Murderball, Oakland Style

Wheelchairs and Second Chances Collide at Poplar Center

Chris Cooke reaches down, gives the ball a bounce, and using only his wrist, flicks it into his lap. “Go, go!” he yells. Katie Braznell, her dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, sprints for the goal line. She looks over her right shoulder, receives the pass, scores. Braznell spins her wheelchair 90 degrees, and high-fives her boyfriend, Scott Pope. They roll back up the court together.

“When I drive up the middle, think corner!” instructs Nils Jorgensen to his teammates as he races Braznell for a long pass. He beats her to it, scoops the ball from the floor with his right hand and madly pushes his chair with his left. Jonathan Newman moves swiftly to intercept him. SMASH! The squeaking of rubber tires on a polished floor and the clicking of metal on metal fill the room. Both men grapple for the ball, but Jorgensen retains possession and gets the pass off to Pope waiting in the corner. Pass. Roll. Score.

Someone calls a time out. Seven tired players wheel themselves off the court, remove gloves and snatch up water bottles. The rulebook says eight players, four per side, but one player is sick tonight, so everyone makes do. It’s a pick-up league anyway, so things are pretty relaxed. And good-spirited. Longtime friends and teammates, Jorgensen and Cooke keep up a constant patter of good-natured ribbing, while helping other players adjust their chairs. Newman bends down to fiddle with a wheel. “Court space is hard to come by around here,” he says of the team’s struggle to find a place to play. Newman, who is able-bodied, works as a sports coordinator for BORP, or Bay Area Outdoor Recreation Program, and helped Cooke find the West Oakland gym. “It costs money, but Ray, the manager, has been really cool to us.” So every Monday at 6 p.m., the Poplar Center’s basketball court empties of regulars shooting hoops and gives way to wheelchair rugby.

Known to many as "murderball," wheelchair rugby is a hard-hitting (literally) fast-paced sport played by people who have some impairment of their upper and lower extremities due to disease or injury. As for the game, think ice hockey played on a basketball court. Now put the players in tricked-out wheelchairs, replace the sticks and puck with a soccer ball, and you’ve got murderball. The sport was made famous all over the country in July 2005 with the release of the documentary film Murderball. The movie brought the world of competitive wheelchair rugby, and more importantly, what life is like in a chair, to a mass audience.

The film also ignited interest among disabled people looking for a challenge and renewed passions among the game’s veterans. Last fall, 43-year-old Cooke, a middle school English and journalism teacher from Walnut Creek, decided to come out of retirement from playing with the Bay Area’s only nationally ranked team to form a new team in West Oakland. Cooke hopes to create an over-40 league in California that competes recreationally but also mentors people who aspire to play at the national and international levels.

“I already missed the sport after being retired for two years,” says Cooke, who was named to the sport’s Hall of Fame in 2004. “When I saw the movie, I thought to myself, why am I not doing this?”

Back on the court, Cooke pauses play while Braznell, who is able-bodied, helps adjust Pope’s rugby strap, a weight belt with a Velcro closure that secures players to their chair. Her hands are clumsy and unsure. Wheelchair rugby is still new to the young couple. In fact, a lot of things are. Pope’s spinal cord was severed about a year ago when he was hit by a car riding his bike home from work.

“I was through the windshield before the driver saw me,” says Pope, recalling the accident. A drummer in rock bands before his accident, Pope, with Braznell’s help, is learning how to put life back together again. For now, Pope gets by with the help of a caregiver during the week, and his girlfriend’s assistance at night and on the weekends, but his goal is to become as independent as possible. Wheelchair rugby, he hopes, is one more step in that direction. Pope first heard about the sport after seeing Murderball at the Marin Center for Independent Living, where he goes for classes and counseling. “Chris Cooke came to speak after the film and encouraged me and some others to give wheelchair rugby a try,” he says. At 38, Pope hopes to play at a competitive level. “Eventually I want to get my own rugby chair,” he says. That may have to wait, because specialized rugby chairs can cost $2,000 to $3,000.

Having able-bodied people like Braznell and Newman around can have its advantages. “I’m totally open to having able-bodied people play with us,” Cooke says. “Also, I think it’s good to teach people what it’s like to be competitive in a chair,” he says. His first priority, though, is involving disabled who would not be able to participate otherwise. “Bottom line, as long as we have the chairs to spare, the more the better.”

Halftime over and back on the court, Cooke, who uses his wrists to turn his wheels, tries a block on Newman, but loses his balance and starts tipping backward. His “wheelie bar,” a thin metal arm tipped with a small wheel that extends out from the back of the chair, prevents him from flipping backward. “That’s when we say something along the lines of, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? He breaks his neck?’ ” Jorgensen says smiling.

Cooke is one of the few wheelchair rugby players whose original injury came from playing able-bodied rugby. A talented freshman at UC Davis in 1980, Cooke was playing in a varsity rugby match when the “scrum,” a tightly packed human formation designed to restart play, collapsed. Because of his position in the scrum, Cooke was the first to hit the ground; his neck bore the weight of the 10 men who fell on top of him. He suffered a spinal cord injury between C5 and C6 vertebrae that left him unable to walk, with limited use of his hands and arms. Despite his injury, Cooke still wanted to stay active. “The yearning to play sports never left me,” Cooke says. “I just needed a means to compete.”

Jorgensen knows what it’s like to compete; he’s been doing it all his life. Born a quadriplegic following a breech birth, Jorgensen excelled at wheelchair track in the ’70s and ’80s, competing on an international level. Known for his speed on the court, he played competitive wheelchair rugby for his hometown of Boston before being recruited by a California team.

“I’m wide open, Chris!” Jorgensen shouts in a deep baritone voice, trying to help his friend who’s being double-teamed by Pope and Newman. Cooke pump fakes the ball in one direction and quickly changes to bounce-pass the ball to Jorgensen who crashes the corner for a goal. He beams and punches a fist into the air. “Yes!” Game over. Score: 10 to 5.

“I wish Bonnie were here,” says Cooke peeling off the orange gardener’s mitt he’s using as a glove. That would be Bonnie Lewkowicz, the petite powerhouse who started it all here in the East Bay. She recruited Cooke to play wheelchair rugby in 1988 after starting the Bay Area’s first competitive team, the Quadzillas, in Berkeley. Lewkowicz broke her neck when she was 15 after a six-wheeled dune buggy flipped over, crushing her. An avid dancer before her accident, Lewkowicz discovered wheelchair sports in college. While an intern with BORP, she organized and recruited players for the Quadzillas. “My focus was on getting more women to play,” says Lewkowicz. These days, she spends more time dancing with the company she helped found, AXIS, than playing wheelchair rugby. “Wheelchair rugby has always been co-ed,” she says, “but you’d never know it,” referring to the lack of women playing on the national level. As a result of Lewkowicz’s work, five women played on the Quadzillas team, including a female coach. Within three years, the team had become national champions.

In 1997, Quadzillas disbanded after losing a key sponsor. Some team members like Jorgensen and Lewkowicz decided to retire, while others like Cooke went on to play in the newly formed San Jose team, California Quake. Since then, the East Bay has been without a competitive or recreational wheelchair rugby team—until now.

When he’s not on the court, Pope trains in his everyday chair on the hills near his home. “It makes me feel really grateful and lucky,” says Pope of the mentoring he receives from Cooke and Jorgensen.

Rolling out to his car, a forest green Dodge Caravan with an automatic ramp, Cooke admits the chances of a competitive team coming out of the East Bay are slim. “It would take a lot of commitment from people. We’d need money for a coach, more gym time and a sponsor for travel and equipment. It’s not easy to pull all that together.” Right now the team is running primarily on the energy of Cooke and Newman, but more is needed to sustain an expanded program. “There’s a lot of us out there,” Cooke says, referring to wheelchair rugby players who are no longer competing at a national level and novices. “Personally, I just want a place where I can go push once a week, get a good cardio workout and have fun,” says Cooke. “But for people like Scott, who’s got a fresh injury and is facing a whole new world, it’s the perfect outlet.”

Shouts of “goodnight!” and “good game!” float out onto the darkened street, as players turn their wheels toward home.

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