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Beware the chair

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20070225y Travis Oldhouser proves Quad rugby isn’t for the scared, soft or squeamish

PHILADELPHIA – Metal slammed into metal in the middle of the gym.

Bodies jolted.

Spectators winced.

And players smiled devilish, satisfied smiles.

This was practice for the guys with broken necks and cracked spines.

It was a strange scene, wheelchairs racing across the floor, bumper car-style crashes every few minutes.

This is a sport with a ball and goal lines and four players to a team. But hardly anyone can even stand up, much less walk or run.

And the doors of the gym are always propped open, allowing 20-degree winter nights to blow in, cooling the players, freezing everyone else. Guys with broken necks and cracked spines, after all, can’t sweat.

This game, part fast, part frightening, is what they love. It makes them feel alive again. They call it murderball or quad rugby or wheelchair rugby.

Wheelchairs topple over, and bodies hit the ground.

“It’s like a train derailment,” said quad rugby star Rob Deller. “You hit somebody hard enough to flip them upside down in the air and into the bench or the stands or the wall. It’s like a big train wreck … and the crowd just goes wild.”

“It will make your teeth chatter,” York’s Travis Oldhouser said about taking a hit. “You definitely don’t want to have your tongue sticking out.” Everyone has a story of how they got in the chair and why they play rugby.

Adam Bencsik is a double amputee. He’s the fastest flyer on the team. He’s a world-class player who changes the direction of his chair, changes it instantly, by just shifting his hips. He has no legs and only stumps for hands because bacterial meningitis ravaged his body more than a decade ago.

Deller, who works in York and lives in Lebanon, went from being a Paraplegic to a quadriplegic in a moment. He’s the hardest hitter on the team. Three years ago, a wicked fall playing wheelchair basketball shattered his hand and wrist and forced him to a new sport.

A.J. Nanayakkara, the team’s best defender, was crippled after falling on his head during karate class years ago.

Some rugby players have cerebral palsy.

Many, like Oldhouser, were injured in car crashes.

Oldhouser is a 1991 Dover High graduate who joined the Army right after school. He was stationed in Germany for three years and became a Green Beret.

He left the service to study drafting in technical school and to be close to a girlfriend. He eventually found an architectural testing job in Emigsville and loved it. He did triathlons.

Then came Nov. 28, 2000.

Oldhouser was driving on the D.C. beltway to a job site on a wonderfully warm, blue-skied morning.

He slowed and stopped at a traffic bottleneck – but the driver behind him never did.

Even though the 6-foot-5 Oldhouser was buckled in, the impact of the collision slammed his neck so violently into the headrest that it shattered a vertebra in his neck.

His car pinballed into other cars before smashing into a guard rail.

He tried to grab the steering wheel but his arms and hands wouldn’t move. He tried to hit the brakes but his legs wouldn’t budge.

A warm, burning sensation rushed through him.

His neck was broken.

“I knew something seriously was wrong, instantaneously,” Oldhouser said.

He tried calling for help, but he couldn’t yell. He could barely breathe.

He couldn’t hold his head up.

A state trooper and an off-duty emergency medical technician yanked hard on his door, finally opening it. They ended up tying a jacket around his neck as a make-shift brace.

He said he wasn’t scared.

“I just didn’t know what was going on.”

He spent a week at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Unit. He underwent neck fusion surgery at Hershey Medical Center. He did Physical Therapy at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.

Magee is where he learned about wheelchair rugby.

First, though, he had to adjust to a new life.

“I couldn’t move anything except for my shoulders. I couldn’t sit up. Even then, it still didn’t sink in. The only thing I knew about being paralyzed was Christopher Reeve.”

“Travis went from being a triathlete to not being able to pick up half of an ounce,” said his father, Jack Oldhouser. “In an instant.”

The final prognosis: He could use his biceps but not his triceps; he could move his hands but not his fingers. He had some muscle control in his chest but not his abs. He had no use of his legs.

He found some salvation at the Unique Physique Fitness Center on East Market Street. There, he felt comfortable working what muscles he could to gain crucial strength.

It was only after three months of weightlifting that he finally was able to propel his manual wheelchair up a ramp at a movie theater.

He tried a summer wheelchair rugby camp but realized he still wasn’t strong enough to keep up.

He progressed in small steps.

“It was tough early on. One time my dad was doing range-of-motion exercises on my legs, and I broke down. I could see my legs moving, but it was almost like a dream.

“I learned you need to concentrate on the things you can do. … I’m not all right with it, but I don’t spend all my time worrying about how I can’t walk. It just takes time.”

This past October, four years after he first tried rugby, he was ready to try again.
* * *

Oldhouser drives his minivan 90 minutes each way to practice at the Carousel House, a small rec gym in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

The 34-year-old is a quadriplegic, which means he has some loss of movement in all four limbs. But he can still steer his Dodge Grand Caravan by hooking his right hand around a three-pronged handle in the steering wheel. He can accelerate and brake by pulling and pushing a rod with his left hand.

Learning all of this took 12 hours of adaptive driving classes in Hershey.

Now, when he arrives at practice, he can maneuver his wheelchair into place, secure his belongings and wheel down the ramp of his van and into the gym parking lot.

All by himself.

The only thing he really needs help with is being lifted out of his regular wheelchair into a rugby sports chair, which has bumper guards and metal-covered wheels that are tilted to provide extra balance.

He joins about a dozen or so others each week because this is one of the few organized team sports quadriplegics can play – the only one with legal, full-scale contact.

And these guys end up playing better than most anyone in the country. The Magee Eagles, a team sponsored by the hospital and the Philadelphia Eagles, won a national championship last year.

“Quads are able to compete in other sports, but this is our sport,” Oldhouser said. “It’s aggressive as hell.”

He plays defense, which means he is not expected to handle the ball much or score breakaway goals. He mostly sets picks for teammates and tries to tie up the other team’s best players.

He is new to the game, so he is slower than many.

He is expected to hit people and disrupt.

“People think because we’re in wheelchairs that we’re fragile,” Oldhouser said. “Yeah, all of us have broken necks, but once I had surgery and healed, I have as much chance as you to break your neck.”
* * *

Life isn’t easy, but it’s still good.

Home health aids help Oldhouser get a shower each morning and get into bed each night. They do his laundry and house cleaning and put him through stretching exercises.

They check his legs and backside for dangerous, even life-threatening sores caused by sitting for so many hours.

Getting out of bed, showering, brushing his teeth and shaving now “takes hours, and I still need assistance,” Oldhouser said. “It’s demanding. There are times where that was the whole day, just trying to figure that out.”

And yet his independence may surprise.

He drives himself to the gym for workouts. He even is a personal trainer to other quadriplegics.

He does errands. He pays bills.

An adhesive band around his hand helps him hold a fork and a tooth brush.

He rides his homemade wheelchair treadmill in his garage.

He even rides an electric stimulation bicycle for an hour at time, the electric current pushing his legs to move, to actually pedal.

He rides the York County Heritage Rail Trail on a hand cycle, going for miles at a time.

He lives alone.

He plays rugby.

He can fly to rugby tournaments all over the country, expenses paid by Magee.

He even wants to do triathlons again some day. He will swim and pedal a cycle with his hands. He will propel a three-wheeled racing chair instead of running.

“The biggest thing about him is (that) his drive is there five days a week. He’s really hungry,” said John Kerchner, who trains him at Unique Physique.

“I try to break my athletes down when I think they need it. I take them to where they fail (from muscle fatigue). It’s rare that I take (Oldhouser) to that point. He just has the mentality where he won’t quit.”

So he cracks a joke and pushes on.

He knows that his first-rate insurance coverage, which has helped him build a comfortable home and buy a new vehicle and a $14,000 electric stim bike, won’t give him his old life back.

And that’s OK, in a way.

He simply finds new ways to exercise and meet friends and feel accomplished.

Rugby, with all of its head-turning wrecks, helps him make it through.

The sport in which teammates slam into each other before games just “to get psyched up.”

“Sometimes the collisions aren’t far from what put us in a wheelchair to begin with,” Oldhouser said with a smile. “It gives you a sense of normalcy.

“You let your aggression out. You have all of this pent-up frustration, and it’s an awesome way to alleviate it.

“You don’t feel like you’re in a wheelchair anymore.”

What is murderball?

Because of their limited upper-body mobility, quadriplegics often can’t play wheelchair basketball.

So three Canadians developed an alternative game. They called it “murderball” because players can ram each other with their wheelchairs at full speed.

They brought the game to the United States in 1981, where students at the University of North Dakota formed the first team here. They helped change the name to quad rugby. It also is called wheelchair rugby.

The United States Quad Rugby Association was created in 1988. Now, there are more than 45 teams in the U.S. and more than 20 others around the world.

To be eligible, players must have a “combination of upper and lower extremity Impairment.”

Players are given a classification number, ranging from .5 to 3.5. The .5 player has the greatest impairment and usually is not able to handle the ball as well or move as quickly. (Travis Oldhouser is a 1.0 and Rob Deller is a 2.5).

Games are played on a basketball court. Four players per team are on the court at once. To make games fair, the classification total of each side may not exceed 8.0.

Players pass and dribble a volleyball from one end to the other, scoring whenever someone carries the ball across the goal line. Players must pass or dribble every 10 seconds.

Games are divided into four eight-minute quarters.

Whistle-blowing referees try not to get hit. And players are allowed to smash their chairs into each other to knock the ball loose.

In 2005, the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Murderball” profiled the sport and is now available on video and DVD.

For details, visit
Where they play

Philadelphia may be the closest place to see quad rugby.

That can make it difficult for Travis Oldhouser, who lives in York, and Rob Deller, who works in York.

They both play for the Magee Eagles, a team sponsored by the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The team practices in a Fairmount Park gym on Tuesday evenings. It also holds an early-season tournament in the area in November.

The rest of the tournaments, though, are spread across the East Coast and beyond.

The team will play in the Atlantic Sectional Tournament on March 2-4 in Montgomery, Ala. It also will travel to the national championship tournament in Louisville, Ky., on April 20-22.

Regionally, the Eagles do educational presentations at schools and colleges.

Defining paralysis


The complete or partial paralysis of both legs and arms and the parts of the body below the injury, usually a spinal cord injury.

Cases are categorized by the Cervical Vertebrae injured. People with C1 to C4 injuries are in the most serious condition and might need help breathing. C5-8 patients have increased use of arm, chest and hand muscles, providing increased levels of mobility and independence.

York wheelchair rugby player Travis Oldhouser has a C5-6 complete spinal cord injury. His teammate Rob Deller, who lives in Lebanon and works in York, has a C6-7 spinal cord injury.

About 150,000 Americans have quadriplegia, most between the ages of 20 and 40.

Quadriplegics are susceptible to circulation and respiratory problems and to dangerous pressure sores and infections – all of which can lead to death, if not monitored.

Even temperature changes can be problematic. The autonomic nervous system, which is controlled by the spinal cord, regulates the ability to sweat and shiver.

Because the spinal cord is damaged, most quadriplegics cannot sweat and are highly susceptible to heat illness. The body uses the moisture produced by sweating to cool itself through evaporation.


The complete or partial paralysis of the legs and possibly trunk. The arms are not affected. Cases are categorized by the Thoracic level of the spinal cord injury.

For T1-8 patients, there often is control of the hands but no stomach muscle control. Lower-T injuries enable good trunk and abdominal control. T6-12 patients might be able to walk for short distances with long leg braces and a walker or crutches, with the abdominal muscles “throwing” the paralyzed legs forward. -

Daily Record/Sunday News
York Daily Record/Sunday News


  1. Hi,

    I would like to get in touch with A.J Nanayakkara. I stayed at his house in Phillerdelphia in 1986 for 1 month period and played tennis with him. He may not remember me as I was his 1/2 elder brothers good friend.

    I am happy to see he is doing well.

    Niran Fernando

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