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Hell on Wheels : Quadriplegics Work Out Aggressions on Rugby Team for St. Jude Center of Fullerton


WESTMINSTER — The afternoon sun glints off the spokes of Joe Fisk's wheelchair, a sleek piece of machinery built for speed and punishment, as he goes through his gearing-up ritual.

The legs get strapped in first. Some guys use bungee cords, others heavy tape. Fisk twists his stretchy Velcro around and around and tight. Then there's the waist. Has to be snug, in case you're knocked over. The no-pinch gloves slip on with more than a little effort.

After several minutes, he gazes up, "My, it looks like a nice evening for some hitting ."

Fisk has come to the Seventh-day Adventists church gym in Westminster from Long Beach to take part in a quadriplegic rugby practice. The 35-year-old Fisk, who broke his neck 12 years ago when he swam into an underwater sandbar, plays for the Long Beach Land Sharks, but he enjoys the sport enough to join the St. Jude Blazers in their weekly workouts.

The Blazers, Orange County's only member of the Western Quad Rugby Assn., welcome Fisk and anybody else willing to strap in and wheel around the basketball court that, after some careful marking with tape, becomes a regulation quadriplegic rugby field.

As Fisk readies himself, many of the Blazers, who are sponsored by the St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, are also preparing. Among them is Ron Fredette, a quadriplegic rugby veteran who helped organize the team and is now its captain.

Fredette, 37, of Tustin, is articulate and a tad passionate when asked to describe the sport he claims is the best out there for quadriplegics with limited use of their hands.

Most quadriplegics (who, contrary to what most people think, can have some upper body mobility) aren't strong enough to play wheelchair basketball, which requires a heavier ball and long, upward shots. But they can dribble and pass a lighter volleyball, and score by finding a teammate or maneuvering into a floor-level goal that's roughly 6-by-26 feet.

"Actually," explains Fredette, who was paralyzed at 21 after a fall, "calling it 'quad rugby' isn't really accurate. It doesn't have anything to do with regular rugby rules . . . . It's more like a combination of basketball, football and hockey.

"It started in Canada with the name 'Murder Ball,' which comes from the fact that you can really bang guys, much more than in basketball. I think calling it 'quad rugby' is more for public relations than anything else."

Fredette has a point; once the Blazers' practice starts, "Murder Ball" seems to make more sense.

At first, play between the two four-man teams appears chaotic and dangerously aggressive. The ball bounces here and there, passes fly all over and a few goals are made, but collisions dominate. Fisk was right; it is a nice evening for hitting.

Soon enough, though, patterns emerge as the action becomes more cohesive. The players initiate a series of fast-breaks from one end of the court to the other. You have to pass or dribble every 10 seconds or lose the ball to the opposing team, and these guys know what they're doing.

Fisk, who is toppled with his wheelchair during a goal-line stand a few minutes into the game, happily concedes that most players come out for the contact. Like others, he points out that rugby's physical side provides a release for men (women, too; not many, but a few play in the league, although the Blazers are all male). Quadriplegics are usually not expected to show that side of their personality in public.

"The physicality is what attracts us, that and the competition," Fisk explains. "You have this feeling that you can let it all out, really do your thing. It's addictive . . . . I'm one of the guys who's known for being rowdy. Hey, you gotta go for it; you only live once."

Scott Callender, a 29-year-old from Santa Ana who was paralyzed five years ago during a diving accident, says the sport is ideal therapy, not only for the exercise and camaraderie, but because "you can take out a lot of your aggressions out there."

That intensity can lead to pain, but not too much. "It's part of the game, the bumping and bruising, and it's something we can live with," Callender says with a shrug.

Despite the heavy contact--upended wheelchairs are common--rarely are there major injuries. A cut, a contusion, maybe a headache or two, but nothing serious, Fredette says.

But what about bashed egos? The games, divided into eight-minute quarters, often last more than 90 minutes. Even with substitutions, it can be an exhausting and, at times, emotional experience. Fredette says, however, that fights are also infrequent.

"Sure, people get hot, just like in any sport," he admits, then laughs, "but I wouldn't say there are many fistfights. Nah, that would look pretty funny, considering how well we use our hands."

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