Murderball

The Phoenix Heat quadriplegic rugby team has hot wheels, championship dreams, and a thirst for blood

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Arizona State University gym, Andy Cohn of the Phoenix Heat lowers his head like a charging ram and powers his way across the floor. Gleefully, he smashes into one of his teammates, an unsuspecting Mike Gilliland, and the clash of metal on metal echoes through the gym like the clang of titanic cymbals. It catches the attention of a group of giant basketball players on the next court who turn their heads toward the noise.

If they hadn't noticed the guys in the tricked-out, Mad Max wheelchairs when they came in, they certainly notice them now. Gilliland pumps his arms wildly and returns the favor, hitting Cohn's chair -- at a speed that can only be described as breakneck -- sending him flying backward a good six inches off the ground.

"Bastard," mutters Cohn, laughing.

At the other side of the gym, one bewildered basketball player mouths to another, "What the fuck?"

To play rugby with the Phoenix Heat, you must be prepared for grueling workouts, be available for endless road trips, and have an insatiable appetite for competition. It helps if you are independently wealthy. You should have a predisposition to mock other players, as well as a sense of humor that can accommodate cracks about the most intimate of bodily functions.

You also must have broken your neck -- perhaps in a car crash or a swan dive into the shallow end of the pool -- or contracted a degenerative disorder that impairs the sensory and muscular function of your upper and lower limbs. You must be a quadriplegic.

And you must be ambitious. The past few years have been a slow climb, but the Heat now find themselves at the pinnacle of their very specialized game: quadriplegic rugby. Originally called "murderball" when it was created in Canada in the late '70s, it is now the fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world, with 50 teams in the United States alone. And although the name of the game has since been changed to "quad rugby," after too many physicians and therapists hesitated to let their patients participate, the men of the Heat still play like it's murderball.

Like most rugby players, members of the Phoenix Heat are young, virile, good-looking guys. "Basically, all we ever talk about is rugby, sex, and disability," team captain Scott Hogsett admits, and not necessarily in that order.

But for Hogsett and his teammates, this year it's the sport they play, not the girls, that tops their list of priorities. It has to.

"When we first started out, we were horrible," says Andy Cohn. "I mean horrible."

Four years ago, what the Heat excelled at most was partying, and they admit that had more than a little to do with why they were ranked 29th back then. But since those days, the team has reinvented itself, forsaking pony kegs for Powerbars, and today they are seeded No. 2 in the country and sit poised to take the national title. But it's been a long, hard trip.

Two years ago, they came awfully close to toppling the nation's top-ranked team, the Alabama-based Lakeshore Demolition, only to end up taking second at the national championship. Then last year, their star player, Mike Gilliland, defected to Phoenix's rival team, the Texas Stampede. Another crucial player, Hogsett, was sidelined when he broke his leg skydiving. In turn, Gilliland and the Stampede defeated Phoenix at the regional Sectional competition last year, by one point. But this year, Hogsett's leg has healed, Gilliland has returned to the Heat, and winning is no longer a faraway goal. It is their only thought.

Cohn, Gilliland and Hogsett will be eating, sleeping and breathing rugby for the next two years. In addition to playing for the Heat, the trio made the USA Team last fall and are preparing for the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, the international competition for disabled athletes that is the largest sporting event in the world after the able-bodied Olympics.

Playing on two teams at once means an arduous schedule for the three athletes. Phoenix practices three times a week, and Team USA players must also complete weekly workout logs and follow a strict, high-protein diet, "which basically limits dinner to a can of tuna and some green beans," Cohn notes with a sigh. At practice, they scrimmage, run drills and wind sprints for two hours, then head out to the parking garage, where they push themselves up the ramps to the top floor and then back down again, a dozen times or more, backward and forward.

"It takes endurance to win," explains Cohn. "I stayed home all summer and got up at four or five in the morning to go push in circles by myself in the gym. That's how bad I wanted to make the team."

Although each of the three athletes has his own reasons for playing rugby, the blows they've taken off the court and on only serve to fuel their shared determination to take their team, and themselves, to the top of their sport. And while the ultimate goal for Gilliland, Cohn and Hogsett is a gold medal in 2004, it's what lies ahead for the Heat in 2002 that excites them most. The Heat, they say, finally has the momentum, drive and talent to take the title at the national championships, which will be held in Denver this April.

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