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."