By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
The team passes around a permanent marker, and everyone writes a few last words on a rugby ball that will go into the coffin. "J-Dawg," as they called him, lies at the front of the room in a black suit with his hands, shellacked with foundation, crossed over his mid-section. Morgan can't take her eyes off them.
"Those aren't his hands," she says. "He refused to wear tape, so he always had holes all over his hands. He had rugby hands. But those aren't them."
DeSalvo, of Ellisville, was a spry, sandy-haired fourteen-year-old when he dove into a shallow swimming pool and broke his neck in the summer of 1989. He finished high school, went on to the University of Missouri-Rolla and became a computer programmer for Amdocs. He glided through life in an electric wheelchair and much preferred working on his beer knowledge than working off his beer belly.
Last year DeSalvo met Tucker and Morgan and, at their urging, went out for the Rams. He couldn't make it around three-quarters of the court's perimeter before stopping to catch his breath at his first practice. "It was hard," DeSalvo said two days before he died. "Everybody's doing circles around you."
Tucker recalls thinking: "Oh, boy, he's never coming back."
But by this fall, DeSalvo could complete numerous laps around the court. And after almost seventeen years in a power wheelchair, quad rugby motivated him to trade it in for a manual one. "What got me was I put wrist weights on every morning in front of my computer and just pushed and pushed," he said. "I love rugby. It's physical, it's social, and it helps your inner self."
The weekend before his death, the Rams held their annual home tournament in Sunset Hills and, to DeSalvo's surprise, Tucker put him in for several minutes during the team's biggest match against the Chicago Bears. He went home that Sunday evening, ordered a pizza with a friend and settled down to watch the other Rams St. Louis' NFL team. He didn't feel well and retired early.
Sometime later DeSalvo vomited in bed and asphyxiated. He lay in the hospital on life-support for two nights.
"After the tournament, Sunday, everybody was on such a high," Morgan said the day before DeSalvo's death on October 31. "This was not what we were expecting to hear first thing this morning. But at least he had his rugby family. There were twelve of us trying to cram our chairs into this little hospital room to be with him."
Ranging in age from nineteen to fifty, the Rams hail from as far away as Springfield, Illinois, and Columbia, Missouri, and the narratives of their accidents are eerily similar. One day they are driving, riding a dirt bike or diving into a cool, beckoning body of water. The next moment they remember comes weeks later, when they wake up in a hospital. Suddenly the back of their neck carries a scar. Beneath it is a fractured vertebra replaced with titanium. But they can't lift their arms behind their head to touch the grooved wound. Their legs are leaden.
"You get home from the hospital, and it's discouraging," says nineteen-year-old Ashley Rawie. "You're like: 'What do I do with my days now?'"
Marriages collapse; friendships dissolve.
"It's a bummer," adds Rawie, "but you learn not to sweat the small stuff. You find out really fast who your true friends are."
One place new relationships form is rehab. That's where 23-year-old Clayton Braun and 24-year-old Justin Knight met, only to learn they both dove off ski boats into the same Mississippi River sand bar a year and three days apart.
After Knight saw how Braun had taken to rugby, he decided to also go out for the Rams this past autumn. "Every time I play I get more into it, and I improve," says Knight. "My shoulder and arm strength, my endurance, skills, coordination, everything I'm getting it back. And it's helping in everyday life."
Tragedy may have forged the Rams' union, but a fierce desire to get on with a normal life is the glue that keeps them together. They share everything from personal hygiene tips to the best positions for sex. Before rugby, many of them didn't even know what, if anything, they were capable of.
"You see people like Kevin [Brown], who gets real cocky about things, and you say, 'Well, if he's doing that, I can do it, too,'" explains Mike Cooley, of Columbia. "My wife used to do everything for me. She dressed me, she fed me everything. Within one month of coming here I was doing it all for myself."
Brown, in fact, does triathlons. Mark Greeley and Larry Porter are racers. (Porter won the Berlin marathon this year.) Vito Lucido water-skis and Mike Norris snow-skis. Steve Henry, a Boeing engineer, has gone parasailing, and Paul Rickman, who has sky-dived twice, used to be an aerobatic pilot with his own Cessna 150.
"Don't call us the Special Olympics," Rickman warns. "Those are for people with mental issues. The Paralympics we're jocks."
Kerri Morgan has been a quadriplegic for 31 years. On June 12, 1975, the day after her first birthday, she ran a fever of 108 degrees and her body went rigid from the chest down. Doctors at a hospital in Long Island, New York, where Morgan was born, eventually diagnosed it as acute transverse myelitis, a rare spinal cord dysfunction that strikes 1,400 Americans a year.