Brooks Best has come a long way since his first wheelchair rugby game, when a more experienced player told him to get off the court.
The 25-year-old couldn’t keep up.
“I probably looked winded; it was my first time,” Best said. He was just out of rehab, after flipping his truck and breaking two vertebrae in his spine.
But he got stronger and came back.
“I figured I wasn’t gonna let that stop me,” he said, “and I’m glad I did. It made all the difference.”
Today, wheeling his tricked-out chair with his arms – his finger function’s mostly gone – the Goldsboro resident lasts a whole game.
He just got hand controls on his Toyota Sienna so he can drive on his own. And he’s studying to be a recreational therapist, specializing in adaptive sports to help quadriplegics like himself.
“Rugby has changed so much in my life,” he said.
Best and his teammates on the Raleigh Sidewinders played a showcase match last weekend in Durham. The black-shirted Sidewinders played a red-shirted able-bodied squad to raise money for Vets to Vets United, a local nonprofit that partners rescued animals with veterans who have emotional and physical disabilities.
The Sidewinders got started a couple of years after the film “Murderball” came out. The documentary told the story of the rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian wheelchair rugby teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the Academy Awards.
In quad rugby, as it’s called in the United States, players must be impaired in all four limbs, with each player rated 0.5 to 3.5 points based on ability. Each team puts four players on the floor, with a team allowed up to 8 points.
A match consists of 8-minute quarters, but games typically last about 90 minutes because the clock stops after each goal and whenever the ball leaves the court.
Not that that slows the action down.
“Honestly you forget,” said Debbie Myers, team manager and chairwoman of the N.C. Spinal Cord Association, who attended the match at the Emily K Center. “You don’t even think of them as disabled.”
The athletes play offense or defense, with wheelchairs built to charge or block. “Low-pointers” like Best play defense, hooking opponents with “pickers” on the front of their chairs that snare the other player’s chair.
“My main job is to get them to pass the ball,” which some players have enough arm strength to do, he said. “The game is essentially a game of turning.”
The wheelchairs, with their battered metal skeletons, look like something out of a “Mad Max” movie.
Chairs like Best’s custom-built Melrose Rhino run $4,000 or more. The Spinal Cord Association holds fundraisers, and some players apply for grants to help pay for them.
The play was intense at the showcase as the Sidewinders competed against able-bodied friends and family members. Fathers faced sons. Brothers faced brothers.
Like Best and his stepbrother Aaron Ward, 12.
The two became brothers when Best’s father remarried after his son’s accident. “He’s only known me in the chair,” Best said.
There’s a big age difference, but it melts away on the court. After the red shirts drive the ball across the goal line, Ward looks at Best, wheelchair to wheelchair, and breaks into a big, open-mouth smile.
“It took a couple of practices,” the seventh-grader said. “I enjoy it a lot.”
And the kid can give as much as he takes, the sound of colliding chairs echoing in the gym with a dull thud.
Asked how his older brother likes playing against him, Ward jokes: “It’s good. I think he’s used to getting beat by me.”
Each year 12,000 people in the United States suffer spinal cord injuries. Most are 16 to 30 years old, and the majority are men, according to the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta where Ward went after his accident in 2011.
The higher on the cord the injury, the more the dysfunction. Injuries above the C4 level may require a ventilator for the person to breathe. Damage to the C6 vertebrae like Best’s typically paralyzes the hands, trunk and legs.
Best says he’s tried to encourage other quads – the players use the word and say it’s not offensive – to play wheelchair rugby. But it can be a hard sell.
“If they only knew the power of the sport to change people’s lives,” Best said. “I get exercise. I get that endorphin high. It’s so intrinsically rewarding to go out there and compete.”
Myers, who is paraplegic and has practiced with the squad, says she has seen the difference rugby can make to someone in despair.
“I had a father call two years ago to thank me for this sport,” she said. “He said, ‘You saved my son’s life. We thought we were going to lose him.’”
Best says he stays optimistic, whether or not medical research helps him walk again. After community college he plans to enroll in the University of Mt. Olive.
And he’ll keep playing rugby, even anticipating the day an opponent knocks his chair to the ground, sort of a rite of passage. It’s a contact sport, he says, and he doesn’t worry about it.
Ward says he doesn’t worry about his big brother either.
“He can take care of himself,” he said.