The hot seat

Jul 27, 2005 at 12:00 am

A handful of people in wheelchairs have converged in the parking lot of the Main Art Theatre, amid the hustle and bustle of downtown Royal Oak. The curious have gathered on the perimeter of the lot, craning their necks with quizzical looks.

It’s an odd sight, for sure: These aren’t your everyday wheelchairs. The wheels are slanted, closer at the top, wider at the bottom. The spokes are covered by a formidable metal plate, impressively dented and scarred. Some chairs are equipped with bars that front the footrests like a makeshift battering ram.

With a mighty shout, one man tosses a raggedy volleyball — and all hell breaks loose. In a blur of metal and flesh, several chairs collide with jaw-rattling force. Then they crash again. And again, each time with an even bigger smash. Three players collide with such force that onlookers collectively gasp. Then one player is bashed so hard a wheel flies off of his chair.

All of this, believe it or not, is fairly tame for a game of quadriplegic rugby.

The release of the gripping new documentary Murderball has rocketed this once-obscure sport to pop culture fame, despite the fact that it’s been around since the late ’70s. Drawing from other wheelchair sports, the game was originally dubbed “murderball” due to its highly aggressive and violent play. When it was brought to the United States in the early ’80s, the name was changed to the less intimidating (and more marketable) “quadriplegic rugby,” or quad rugby. It bears little resemblance to the conventional version of the game, with one exception — both are hard-fought, full-contact sports.

Go ahead, ask: How can quadriplegics play rugby if they’re paralyzed from the neck down?

When most people think of quadriplegics, they think of cases such as Christopher Reeve, but there are many and varying degrees of injury. By the definition, a quadriplegic has some loss of function in all four limbs, not necessarily complete paralysis. The level of function depends on what part of the person’s spinal cord was injured; the higher up, the more extensive the paralysis.

And because there are so many different levels of function among quads, quad rugby has a clever way of leveling the playing field. Players are ranked on a scale of .5 to 3.5, depending on their level of movement — .5 for the least mobile, 3.5 for the most. There are four members on a team, and their collective point value cannot exceed 8 points.

The game is played on a basketball court, with goals on each end. The aim is to get the ball past the goal, while the opposing team does everything in their power to bash the living shit out of you. Defense is usually played by low-point players, who have less mobility but are able to physically block the offensive players, who have a higher point value. Sometimes those in the 2-point range switch between offense and defense.

Then there are the chairs, custom made for more than $3,000. Because of the abuse a chair takes in just one game, players must replace them every three or four years.

The Great Lakes Storm is Michigan’s only quad rugby team. Based in Saginaw, it started in Detroit in the late ’80s, under the umbrella of Michigan Sports Unlimited, an organization promoting athletics for people with physical disabilities. The current roster of 12 players are from all over, as far north as Bay City and all the way south to Ann Arbor. They practice once a week in either Saginaw or Flint, and attend tournaments across the country. Last week’s demo game was staged to promote the release of Murderball (read the Metro Times review in the Cinema section), at the Main Art Theatre.

Team member Dave Mengyn recalls the first time he saw a live game of quad rugby.

“I thought it was nuts,” he says. “You see guys who can’t get themselves off of the floor, and here they’re getting smashed and thrown [over in] their chairs. I thought it was out of control. I still do, and it’s great.”

Mengyn was injured in a car accident 14 years ago. He ranks as a 3.5, and has been part of the team for three years.

For the Royal Oak demo, the team was one member short, so Mengyn’s able-bodied brother, Michael, hopped in a chair to help out and give the game a whirl. He was the guy who had his wheel knocked off.

“I don’t think people can fathom it until they see it,” Dave Mengyn says. “Even people who came to the demo didn’t expect to see us hitting each other with full force. It’s cool to see that people can be shocked by what’s going on, but then accept it as just another sport.”

Team captain Brian Sheridan has been with the Storm for six years. He was an avid athlete until he broke his neck performing a back flip in gymnastics at 18.

“I had pushed athletics aside to focus on my degree and my personal life,” Sheridan says. “I thought I had it all figured out — until I started playing rugby. I didn’t realize that you could still experience that feeling of competition and adrenaline and the ultimate feeling of success.”

In addition to the physical and psychological benefits, there’s a crucial third element: fun.

“We do have an initiation ritual when we’re on the road,” Mengyn says. “The newer person gets pushed off the bed and we take apart their chair and spread the parts around the room. We wrestle all the time, exchanging punches. We’re just guys throwing our testosterone around.”

But it’s not totally a boys’ club — the Storm has one female player, the shy but determined Anita Buntea.

“She has no mercy, and she doesn’t expect it from anyone,” Mengyn says. “She’s an asset to us, because when we’re playing other teams and they underestimate her, that means a few extra points for us.”

Sheridan says that “after such a traumatic injury, wheelchair sports can reveal a whole new side of life in a wheelchair. It can show you that you can still accomplish just about anything. Wheelchair rugby, who would have thought? But it works.

“I can honestly tell you the best days of my life have been since [I was injured]. My life has been wonderful. I can’t complain about a damn thing.”


Visit the team’s Web site at

Sarah Klein is the culture editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]