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Murderball: Love at first hit

PROVO, Utah — It took just one hit and he was hooked.It felt so good.Josh Wheeler always liked getting hit. He always liked physical competition.But he had been nervous for this one. It had been a while since he really felt the shock of an intense impact."I took the first hit," Wheeler said. "I fell in love with the first hit."That first hit was the jarring metal bang accompanying a collision between two, heavy-duty murderball wheelchairs. Nearly three years after a car accident took away the use of his legs, Wheeler is now one of the top murderball — or wheelchair rugby — players in the United States.In May, he traveled to Birmingham, Ala., to try out for "Team USQRA" — the U.S. Quad Rugby Association's developmental national team. He made it after playing the sport for just two seasons.Rewind three years and a 6-foot-1, dark-haired Wheeler was as healthy as they come.He ran. He rode his mountain bike. He played football. He shot hoops.That all changed in 2006. A driver didn't see Wheeler's motorcycle when she turned in front of him on State Street in American Fork.He almost didn't make it. His neck was broken, and he was out cold for about a week.After waking up, Wheeler learned he'd lost the function of his lower body and part of the function of his right arm and hand."It was definitely a change," he said. "I woke up and I wasn't able to move much."He needed help sitting up, getting into a wheelchair and being pushed around. He needed help for everything.He'd gotten so thin, he said, that he could even wrap his hand all the way around his one of his biceps.Over the next several months, as he struggled through recovery and extensive physical therapy, Wheeler managed to stay positive.It was just another challenge, he told himself. Being completely independent was something to shoot for, something to achieve.But it was by no means easy, even for someone with such an optimistic outlook on life."I had really hard days sometimes," Wheeler said, "and there were times where it was just tough. And I wouldn't have blamed anybody else if I had seen somebody else go through this same thing and get depressed from it. ... But that's not my attitude. That's not my style. I was pretty optimistic through most of it."A little more than a year after the accident, Wheeler was invited to strap into a wheelchair and give murderball a try.After such a serious spinal cord injury, it was nerve-racking waiting for the first impact to come, he said. He wondered if it would hurt.The collision came, and the chair took most of the impact.Since then, it's been hard to keep him out of his custom-made, $5,000 chair."Wheelchair rugby is a very aggressive sport by nature," said Tim Daynes, who coaches the Utah Scorpions murderball team. "It seems to attract a lot of the football-player types."__IMAGE2__Quad rugby players all have limited function levels due to some sort of spinal cord injury or any number of conditions or diseases such as muscular dystrophy, spinal bifida or cerebral palsy. Athletes involved in life-altering and function-limiting experiences need the competition and the physicality that murderball provides, Daynes said.After such an accident, the coach said, "Where do you think they want to go? They want to go back to a little bit of what they had before. (Murderball) gives them that."Because Wheeler loved sports so much, he needed to compete. He had tried wheelchair basketball, but he didn't have the trunk muscles to play very well, he said."I was big into sports before," Wheeler said. "When I started playing this, it was nice because I was actually able to do something, and I was able to excel at it."In his first season with the Scorpions, Wheeler had a lot to learn, Daynes said. But he was athletic and he had endurance. After spending that rookie year learning the ropes, Wheeler became a starter on the Scorpions this past season. "That was my rookie season, and I wasn't very good," Wheeler said, "I improved a lot that season, and then I worked hard over the summer to get in shape.""He's evolved into a fine, young athlete," Daynes said.One of the fastest, most functional players on the court, Wheeler is rated as a class 3.5 — a designation for players with the most physical function. Each murderball team is only allowed a maximum total of 8.0 class points on the floor at a time. A team might field a lineup of a 3.5, two 2.0s and a 0.5 on the floor to round out their 8.0. Even on the national team or in international play, teams can only play with 8.0 points."I've seen some guys that are class 2.0s that are better than some guys that are class 3.5," Daynes said. "It really comes down to athleticism and how hard they want to work."After this past season, the coach of the national team, who had seen Wheeler play in tournaments, asked Daynes why Wheeler hadn't been nominated to try out for Team USQRA.At the tryout, Wheeler showed how far he's come in three years, earning himself a spot on the roster.But his athletic aspirations don't stop there. He's set his sights on the 2012 Paralympic Games in London."But this is where it starts," Wheeler said.He'll be part of the U.S. developmental team for two years, traveling to tournaments in the U.S., India and Brazil, before trying out for the U.S. Paralympic team.Wheeler also has come a long way in his life off the court. He lives in an apartment by himself in Provo. He attends classes at BYU, where the former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is studying to become an LDS Seminary teacher. He works at Costco and drives himself around in a converted van."It's been quite the experience learning to adapt and learning to do everything on my own," Wheeler said. "Sometimes people (give up). A lot of times, people don't."


E-mail: jdavis@desnews.com