Ready to Rumble

Kerri Morgan is prepared to crash the smash-happy world of quad rugby

Each player is assigned a "class" on a scale of 0.5 to 3.5, depending on their disability. Those with higher function in their trunks, arms and hands receive a higher rating. The lesser the strength and function, the lower the class, and the better suited the player is for defense. Only eight class points can be fielded at any time.

The squads square off four-on-four, with the speedier, abler pair racing for the goal line and the other twosome trying to hold opponents in place with a "picker" — a pronged metal limb protruding from the bottom of their chairs.

These stabilizing chairs have evolved over the years, but the rules have never mandated protective gear. "This guy said to me once: 'You don't wear helmets?! What if you break your neck?'" recounts Paul Rickman of Belleville. "I just looked at him like, 'Dope!' Been there, done that."

Rugby Rams coach Sue Tucker tells her team to quit turning 
over the ball
Jennifer Silverberg
Rugby Rams coach Sue Tucker tells her team to quit turning over the ball
the Rams warming their chairs on the sidelines
Jennifer Silverberg
the Rams warming their chairs on the sidelines

The clock doesn't stop when somebody flips and breaks a wrist. Blisters and butt sores come with the turf. "I think it's nuts," exclaims David Gray, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Washington University and Kerri Morgan's boss. "I'm a quad, and I'm not playing. The bottom line is if you hurt yourself — like break a bone — it could be fatal."

Counters Florian Thomas, director of the spinal cord injury/dysfunction service at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center, "I think the game looks more dangerous than it is. These players are extremely athletically trained."

Like the placement of tape on their hands and arms, and like their varied injuries, no player's M.O. ever seems to mimic another's. Some push their chairs with their knuckles, others with the palms and an occasional back of the hand. Watch closely, and you'll see some players snare the ball between their wrists. A few use their forearms to grasp the ball and their chin to trap it in their lap. Whatever works.

The sport is young, imported to the U.S. in the late 1970s after a handful of Canadian quadriplegics took a shot at wheelchair basketball in a rehab session but couldn't net a single basket. Drawing on the rules of basketball, hockey and able-bodied rugby, they devised their own rough-and-tumble game and named it murderball.

"We had to change the name officially a while ago," says Ed Hooper, "because corporate sponsors didn't want to be associated with the word 'murder.'"

Sponsors are the sport's holy grail. Between tournament and travel fees, it can cost a team more than $30,000 a year to compete. The custom-made wheelchairs cost up to $5,000 and may last only two to three years.

Some teams have corporate backing, but the St. Louis Rugby Rams (Missouri's only squad) pay as they play. "We get little bites here and there," says Morgan, the Rams' co-captain, whose chair is sponsored by Balance Bar. "But I would love to get one of the [St. Louis] companies or sports organizations behind us full-time."

The Rams have competed for twelve years, but they only recruited Sue Tucker, a suffers-no-bullshit volunteer coach, four years ago. "We used to suck so bad," says the 28-year-old Tucker, a former point guard for the Washington University Bears basketball team. "We'd be happy if we lost by ten points instead of twenty."

But this season — which runs from September to April — the Rams have placed in the top three at every tournament they've attended, and their prospect of making the top-sixteen cut for the national tournament in April appears better than ever.

What's more, the Rams' roster recently spiked from ten to sixteen players. "Murderball is the fastest-growing wheelchair game in the world," says Hooper. "Soon I think even China will have a team."

In the past year, eight new squads joined the United States' 39-member league. Africa, Latin America and Australia already boast teams, and Italy recently became the latest European nation to put a squad together. Credit goes to the 2005 documentary Murderball, a provocative film that revolved around the fiery personalities of the U.S. national team under Kevin Orr between 2001 and 2004. Hailed by critics and nominated for an Oscar, the movie chronicles the team's one-point loss to Canada at the 2002 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and its attempt to settle the score at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

"I've probably seen it 30 times, at least," exclaims Eric Newby, a nineteen-year-old Ram, who quotes from the film regularly.

"It's an awesome movie," agrees Morgan, employing one of her favorite adjectives. "The only problem with it is they never say the sport is coed!"

On the morning of November 3, the directors of the Kutis Funeral Home in south county lowered Jason DeSalvo's coffin so that his rugby teammates could see him.

Coach Sue Tucker and Kerri Morgan arrive at the wake shortly after 6 p.m., just as some of the veterans are counting the number of teammates who've died — four — and reminiscing about the team's early days when they practiced at a south-city recreation center and knocked back beers afterward. "That was before we got all serious," says Vito Lucido.

Tucker heckles Clayton Braun for missing his private workouts with her, while Braun makes fun of Morgan's separation-from-her-rugby-chair anxiety. Mark Greeley, meanwhile, offers up a joke: "What do you call a quad without teeth? Useless."

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