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Tampa Becomes Training Ground For 'Murderball' Elite

Jan 20, 2018

Players of the sport known as "murderball" came from around the world to Tampa this weekend for an international tournament.

Its intimidating nickname reflects the intensity of the sport popular among athletes who use wheelchairs. The tournament, hosted by the Tampa club, drew 10 teams from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

While the sport was renamed wheelchair rugby in the 1980's to attract more players and fans, it is every bit a brutal as its original name suggests, said Joseph Soares, coach of the Tampa Generals team and a Paralympic gold medalist.

"When able bodies play our sport, they get killed because they're not used to it," Soares said of the game played on a basketball court. "We make it look easy."

Athletes sit in wheelchairs that what look like aluminum chariots, each one custom designed for the athlete and their position. Team fields four players, who try to carry and pass a modified volleyball across an end zone without being rammed into or jammed up.

Wheelchair rugby isn't really much like rugby. It draws its dribbling rules from basketball and players who receive a penalty must sit in a penalty box like in hockey.

The only thing that really resembles rugby is the full-contact nature of the sport.

Justin Stark has played for the Tampa Generals team since 1989 and helped organize the tournament.

Paralyzed in a shooting at the age of 10, Stark said he always wanted to play wheelchair sports and finally tried out wheelchair rugby when he was in college.

"Rugby is the one thing that gave me confidence, it helped me develop as an individual just as someone living with a disability," he said.

Stark is not alone. Teammate Michael Monthervil said the sport also helped him stay active after he was injured during his military service in the Middle East.

"Three years ago, I was really weak, I wasn’t getting out much and I said 'Hey this sport really gets guys in a wheel chair out and playing a hard sport,’ " Monthervil said.

But make no mistake, many players said this isn’t a feel good game. Stark said two players from the U.S. Paralympic team broke their hands at the Tampa tournament in 2017.

And athletes said the stakes for many players are very high. . For the few players who are paid, they have their livelihoods on the line. For others – including those selected for the U.S. Paralympic team – it’s about pride. 

Many teams competing in the Tampa tournament were using it as training for a chance at being on the national team at the Paralympic Games. For the Tampa Generals, players said hosting the international tournament was just the beginning of their quest for the national championship in April.