In wheelchair soccer, camaraderie goes hand in hand with metal-to-metal contact

Dawson Broad had been the starting quarterback at his suburban Buffalo high school, but he hadn't played sports since 2021, when he jumped into an above-ground pool on his 23rd birthday and damaged his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.

Then last October, one of Broad's physical therapists urged him to attend a local wheelchair soccer game. Broad was skeptical. He had spent long months of arduous rehabilitation regaining use of his left arm so that he could push a wheelchair. He wondered: what would touch football on wheels actually look like?

“I always thought, ‘This could be anything,'” said Broad, 25, a chartered accountant.

The answer came at a hockey field near the Buffalo River, where the ice had been removed to reveal a shiny concrete playing surface. In an arena packed with raucous spectators, Broad watched as the Buffalo Bills wheelchair football team worked their way to a 13-6 win over Cleveland. He recalls being transfixed: a referee's whistle blew, hoops squealed and 14 chairs from players from both teams went racing as fast as the players' hands could propel them.

He was particularly fascinated by contact – the clink of metal that echoed through the arena as players collided, sending two chairs and the ball flying with the impact.

“I looked at my dad and said, ‘This is crazy!'” Broad said. “‘This could be more physical than real football.' From then on I was hooked.”

Broad joined a week later and became a member of one of the 13 teams in the USA Wheelchair Football League. The league was a way for players like Broad to reconnect — with other wheelchair-bound athletes and with a dormant part of themselves.

Most of the Bills' practices take place in a gently sloping church car park in the suburban village of Lancaster. Family members and friends stand around or rest on bumpers and lawn chairs and jostle with coolers and snacks.

Norm Page, the director of the Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports Foundation, founded the wheelchair soccer team with his son Adam in 2021. Born with spina bifida, Adam decided to try soccer after winning three Paralympic gold medals in sled hockey for Team USA

Buffalo, with its abundance of hockey rinks and football-obsessed population, seemed like a natural fit for a new team – one that has carved out a unique identity in the league.

Basketball remains the most popular wheelchair sport, and most soccer teams recruit players from programs where players have honed superior chair skills – speed and nimble maneuvering.

Buffalo does not have an adult wheelchair basketball team. Instead, many players on the football team come from sled hockey backgrounds and have a penchant for the sport's metal-on-metal contact.

For wheelchair athletes, however, the danger of football poses a completely different risk. For wheelchair users, tipping over can pose a significant problem, since getting up usually requires help. It can be a demoralizing and isolating blow to their independence.

Last season Connor Gow, who plays safety, dislocated his elbow in training when his chair tilted backwards and he reached out to break his fall, breaking a bone in the process. Gow has been in a wheelchair since his spinal cord injury seven years ago and the dislocated elbow limited his mobility for a few months.

“I needed my dad, my parents, and anyone who could help me get in the car and on the couch or bed,” he said.

“All that falling is the biggest obstacle for me mentally,” said Colton Baker-Durst, a bearded freshman who joined the team last April after trying out wheelchair football at an exhibition.

Baker-Durst, 28, overcame a series of problems to take the field. Sport had never been a part of his life. He was difficult to manage as a teenager, he said, dropping out of high school and ending up at a center for troubled teenagers in central New York, more than two hours from home.

A year later, he returned to his hometown of Lockport, about 40 minutes north of Buffalo, and his behavior took a turn for the worse. “I went out into the streets and sold drugs,” he said. “I've been doing it for a long time. I thought I'd make it all the way to the top.” Instead, on the night of November 24, 2014, a rival shot him four times in the back, paralyzing him below the chest. Baker-Durst was 20 and had a one-year-old son, Camryn.

Baker-Durst spent 11 months in the hospital. He cried a lot.

“One of the hardest things about having a disability like that is being able to accept it,” he said. “You hold on to being able to walk. You keep all the old things you could do – run around and swim. You hold onto it so tightly – it keeps re-infecting you. It's so hard to accept that this is the new way of life.”

Lack of access, resources, and motivation can isolate people with limited mobility, which can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes. Move United, the nation's largest network of customized sports providers, found in a study from 2009 that only 30 percent of disabled people reported being physically active.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the obesity rate is a third higher among people with disabilities. The rate of heart disease is three times as high, with diabetes even twice as high.

When it comes to soccer, Baker-Durst gets out of the house twice a week, meets with people in similar situations, and hopes to lose weight while working out.

“Who he is now and where he's been — he's worked really hard,” said his mother, Lisa Baker.

At 48, Carrie Frank is the oldest member of the wheelchair soccer team and the only woman. Her teammates call her the team mom.

One of the Bills' four military veterans, Frank frequently plays center. She recently adorned her helmet with a mirrored visor featuring an American flag, replacing her signature sunglasses.

Captain of a veteran sled hockey team, Frank grew up playing tackle football and baseball. She spent eight years active duty in the Army in a logistics unit, operating heavy machinery and offloading ships, planes, and trains. The work took a toll on her body.

After one of eleven surgeries, she suffered a stroke. Frank could no longer lift the 50 pounds she needed to continue her career as an occupational therapy assistant.

She was also unable to walk, which affected her ability to exercise. Depressed, she said, she tried to take her own life.

“If you can't do a sport standing up, it boggles the mind,” she said.

Wheelchair soccer has reconnected her with the camaraderie of her former military experience.

“I love the camaraderie, the team spirit, the ability to rely on others – just like in the military,” Frank said.

The first tournament Buffalo competed in in its inaugural 2021 season was in Phoenix. The team's opening opponent: Los Angeles, the best team in the league. The players were not ready.

“We line up and we get the kickoff and we take off and these guys that came down destroyed our chairs,” Buffalo head coach Tim Wade said. Collisions destroyed the frames of four chairs and Wade called a time-out.

Someone found a hammer and they took turns banging the chairs back into shape.

When play finally resumed, the Bills lined up at the line of scrimmage as usual. But in wheelchair soccer, as Wade quickly learned, receivers don't line up on the ball.

Wade, a former high school football coach, was persuaded by his sons Eddie, 38, and Andy, 34, both assistants, to take over the wheelchair football team. Neither of them had used a wheelchair or watched wheelchair football.

Members of the Kansas City team who observed the Wades' formation error explained that it's easy for defenders to jam receivers at the line when coming out of a deadlock. As such, most line up behind the ball to gain some momentum and open up.

There were other small differences as well. Wheelchair soccer is a seven-a-side format played on a field 77 feet long and 22 feet wide. There are first-down markers every 15 yards that do not move in relation to the placement of the ball, and games are played in four 15-minute quarters with a running game clock and a 40-second game clock.

In that first game, Buffalo failed to get a touchdown and lost by more than 50 points. That night, the Wades dropped their runs and developed an all-new offense. Buffalo didn't win but did at least score a touchdown in a game later in the tournament.

“It opened my eyes to a whole world,” said Eddie Wade. “I see what these people are doing — it gives me a reason to look at my life differently.”

The facilities are also improving. This season, Buffalo has a fleet of athletic chairs costing $5,000 each, paid for by the owner of a local car dealership, one of the team's sponsors. The new chairs are lighter, more maneuverable and more stable than the ones players use every day.

The regular season consists of four tournaments, with the first taking place in Chicago in mid-August and culminating in Las Vegas in late October. The top teams qualify for a championship held during Super Bowl week in the game's host city. In preparation, Buffalo traveled to a hockey rink at the Cleveland Heights Community Center earlier this month for a scrimmage.

Players were responsible for traveling to Cleveland themselves, but Move United provides grants funded by the NFL and other charities for team travel to tournaments. Getting the players and their wheelchairs onto planes and to the hotels where the teams are staying can be a huge undertaking.

In Cleveland, whistles from officials and shouts from coaches on the sidelines increased the intensity of the battle far beyond drills in the church parking lot near Buffalo.

The Bills' offense hinges on passing attack led by quarterback Dave Cross, a burly but taciturn Army veteran and a transfemoral amputee. Cross gave Buffalo a 6-0 lead when he dodged a pass rush on the third down and shot the ball to Adam Page in the end zone.

On the point-after attempt (there are no kicks in wheelchair football), Cross threw an arcing ball into the corner of the end zone. Matt Daniels, an Army combat veteran who sports a thick auburn beard and a tattoo mural on his muscular arms, turned to reach over a defender, caught the pass as it was hit and held the ball, as it clattered to the concrete.

Broad made his debut in the second half. As Buffalo beat Cleveland 7-6, he entered the game to the cheers of his parents, girlfriend and five friends, who made the three-hour drive to watch.

“It was nerve-wracking because we were up there and I didn't want to be the one screwing up and giving them a touchdown or whatever,” Broad said.

As a middle linebacker, he interrupted a pass intended for a Cleveland receiver. After the game, a 19-6 win, Broad said he's looking forward to his first catch, tackle or interception in upcoming tournaments when games count. And for another football milestone.

“I joke and say, ‘I want to get kicked out of my wheelchair,' because I didn't,” Broad said.

Surrounded by teammates, he is not afraid of being knocked down.

“Someone will be there to pick us up again,” he said.

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