Smash Palace

DALE ERICKSON BREAKS free of the pack a split second before he flashes into Dan Price's peripheral vision. Suddenly the two men are sprinting down court as fast as their arms could carry them, locked in a competitive vacuum broken only by the intensity of their breathing and the hum of their wheelchairs. Ten yards away, Terry Hanson cradles the volleyball in his good arm and twists his trunk in his chair as he hurls the ball over his head with a grunt. The pass is a tad left and slightly behind Erickson, who scoops it into his lap on the second bounce--just as Price rams him from the side. The metallic clatter sounds like a bicycle crashing into a brick wall. Price tries to snatch the ball, but the collision jolts Erickson beyond his reach. As Erickson lets out a triumphant whoop and coasts between two orange cones marking the goal zone, Price surges forward in a last-ditch hit that sends him and his chair flying against the wrestling mat hung on the far wall. Heading back up the court, he pops a wheelie and shakes his head in disgust. Just then, he and Erickson make eye contact, and a begrudging smile flashes across his face.

Survivors of spinal cancer and a car accident respectively, Price and Erickson are members of Minnesota's only quad rugby team who are holding an intersquad scrimmage at the Courage Center in Golden Valley a week before the spring tournament in St. Louis (where they finished among the nation's top 10 teams). Quad rugby was invented by and for quadriplegics who want to challenge themselves physically in a competitive sport less fraught with pity and emotional clutter than the field of their daily existence. To be quadriplegic is to endure at least some paralysis in both arms and both legs, a level of impairment that's problematic even at "special" athletic forums and events. Tired of being included on these teams as tokens of tolerance, quad rugby's creators devised an arena with the most level playing field imaginable. Before the season begins, each player is examined by a physical therapist who, beginning at the tips of the fingers and toes, gauges the amount of strength and flexibility in each relevant part of the body, and grades a player's overall capabilities on a scale ranging from .5 to 3.5 points. No team can have more than 8 points on the court at the same time among its four players.

A hybrid of many games--it's played with a volleyball on a basketball court--the purpose in quad rugby, as in regular rugby, is to carry the ball over the end line through a narrow goal area. Teams must dribble the ball at least once every 10 seconds, and must cross half court 15 seconds after taking possession. It's a sport that produces considerable strategy and rugged contact. (It was called "murderball" until organizers ran into difficulty marketing a game by that name to rehab clinics and the recently injured.) Because wheelchairs obviously inhibit lateral movement, a common maneuver is a variation on basketball's classic "pick-and-roll" play, where the player with the ball brushes past a teammate in hopes of picking, or rubbing off, the guy guarding him. Another frequent strategy is to have a less capable player lock wheels with a 2.5- or 3-point caliber opponent. "You get one of your strong players to stop their strong player and then have the .5 player lock up on him. Or it could be anybody; if I can hold up a 3 or a 3.5, I've done my job," says Terry Hanson, who is a 2.

Hanson, who at age 52 has been playing quad rugby since he joined the Grand Forks team back in the '80s, proceeds to give a merciless scouting report on his own body. "I've got all my abdominals and I can stand on my right leg. I have good fingers, bad thumbs, weak wrists, and good forearms; a little tricep on this arm and a good bicep and no tricep on this arm. At this point my fingers and my abdominals have kept me as a 2. Otherwise I'd probably be a 1. Actually, strictly from here to here," he says, motioning to his upper arms, "I'm less than a .5. I tell my teammates I can give them one left-handed pass per tournament."

The idiosyncratic nature of the players' strengths and weaknesses extends to the source of their injuries and to the way they use their chairs. Take Hanson, who as a child was one of the last victims of the polio plague: After decades of practice, he's more mentally adept at using a wheelchair than Jody, a former football player who was injured a few years ago. Then there's the chair itself: The wider apart the wheels are set in angle to the floor, the easier it is to turn. Hanson's lack of upper arm strength forces a narrow setting, which inhibits his turning and his balance. But, as he points out, "I can also move through tight spaces."

All this variation makes the game a fascinating spectator sport, although for the players it's a reprieve from the stares, prejudices, and pity of others. "At the tournaments, it's 500 guys in wheelchairs, surrounded by people who know people in wheelchairs. You feel natural and normal in that situation," says Dominic Clemas. In 1991, when the Minnesota Rolling Gophers won the second-ever national quad rugby tournament, Clemas was named most valuable player, an award that entitles him to a new sports wheelchair every two years. Twelve years earlier, as a 16-year-old kid growing up in Rochester, he dove off a diving board and broke his neck on a rock. Always an athlete, he coped with his paralysis by running wheelchair races, mushing for hours through the rain. "Then I discovered this sport, and that's pretty much been it. I'm 34 now and I'll play until everybody quits and I can't get a team together anymore. I mean it," he says with a broad, satisfied smile, then reaches down to lift his inert, shriveled legs out of his prizewinning chair.

 
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