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.
Only two things stand between them and the national U.S. Quad Rugby championship: the last tournament of the season in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Mountain Division Sectional finals, where they'll go up against their most bitter rivals, and where they'll be out for blood. Texas blood.
Murderball's rules are fairly simple and borrow from able-bodied rugby, basketball and hockey, with some specialized adjustments. Players must have enough movement in their upper limbs to push a manual chair. Each player is assigned a classification which corresponds to their level of ability, ranging from 0.5 to 3.5, depending on the function they retain in their arms, trunk and legs. Four players of any classification are allowed on the court at one time, and the total number of points among them must be no more than 8.0.
Quad rugby is played on a basketball court, with orange cones set up at either end marking the goals. Players carry, pass or lob a volleyball down the court, and must cross the goal line with any two wheels of their chair with the ball in their possession to score. Full chair-to-chair contact is encouraged. Spills are frequent, and injuries can range from broken fingers and fractured elbows to concussions.
Few quad ruggers have mastered both the pleasure and the pain of rugby like Andy Cohn. At 24, he is an instinctual athlete. When freeing himself up for the ball, he tangos with defensive players, interpreting their moves before they make them, spinning and turning, and impossibly opening himself to a pass to score, seemingly without effort.
He is lean and lanky with bleached blond hair, freckles, broad shoulders, and a smile as sweet as icing. His concentration on the court is complete, his face registering elation by a win, devastation by a loss.
For Cohn, surviving the car accident that nearly took his life eight years ago wasn't the difficult part; it was surviving the depression that followed.
He withdrew from the world after his injury at age 16. "I basically just stared at the same spot on the wall for two years," he says. "I wouldn't even leave the house to get the newspaper in the driveway because I was afraid people would see me."
He is surprisingly candid about that time, when he says he was at his weakest, because it's a time that has served him. "I'm as comfortable with my injury now as anyone I know," he states and pauses, as a grin tickles his lips. "Some people, like Scott [Hogsett] are just too dumb and don't know they should get depressed. Other guys have been injured for years and can't get comfortable."
That's why a sense of humor is imperative for quadriplegics, Cohn says. "You have to laugh, otherwise you go insane. It's like I'll be getting out of my car and my leg will start to spasm and my shoe will go flying across the parking lot. I'll just sit there and watch it and go, 'Hmm, that was pretty funny.' Then I'll go get my shoe. It's water off a duck's back."
Cohn is one of three players on the team who have received multimillion-dollar compensatory damages for their injuries, which has earned them the nickname of "the Settlement Boys" of rugby. Living off their settlements means they can devote their lives to pursuits other than supporting themselves -- namely, the game, which allows Cohn to concentrate on rugby full-time.
Cohn was introduced to rugby four years ago by a former Phoenix player who suggested he attend a practice. Since then, rugby has become part of Cohn's daily routine, whether it's the three-a-week workouts for the Heat, training for Team USA, or writing wrap-ups for the quad rugby Web site.
"Rugby changed my life, saved it, really," Cohn says. "It was seeing everybody out there that did it. Scott had this cute little girlfriend at the time, he was living on his own -- suddenly you think there's so much stuff you can do."
It's Thursday morning in the rehabilitation room at St. Joseph's Hospital, and a 14-year-old boy wants Hogsett and Cohn to show him how they jump curbs. They oblige, hopping their chairs on and off a berm in a corner of the room, and the boy is impressed. He's been in the hospital since November, when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nervous system disorder. Today he and a handful of spinal-injury patients have gathered to meet Hogsett and Cohn, who make regular appearances at St. Joe's to talk to recently injured patients about what life in a wheelchair is like.
Hogsett's life, he tells them, is very good.
"I'm not going to tell you being in a wheelchair doesn't suck," he says, "because there are times it really does. But I've done everything. I've traveled to Europe, I water ski, I go dancing, I date. It's all about attitude."
Ten years ago, Hogsett was at a party in Idaho when he reprimanded an inebriated guest for puking on the wall in the living room. The man's response was to throw Hogsett off a 10-foot balcony onto a pile of rocks, breaking his neck, then rush down after him for the follow-up, a sucker punch that severed Hogsett's spinal cord.
Today, Hogsett is a "lowpointer," classified as 1.0. His triceps, along with muscles in his legs and trunk, are paralyzed; the strength he draws upon when he thrusts the front bumper of his chair into another player's wheels comes solely from his biceps -- and his guts -- which he shows a lot of on the court.
Hogsett is open when expressing his frustrations during games, and will lay into another player when he feels the team is being let down. His face on the court is as expressive as a cartoon character, all grimaces, snarls, gnashing teeth and clenched jaws.
"I'm a little harsh on the court with them sometimes," he admits, "but I have to be. I know that when the game is over, we'll still be friends."
Hogsett was an athlete before his injury, a baseball player. It's rugby, though, that he says is a near-perfect fit for him. "The passion of the game is what I like about it. It's all about heart. I feel lucky when I go out there because not too many people get to live like this, doing something they love."
Hogsett gave the Heat its name four years ago, and gives it his blood on a regular basis. "It's a tough game. I've had surgeries on both my elbows because of rugby," he says. "My arms are always all torn up." He twists his arms to reveal scratches and scabs that riddle his slight forearms. "Rugby is a huge sport," he goes on. "It brings back the ego and gives me that outlet to go out and release some aggression. I need that."
When not playing rugby, Hogsett, another "Settlement Boy," is only slightly more sedate. He's got a Tiger Beat look to him -- deep blue eyes, chiseled features and tousled blond hair -- and he knows it. "Seriously," he says, his eyes peeking over the top of his sunglasses, "my friends say I get more ass than any guy they know."
He's the first to admit that sports and sex are what he lives for, and in both areas disability makes it all a little more interesting. Hogsett and his friends often ruminate, no matter who's around, about the rivalry between paraplegics and quadriplegics, which goes beyond the obvious difference between a broken back and a broken neck. "Paras think they have it so good because they have full use of their hands," he says. "They hate us quads because we can get boners and they can't. Frankly, I'd take a boner over hands any day."
But to hear him talk, it sounds like Hogsett's two biggest interests -- the game and the girls -- sometimes collide. Romance, it seems, is an uneven path with no curb-cuts for guys in chairs. Hogsett was engaged once to a girl he describes as "cute, nice, and normal . . . a flight attendant," but backed out a few months before the marriage.
"I'm not ready to settle down yet," he says. "And besides, the next two years are pretty much all about rugby."
Off the court, Mike Gilliland, 26, is charmingly shy. He has short dark hair and eyebrows he uses to punctuate his conversation. He speaks softly and smiles reluctantly, as if indulging in a guilty pleasure. His eyes fill with light when he laughs, then cloud and drift away when he talks about events of the past year.
Gilliland was 5 when he began to have trouble walking, the result of an undiagnosed muscular disorder that caused the gradual degeneration of his ankles, hands and lower back.
He played wheelchair basketball in high school, and was good enough at it to earn a full scholarship to New Mexico State University. Then his girlfriend got pregnant, they had a son, and plans for college were dropped. "I got a job, I got an apartment; I tried to do the right thing."
Gilliland, who grew up in Phoenix, caught a rugby practice at ASU in 1995 and instantly took to it. "I never got to prove myself growing up, but with rugby, I knew how to move my chair," he says. "I found the thing -- the one thing -- I was really good at."
Part of Gilliland's success rests in the fact that he is what murderballers call a "disease." As someone who grew up disabled as the result of illness, Gilliland has spent more time in a chair than "injuries," his teammates point out, and he also has more motion in his trunk, which allows him to use his torso in addition to his arms to wriggle in and out of tight situations.
On the court, Gilliland is a being transformed, intense and immensely driven. His dexterity, as well as the power his pistonlike arms exude as he maneuvers his way through a defensive line, is daunting. Gilliland plays smart and plays hard, pushing up and down the court, head down, his tattooed shoulders tucked close to his body. He knows the sweet spot on an opponent's chair that, when struck with the right angle and intensity, will send him crashing to the ground. He's considered by both teammates and opponents as one of the best players in the world, and his speed, force and ball-handling skills can mean the difference between a win or a loss for the Phoenix Heat, a fact the other players know all too well, and won't let him forget.
Gilliland was considered a traitor by many on the team when he left Phoenix last year to play for the Heat's nemesis, the Texas Stampede. His departure was a blow to many of his teammates, who were also some of his closest friends. It's been a long road back, and his year away has changed things between Gilliland and the Heat.
"Andy and I had a really good relationship, before." Gilliland says. "When I left, Andy thought I was betraying our friendship. Scott thought I was betraying rugby."
Neither was the case, Gilliland explains with a sigh. "I've lived here all my life, and I've wanted to leave for a long time," he says. "Growing up, my parents did everything for me, and I wanted to see if I could survive without them. I went there and started a whole different life. That's an achievement."
At the end of his year in Texas, Gilliland was ready to come home and play for the Heat again. He's close to his family, which includes his 6-year-old son, and -- until this summer -- his younger brother, Matthew. Convincing the team he left behind to take him back wasn't easy. After all, Gilliland led Texas to a win over the Heat last year. The one-point loss was devastating for Phoenix, and it's still a sore subject, even after Gilliland's return to the fold.
"We hate Texas," says Hogsett. "I mean we really hate them. They're our archrivals. Mike could have gone anywhere, but the fact that he went to them, to Texas . . ." he shakes his head, ". . . that hurt."
Cohn, meanwhile, blames Gilliland's defection on ambition. "We were really close before, and I'm not going to hold a grudge, but something like this diminishes a friendship," he says. "He didn't think about the fact that he was leaving us all behind. He wanted to win."
In the end, it took a tragedy to transcend the politics. "They didn't want me back at first. They really didn't," Gilliland says, his eyes turning away. "We had one or two confrontations, and then I lost my younger brother in a car accident in August. Next to my son, I loved him more than anything." He pauses. "It's sad to say, but that helped things in a way."
"When his brother died, all the bad feelings ended," Cohn notes. "There was no question anymore."
After months of training -- and a tedious plane-and-bus trip from Phoenix to Birmingham -- the nine players of the Heat wheel onto the floor of the Alabama "Demolition Derby," the three-day international tournament where murderballers test themselves and scope out the competition that the postseason championships will bring their way.
The Phoenix players begin their warm-up on Day One of the tournament, snaking swiftly and gracefully across the court single-file, the only sound the whisper of their wheels on the parquet floor as they breeze past. There is a sense of release in their smiles; they are in a world designed for them now.
The three-court gym is in a newly inaugurated $20 million facility dedicated exclusively to wheelchair sports, and there are chairs everywhere, as well as referees, scorekeepers, coaches, support staff, and a smattering of fans who slide into the bleachers or perch on the edges of lawn chairs they've brought with them. The governor of Alabama will make an appearance on Sunday, and television news cameras drop in all weekend for obligatory feel-good sound bites to end their newscasts. Pennants hang from one end of the gym proclaiming Lakeshore's dominance in quad rugby, but the Heat players keep their eyes on their wheels.
Pregame preparation is a lengthy process. The players begin by transferring from their street chairs into custom-built rugby chairs that run nearly $2,000 each and will be virtually destroyed by the end of the season. Offensive chairs, like the "Rhino" model many players favor, resemble a gladiator's chariot, with armor-plated wings that are dented by frequent, brutal impacts. Bumpers on defensive chairs look like cowcatchers, designed to plow into the wheels of offensive players, thwarting their attempts to advance the ball up the court.
Because of all the heavy action, players tie down their ankles and knees with long strips of Velcro, luggage straps or duct tape, and bind their torsos to their chairs with weight belts. They also have their own one-woman pit crew, equipment manager Steph Pals, who responds to broken wheels and bent axles, rights toppled players, and handles other equipment time-outs in less than a minute.
The first game against the San Jose Quake is fast-paced, but clearly dominated by the Heat. They drive home three unanswered goals at the top of the first period. They allow the Quake to catch up some, narrowing their lead to two points at the half, but come back hard in the third period and win the game 46 to 35. The following game against a scrub team is all Phoenix, a blowout with a final score of 44 to 24.
The Heat arrives back at the hotel at the end of Day One victorious. Phoenix's coach, Mark Nermyr, a criminal defense attorney who broke his neck playing hockey in 1988, is all smiles. His players are tired and hungry but upbeat, as they head across the street to a barbecue joint. The only restaurant in pushing distance of a hotel full of tournament players, the place is a sea of wheelchairs. When the Heat players are finally shown to their table, a little girl watches wide-eyed through the slats of her chair. "Twenty-seven, 28, 29 . . ." she counts as they roll past.
Seated, the team is like a bunch of children, sparring and picking on each other, throwing food, hurling spitballs at the team at the neighboring table, and taking bets on how Coach Nermyr's bowl of chili will affect his digestion. The jokes range from bad to obscene, and are usually both.
Nermyr warns them that tomorrow will be a long and difficult day, opening with an early game against Lakeshore and closing with Texas. They head to the hotel bar for a while, sipping sodas and watching corpulent Alabamans disco dance. They talk about times at past tournaments when they would close down a bar like this.
"It would take us three hours to get to our room, the carpet was so thick," recalls Gilliland. "We didn't win much, but we had a lot of fun."
It's mid-afternoon on Saturday, and it's the final quarter in Phoenix's third game of the day, against the Texas Stampede.
The Heat lost the first game of the morning. Morale is low, tempers flaring. Although they always ride each other hard, the effect of criticisms and jabs fired in frustration, topped with a loss against Lakeshore, has nearly been their undoing. The second game of the day, against London, should have been an easy win, but the problems in the first game carried over. Play was flat and stilted, and the Heat's ultimate win seemed hollow.
Losing this game to Texas would put them out of the running for any meaningful place in Sunday's championship game. Worse than losing, which Phoenix does not do well, would be the humiliation of giving a win to Texas.
An early lead by Texas in the first quarter is whittled down swiftly, as the team finds its groove. Coming back to the sidelines to huddle during a time-out, Hogsett is all smiles, and in everyone's eyes is more than a glimmer of hope. Play is fluid, communication on the court open and easy. The energy is palpable.
One of Texas' biggest guns is Steve Pate, built like a refrigerator. Pate is a "disease," a quadriplegic by the slimmest of possible margins, who lumbers around on foot when not on the court, dragging his chair behind him, slight black braces around his calves peeking over the edges of his workman's boots.
Pate's rugby chair is backless, and he has full use of his trunk, which allows him to power up and down the court faster than any other quad. He wriggles and twists his hips as he pumps his arms, further boosting his impressive speed.
But pushing his 200-plus pounds up and down a court all day has tired him, and his face and arms have turned a blooming shade of purple, sweat matting his curly red hair to his face. Seeing this, Phoenix picks him with relative ease. The thud of Cohn's chair as he nails Pate on a block booms ominously.
"That's it, Andy," Nermyr yells. "Hold him right there!"
Second quarter, Hogsett is picked by Texas in return; his chair flips backward onto the parquet floor, and his head hits with a sickening thud. A medical tech rushes over and checks the back of his head and his pupils.
Scott subs out while he is restrapped. The goose egg on the back of his skull matters little to him as he furiously works to get rebound into the chair and back on the court.
Finally, the last quarter finds the team in perfect synergy.
Phoenix opens the period with a handy five-point lead. It's 28 to 33 as the Heat's Chad Farrington intercepts a bad pass from Texas and takes it down the court. He hands off to Gilliland, who is immediately triple-teamed by Texas, then manages a short hand-off to Cohn, who finds the goal easily.
"Take your time, don't rush it!" yells Nermyr from the bench. They've shaved a minute off the time clock; a strategy crucial in maintaining their lead is to take as long to score as possible.
Texas returns the goal, and then it's back to Phoenix. Cohn finds himself triple-teamed again, passes off to Gilliland and moves further down the court. Texas rushes to block Gilliland, but he slips free and sends a long bouncing pass to Cohn, who carries it slowly home. Another minute-long goal.
Six minutes remain in the game.
A shaken Texas calls time-out. Phoenix huddles. The fire is on. "Let's get intense and focus," Hogsett yells as he grits his teeth and shoots back out onto the court. "Let's fuckin' do this!"
The play continues with Hogsett leading Phoenix's aggressive defense, hard-checking and holding Texas, making them struggle for each goal. They also manage to draw a few fouls, which at one point sends two of Texas' players to the penalty box. But rather than go for the quick score with only two defenders on the court, Phoenix waits it out. Cohn circles and holds back, eyes on the clock, until one player is released, then squeezes across the goal line with just over a minute left to play.
Phoenix takes the game 36 to 28 and the smiles are back. Nermyr greets his players as they come off the court. "That's the Phoenix Heat I know!" he yells.
The joy Phoenix has taken in destroying Texas has them impatiently awaiting the Sectional finals -- March 15 through 17 at ASU -- where the Stampede, still their strongest competition, has warned them to expect a much better game.
But the Heat isn't worried. Their loathing of their Texas competitors, they explain, is deep enough to virtually ensure a win. "It's not like we're rivals when we play and friends off the court," team captain Hogsett says. "We're not friends. We really, really hate Texas. We hate everything about them, and that's why we are going to beat them."
Plus, the confidence they gain from a win against the Stampede may be enough to convince them they can take out the top-ranked Lakeshore Demolition in Denver.
And what the Heat needs to win is right in front of them, coach Nermyr says: It's the closeness they share on and off the court that is his team's biggest asset. "They're together all the time; they really know each other, and that comes out on the court."
"I've often wondered why we're all so close," reflects Cohn. "Part of it is that we have shared experiences, but then again there are a lot of guys in chairs I wouldn't want to hang out with. I hang out with my able-bodied friends, too, but it's easier with other guys in chairs. ABs [able-bodied people] are way too spontaneous."
"Yeah, we've got our disability in common, and that makes it easier," Hogsett says, "but I think we're such good friends because we all love the game so much. Rugby is such a cool sport."
But it is not precisely friendship that they will rely on to propel them past Texas in two weeks. "Everybody knows that as a team we play harder out there than anyone else," says Hogsett, and this is particularly true when there is a score to be settled.
"We're going to win it this year," says Gilliland quickly. "It takes heart and determination, but mostly you gotta want it, and I think every guy on our team wants it."
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