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Connecticut Murderball

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Depending on how you read the situation, the Connecticut Jammers are either having a bad year or a great one.

The state’s wheelchair rugby team’s one-and-nine record isn’t impressive, but other factors have to be considered. Like how the team’s roster has swelled to 10 players thanks to recent mainstream exposure to the sport, and some of the team’s troubles are explained by the addition of players new to the game.

“My team is fairly new and fairly young. I have a bunch of new players, which is good, but it’s going to take us a while to get back up to speed,” Jammers coach Bud Harvey said. “Some of my older players are starting to retire. We’ve lost a couple of experienced players and gained a couple of new players. We’re in a building year.”

Earlier this month, the annual Connecticut Classic Wheelchair Rugby Tournament was held in Wallingford. Four teams — the Jammers, the New York Jets, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Casco Bay Navigators — competed in a six-game round robin tournament.

The Jammers took the court for their second game of the day at around 1:30 (I missed their first game which was played at the ungodly Saturday hour of 9 a.m.) to play the Philly team. Techno music played over the PA system as the 10-man team rolled up and down the indoor basketball court in a series of drills.

Soon the game got underway. Several of the players moved the angled wheels on their specially designed wheelchairs with surprising dexterity and speed. The metal and plastic plates covering the chairs’ spokes clanged loudly when one player battered another with their chair, and the audience responded with concerned gasps.

The concern is understandable. Quad rugby is played exclusively by people with disabilities affecting both their arms and legs. The players themselves think the concern is unfounded. Sure, quad rugby is a high-impact sport, and collisions not only happen, they’re encouraged. But the injuries are mostly minor and the game’s benefits outweigh the minor risks.

“You’ll see a scraped elbow here and there, but the sport’s pretty safe,” Jammer Rick Farmiglietti said. “I’m usually good to get knocked out of the chair about once a tournament.”

In quad rugby, a player scores by carrying the ball through the goal. Moving the ball across the court, players must dribble or pass the ball every 10 seconds.

The Jammers seemed overmatched by the Philadelphia team. It looked like the Jammers were a little lost on the court. Four of the team’s 10 players were rookies, including Clinton Cowen; the team hasn’t quite had a chance to gel yet. For two of the latest additions to the team, Joseph Stramando and Jon Sigworth, it was the second and first times they had played in competitive games, respectively.

Sigworth, a freshman at Wesleyan University and a former extreme unicyclist, broke his neck while mountain biking in northern India earlier this year. After finding out about the team through Villardi, he was anxious to play.

“I had my accident early this February. I went to a practice wearing my neck collar. They said I could roll around in a chair for a while, but that I couldn’t play until I got my neck collar off. I was like ‘Darn it.’ But I’ve been playing with them since July,” Sigworth said.

Unlike the other players on the team, Stramondo is not a quadriplegic. The Trinity College administrator and voting member of the state’s Independent Living Council has a rare form of dwarfism called micromelic dysplasia, and uses a motorized wheelchair. His fellow Independent Living Council member Jim Quick encouraged him to join the team.

“My Disability is something I’ve lived with all my life, and organized sport is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do, and especially not organized sport that’s this exciting,” Stramondo said.

Quad rugby was invented in Canada in 1977. While other sports like wheelchair basketball were already established, quad rugby — or murderball, as it was called originally — was the first sport that allowed quadriplegic athletes of all functioning abilities to have important roles on both offense and defense. Despite the name, it has little in common with traditional rugby.

“Rugby and wheelchair rugby are totally different as far as the rules go,” International Quad Rugby Association official John Bishop said. “The name ‘rugby’ was chosen because of the similar camaraderie and the aggressiveness of the sport.”

The game spread like a virus to countries all across the globe, and now is considered the fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world, played in 26 countries and a featured part of the Paralympic Games.

The game made its way to Connecticut in the early ’90s when a group of dedicated wheelchair athletes started playing ramshackle games outside Gaylord rehab hospital in Wallingford.

“We were practicing on a tennis court in the parking lot. We were basically using everyday chairs that we would duct tape pieces of wood over the chairs so they wouldn’t fold up when we hit each other,” Jammers co-founder Jimmy Quick said.

Quick added: “It was pretty gruesome in the early days.”

Quick, the former president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, was a member of the national wheelchair rugby team in the mid ’90s. This season marks his return to the sport after a five-year hiatus.

Gaylord rehab hospital has been active with the team since its inception.

“We’ve sponsored the team for about 10 or 11 years. We sponsor the team financially through fund-raising we do through the sports association,” Gaylord Hospital Sports Association Coordinator Todd Munn said.

Despite Gaylord hospital’s support, the team is currently looking for a place to play.

“We need a gym and we need storage. Ideally, it would be a basketball court on a Saturday or a Sunday for three or four hours,” Jammers coach Bud Harvey said.

The sport is currently enjoying a surge of popular interest thanks to the acclaimed 2005 documentary Murderball . The movie documents the rivalry between the U.S. wheelchair rugby team and Canada’s team. Despite the sport’s Canadian roots, America has traditionally dominated quad rugby. However, when one of America’s star players, the cantankerous Joe Soares, became Canada’s coach after getting cut from America’s team, the Canadian team took the gold medal in 2002. The movie documents Soares and players for the American team preparing for the 2004 paralympic game.

The film is gripping, entertaining, human and at your local Blockbuster right now — rent it immediately. Thanks to its success, the Connecticut Jammers and teams across the country have enjoyed renewed interest among both disabled and able-bodied people.

“Just before the movie came out we were struggling to field a team and have enough athletes that have the spinal cord injury level come out and be on the team. Murderball drummed up a lot of interest among people both injured and not injured,” Munn said.

A review of the film on the Web site said Murderball “doesn’t dispel myths and stereotypes. It takes big fat bites out of those sugary sweet, pathetic images and stereotypes, chews ’em up and spits ’em out.”

One reason why the movie is so engaging is its frankness. Joe Soares, for instance, comes across as one of the world’s biggest assholes. The honesty makes the film entertaining, but it also makes it more important. There’s a temptation on the part of a lot of able-bodied folks to think of disabled people as saints, or objects of pity. As coach Harvey said, often upon meeting wheelchair-bound people you only see the chair; seeing past the disability and seeing the person is a challenge for a lot of people.

“You’ve got to be able to get over the chair. The instant response is to say ‘look at these poor guys.’ There’s nothing poor about these guys,” Harvey said. “They are tough and they don’t cut each other any slack. They’re human beings and deserve and demand to be treated like human beings.”

In the recent tournament, the Jammers and the other teams’ players didn’t look like saints. In fact, many of the goateed, tattooed crew wouldn’t look out of place closing down a disreputable dive bar on any given Tuesday night. The guys I talked to are really good dudes, and aspects of their lives are heroic, I suppose. But they’re not saints. They’re, for lack of a better classification, normal dudes who happen to be in chairs. “People are always like ‘you’re a saint, or you’re an inspiration’ — I hate it when people say I’m an inspiration,” Jammer team member Joseph Stramondo said. “I’m an inspiration because I can wipe my ass? Thanks. I don’t want to be your inspiration; I want to be your equal.”

Several members of the Jammers told me they believed quad rugby helps to shift people’s perceptions because it’s an aggressive game with a sexy allure.

“I think the game breaks a lot of barriers down because they see people trying to have fun with sports like everybody else and being crazy like everybody else,” Quick said. “We aren’t china dolls. We’re not going to break.”

By Adam Bulger

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