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Wheelchair Rugby Is More Than A Game


Rugby isn't for the faint of heart. And neither is the wheelchair version of the sport. We'll take a look at a group of men who live to compete in wheelchair rugby.

— Rugby isn't for the faint of heart. And neither is the wheelchair version of the sport. Let's take a look at a group of men who live to compete in wheelchair rugby.

This ain't lawn bowling.

On a basketball court in Oceanside, eight men in wheelchairs are battling it out. The four-man teams take turns trying to carry a volleyball over the goal line. The defenders smash into the offensive players to try and stop them.

There's passing, dribbling, and full court sprints.

The men wear gloves so they can manipulate their wheels without hurting their hands. Player Dan McCauley said most of them wear elbow pads, too.

"'Cause we use our elbows a lot of times breaking on the wheels," McCauley said. "So if I've got both my hands on the ball, that way I can still use my elbows to turn, or to hold the chair. And without an elbow pad I'd just be ripping chunks of hide off."

The wheelchairs aren't the kind you see on the street. They're custom made to fit each player. They have metal wings on the sides, and big metal bumpers on the front. The wheels are mounted in a special way to allow tight turns and sudden starts and stops.

McCauley has been playing wheelchair rugby for more than 20 years.

"Yeah, I can go out and play tennis," McCauley said. "And that's fun, too. I mean some of the other sports are fun, I mean, we can water ski, snow ski, do whatever you want. But here is a game environment where you're getting to play physical -- hit each other. Yeah, if I can come knock somebody over and put 'em on the ground, it feels good."

The guys were athletes before they got hurt, so competing is in their blood.

Now they're quadriplegics, due to spinal cord injuries. They can't use their legs, and have limited use of their arms and hands. But when these men play wheelchair rugby, they forget about all of that.

"It makes me feel less disabled and more able," said Andy Cohn, who broke his neck in a car accident when he was 16.

"When I first got injured," Cohn recalled, "I really thought that I would just kind of be depressed and hide out. I got to the point where I was even scared to get the newspaper in the morning, just thinking people would see me in the driveway."

Then one day, Cohn heard about wheelchair rugby, the fastest growing disabled sport. About 650 people play it in the U.S. Cohn figured he had nothing to lose, so he showed up at a practice.

He was hooked.

"And it wasn't until I discovered the sport of wheelchair rugby that I really got my life back together," Cohn remembered. "I saw other guys who were living lives I wanted to live, and had girlfriends, and wives, and lives, and jobs. And when I discovered wheelchair rugby, it helped get me back out into the community, it helped rebuild my self-esteem and my physical strength. So it was the biggest thing for me to discover."

Now, 14 years later, Cohn is the senior member of the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby team. His squad won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

Cohn also plays on Sharp Edge, a San Diego-based club team that's won three national championships in a row.

Sharp Healthcare is the team's main sponsor.

Sharp Rehab director Dave Brown says for people who've suffered severe injuries, recovery doesn't stop when they get out of a rehab program.

"And I think the Sharp Edge is a perfect example of that," Brown pointed out. "Those guys and what they do, they are the premier example of anything is possible, really, without limitations."

Most of the guys on the court in Oceanside are on the Sharp Edge team.

Charles Brady stands on the sidelines and watches them go at it. His son Sean is out there, keeping in shape for the upcoming season.

Brady says Sean broke his neck playing football for West Hills High in Santee.

"There are a lot of good people, and a lot of positive things that have happened to him," Brady said. "But this is something that helps make him look forward to tomorrow. Being part of this team is something that's ongoing. It's not just one thing today or tomorrow. He looks forward to next year's championship, and repeating their championship again."

The wheelchair rugby season gets underway at the end of this month.

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