February 15, 2012
Quadriplegic athletes find the intensity they crave with Methodist Rehabilitation Center's Jackson Jags quad rugby team
By Carey Miller
Health and Research News Service
Will Lamkin played both football and baseball in college before suffering a spinal cord injury in a 2008 auto accident that rendered him a quadriplegic.
At the time he had no idea his injury would lead him to a sport that would rival his collegiate pastimes as his favorite.
“When I started quad rugby, I didn’t even know it existed,” Lamkin said.
Quad rugby is a full-contact sport played in wheelchairs by quadriplegics (or other disabled persons with loss of function in at least three limbs), and is a Paralympic sport.
“It’s not the rugby you and I know,” said Ginny Boydston, director of the therapeutic recreation program at Methodist Rehabilitation Center and coach of the center’s Jackson Jags quad rugby team. “Basically they’ve taken some rules from soccer, football, basketball and maybe some hockey, and created this sport.
Lamkin, a Madison resident, was looking for an outlet for his athletic inclinations following his injury. While searching the Internet, he came across Boydston’s name and number.
“She invited me to practice and I had really no idea what to expect, but I just fell in love with it,” Lamkin said.
John Adam Long, on the other hand, knew just what to expect. He was keenly aware of quad rugby even before his 2010 auto accident that left him a quadriplegic.
The Louisville native, who was also a multi-sport college athlete in football and baseball, says the TV series Friday Night Lights, in which a paralyzed former quarterback tries out for the U.S. Paralympic Team, piqued his interest.
“I think I actually woke up in the ICU thinking about it,” Long said. “I said, ‘Well, I can play quad rugby now.’”
Lamkin and Long are the two newest additions to the Jackson Jags roster. For many like them who were active in athletics prior to their injuries, quad rugby has become an obsession.
“I might even rank it a little higher (than football),” Long said.
It provides the intense, physical experience these former athletes so crave. No wonder it’s also known as “murderball,” as some might recognize from the 2005 documentary of the same name about the sport.
“We played two games earlier this week, and I woke up Wednesday feeling like I had just played a football game,” Lamkin said.
In fact, watching the players “suit up” before a match recalls a football locker room, with straps, braces and wheelchairs standing in for helmets, shoulder pads and cleats.
“Rugby is pretty intense,” Boydston said. “All you have to do is look at the chairs we play in—the chair takes the brunt of all of the roughness.”
The mosaic of dents adorning the chairs tell the tale of the sport’s bone-jarring collisions, like a pockmarked catcher’s mitt that’s seen its share of fastballs.
But hits aren’t all rugby is about.
“It takes just as much skill as football,” Long said. “There’s a lot of strategy involved, as in any other sport.”
Even fielding a team involves strategy. Each player is assigned an official classification according to their level of function with 0.5 being the lowest and 3.5 being the highest. Each team of four is only allowed a total of 8 points on the court.
On Feb. 11, the Jags hosted a game competition at the Mississippi Basketball and Athletics Gym in Jackson, taking on three able-bodied teams to help raise awareness of the sport.
“It was a win-win for us,” Boydston said. “We travel out of state for all of our games so family and friends don’t get to see those guys play a lot.”
Boydston hopes that the event has helped to attract new players to the team, as there are only five players on their active roster. Quad rugby is played by two teams of four, but without a bench to make substitutions, it’s tough to compete in league play, or sometimes even to practice.
Though the able-bodied can’t join the team, Boydston certainly encourages and relies on their support.
John Adam’s brother Tanner Long, as well as Larry Loyd, John Adam’s brother-in-law, often play against the Jags in practice just as they did as part of the Mississippi Tobacco Free team at the Feb. 11 event.
“We practice every Tuesday,” Loyd said. “It’s fun, I ain’t going to lie. Everybody that’s ever gotten in a chair has thought it was fun.”
For the Long brothers, quad rugby keeps their sibling rivalry alive.
“John and I played every sport,” Tanner Long said. “We’ve played it all since we were about this tall.”
Mississippi Tobacco Free (or the Winston Boys, as they’re affectionately called, since they all hail from Winston County) certainly had a bit of an advantage for the Feb. 11 showdown. Being both able-bodied and experienced in the sport, they won the match. But that’s exactly what makes them an invaluable practice opponent.
“It really pushes my guys to the limit,” Boydston said. “You know, they can’t keep up with Larry, but they’re not supposed to keep up. They don’t have the function of the able-bodied guys.”
Boydston says Loyd and Tanner Long are always asking, “What can I do to play?”
“I say, well, you know, you can break your neck,” Coach Boydston joked. “We kind of kid around about that.”'
Anybody who is a quad is welcome, though, regardless of age or gender. That’s right—it’s not just a boys’ club.
The Jags have one female player, Melissa Hunter, who is coming back after an injury—“Broke her thumb, playing rugby,” Boydston said.
And while the team is sponsored by Methodist Rehab, interested players needn’t have been a patient there.“
It doesn’t matter where you live, where you’ve come from, how old you are,” Boydston said. “The only requirement is that you are a quad.”
Next up for the Jags is league play in the U.S. Quad Rugby Association’s Heartland Sectional that will be held March 16-18 in Carbondale, Illinois.
“That’s the focus right now, that’s what we strive for,” Boydston said.
Coach Ginny Boydston discusses strategy with the Jackson Jags quad rugby team which includes, from left, Jim Chaney of Vicksburg, John Adam Long of Louisville, DeJuan Surrell of Jackson and Will Lamkin of Madison.
Tanner Long, left, of the Mississippi Tobacco Free team defends against his brother John Adam Long of the Jackson Jags.
Will Lamkin of the Jackson Jags takes the ball in for a score while Coach Ginny Boydston watches from the sidelines.