Six years ago, in one of his first wheelchair rugby games, Chuck Aoki got a quick sense of what the sport entailed.
When Aoki went to score, a player almost twice his weight came barreling at him from the other side of the court and plowed into his chair, “He’s this big, just mountain man from Alabama, and I’m basically this little kid,” said Aoki, who was a high school student at the time. Aoki’s chair launched off the ground, and he went tumbling into the bleachers.
“My mom was screaming, ’Don’t hit my son like that ever again!,’ ” said Aoki. “It was quite the hit.”
Regardless — or perhaps because of this — Aoki was hooked. He stuck with the sport and has played on the U.S. National Team since 2009.
He also plays with the Minnesota Steelheads, who practice twice a week at the Courage Center in Golden Valley. They’ll be competing March 6-8 at the U.S. Quad Rugby Association’s Heartland Sectional at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul.
In quad rugby, called so because players must have some loss of function in upper and lower body extremities, the teams play four-on-four on a basketball court with a regulation volleyball. Though the basic game is simple — players score by crossing the goal line with the ball — it moves quickly and can involve complex offensive and defensive strategy. The fast and furious full-contact sport was the subject of the 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary “Murderball.”
“It’s a pretty high-speed game,” said Aoki, of Minneapolis. “Guys are flying around, knocked over. You kind of do cartwheels out there sometimes.”
A student teacher in a local high school, Aoki has a rare genetic condition that has left him with no feeling in his legs or in his arms from the elbows down.
“It’s all a blessing in disguise,” said Aoki, who competed in the 2012 Paralympics with Team USA, which took home a bronze medal. Afterward, he visited the White House to meet President Obama. “I actually fist bumped and blew it up with the president,” Aoki said. “It was a really cool moment of my life.”
The Minnesota Steelheads — formerly the North Stars — are the only quad rugby team in Minnesota. There are 42 teams in the nation. The Steelheads were the Division II National Champions in 2009, and now, as Division I players, have snagged second place at nationals for the last two years.
“We can’t quite get over the hump,” said Aoki. “We’re a little frustrated.”
Taking up the sport
Some of the players initially entered the sport as an alternative to physical therapy.
When Kyle Peterson, of Moose Lake, broke his neck five years ago as a teenager, he spent a couple of months doing inpatient rehab. When his doctor told him about the sport, Peterson attended a game. He intended just to watch, but the team pulled him in to play. Now in his fifth season, he drives four hours round trip from Moose Lake twice a week for practices.
“To tell you the truth, rugby was the rehab more than anything,” he said. “My life became a lot easier once I became strong enough to lift my body weight.”
Teammate Tom Cloyd, of Minneapolis, started playing quad rugby two years ago and said he also found it a better motivator than traditional therapy. His team members, he said, “shame me in the kindest way possible.”
At rehab, Peterson said, “If you fall out of your chair, people will say ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ” he said, miming a shocked person jumping up to help.
Cloyd said teammates will just laugh and say, “Get your lazy [expletive] up.”
On the court
Aoki had played wheelchair basketball since age 7 before making the switch to rugby. “I guess I like rugby because you get to hit people and it’s legal,” he said. “In wheelchair basketball, any sort of foul that moves the other person’s chair is going to be called for a foul, whereas in rugby you know, you can just…” — He smashed his chair into a teammate’s with a loud clang — “There’s hardly any chair rules.” Technically, it’s a penalty to hit someone behind the axle, though officials don’t always call it.
“It’s kind of like unnecessary roughness in football,” said Aoki. “The more dramatic it looks, they’re more likely to call it.” If someone just spins, there probably won’t be a call, but if someone launches another player, it could be a different story.
Still, said Aoki, “They don’t even call it that often.”
Also, “if you knock somebody over head on, it’s completely legal. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
“Sometimes, when people get hit they just kind of like roll over,” said Peterson, “but sometimes, when people get hit, one guy blows the other guy away.”
Peterson says some players use hits as a form of psychological warfare. “If they know they can spin the crap out of you, knock you over, they’ll do it on purpose,” he said. “That’s them getting into our heads. They’ll do it. They’ll try to get away with it.”
In the sport, players receive a classification number between 0.5 and 3.5 based on function level, not ability. In games, each team’s classifications must add up to eight points, which helps level the playing field.
That classification generally affects the role for a player. For example, Aoki, classified a 3.5 because he has fairly good trunk function and can handle the ball quickly, uses a smaller, highly maneuverable chair that can slip through players. Ken Walsh, of Shoreview, a 0.5 classification because he has no hand or trunk function, often will use a sturdier chair with a wider footprint.
“I’m more of like a blocker,” said Walsh, a former Navy airman who teaches industrial technology at a local middle school. “I’m slower. I’m not expected to take the ball from end to end.”
“The low pointers are kind of like the offensive linemen,” said Aoki. “They’re there to set picks and sort of help create mismatches and try to open up space for guys like me and Kyle and Eddie [Brosnan, of Apple Valley] to kind of work our way up.”
Walsh’s chair has a metal “picker” on the front, which gives him an extra edge. It can, he said, “ram into a tire and just blow it right out.”
Tire blowouts can be a frequent occurrence during games. Aoki said they have “a NASCAR-style pit crew,” usually family or friends, to change tires, fix a broken foot plate, or make other repairs.
You’ll notice, said Aoki, “a conspicuous absence of helmets.”
“We all have thick heads,” said Jeff Garten, of Bloomington.
“It might be a macho kind of thing,” said Aoki. “The founders of the game didn’t wear ‘em, so we’re not gonna wear ‘em. Essentially, the mind-set was … they already broke their necks … what more’s going to happen to you?”
Still, Brosnan was glad he was wearing goggles a couple of years ago when he did a face plant and broke his nose, leaving on the floor, as Peterson called it, “the perfect, like, blood smiley face.”
Brosnan simply asked his teammates if his nose was crooked and, after a few minutes, rejoined the game.
“If I had a concussion, it was very mild,” he joked. “I remember everything.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.