
Meant to engage athletes with disabilities to both their upper and lower bodies, wheelchair — or quad — rugby has become the world’s fastest-growing wheelchair sport, according to USQRA. Beyond the physical benefits and instilling confidence in people with disabilities — in and out of the gym — the sport also is a way to shatter stereotypes, players and supporters say.
“There’s a kind of stigma we want to break,” said Ingram, a member of the MedStar NRH Punishers, who represent the District. “We want to get people out of that habit of thinking we’re fragile.”
For many people with disabilities — caused either by disease or injury, the sport has also been a godsend.
“You get stronger here, you get stronger in life,” said Joseph Soares, coach of the Tampa Generals and a central character in the “Murderball” documentary, who had polio as a child. “This game has changed my life.”
His counterpart on the sidelines, Shepherd Smash coach Scott Stokes, felt similarly. Stokes was working in construction when two days after his 21st birthday in 1998, he fell 25 feet from a house and broke his neck. He said he lay in a hospital bed, despondent.
“One of my main thoughts was I never thought I’d play sports again,” said Stokes, who had played college baseball in Tennessee. “It was kind of like freedom again,” he said of wheelchair rugby.
The Atlantic Sectional tournament is the qualifier for nationals. By Sunday morning, four teams had landed coveted spots: Tampa; Shepherd, of metro Atlanta; the District’s MedStar NRH Punishers; and the Magee Eagles.
The Punishers’ Kevin Crombie was among those elated to qualify for nationals. So was Joan Joyce, director of therapeutic recreation and community outreach at MedStar, who said it was “very exciting because we already had bought the [plane] tickets.”
But more exciting than the competition itself, said Crombie, was the community it fostered.
“You get to learn all kinds of little tricks on how to better manage your day-to-day life,” he said. “These guys, some of them come in with no clue on how they can drive a car, how they can transfer into bed, feed themselves — they get to learn from each other.”
Crombie and Ingram began playing wheelchair rugby at the same time 13 years ago.
Immediately, he said, they recognized that it was just plain fun.
“You know those businesses that are starting up where people can go in with sledgehammers and just hit stuff?” Ingram asked. “That was the initial allure, it was pretty awesome, it was liberating, it wasn’t a dainty sport.”