The Tampa Bay region hosted the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in July 2013. It will be home to the “Frozen Four” in 2016 — and college football’s “championship game” in 2017.
But this weekend, it’s hosting the 22nd Annual Tampa International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament featuring teams from Germany, Brazil, and throughout the U.S. including the Tampa Generals.
Several members of the Tampa Generals Wheelchair Rugby Team are military veterans such as Ryan Lindstrom, nicknamed Bully for the tuft of white hair that looks like a bull’s-eye in his brownish crop of locks.
Lindstrom was in the Navy training to work on Tomahawk missiles when a car accident landed him in a wheelchair. But, that began his love quad rugby.
“I still had my neck brace on – watching them go up and down the court at a Tampa tournament 10 years ago – and I was ‘Oh yeah! I’m playing this’,” Lindstrom said at the team practice earlier this week. “Because the contact, it makes you feel like, you’re still an athlete. I know guys that play able body rugby and look at it and go I’m not playing that.”
Wheelchair rugby is a hybrid with all the strategy of basketball, the scoring system of rugby, the speed of ice hockey and the danger of a demolition derby.
Lindstrom needed nine stitches above his right eye after one fall. Another time, he almost lost his left finger after it got caught between two colliding wheelchairs. But that physical roughness is exactly what attracts many of the players.
Chuck Wood used to play football and was an active scuba diver before a motorcycle accident made him a paraplegic.
“To get in a wheelchair and to find a sport that you can still be aggressive at and have contact, it’s such a good outlet for people in chairs to realize there are still things you can do,” Wood said. “Just because you’re in a chair don’t mean you have to stop living.”
Wood is part of the Tampa Generals’ support staff. He works on equipment and plays on the practice squad. He is too “high functioning” to be on the team because the athletes must be quads – have some disability in all four limbs.
But they are athletes make no mistake. They prepare and practice like any athlete.
To make the game more even each player is given a classification number of 1 through 5. The total for the four rugby players on the court cannot exceed 8.
The classification number is knocked down a half point for female players like Briona Keeshan. She called herself a “low-pointer.”
“As a low pointer, you have to, if you’re running a play and someone on your team is trying to score, you have to get in the way of the other players and try to stop them,” Keeshan said. “Like in football, you have tackling but here you just stop them with your chair.”
The 20-year-old is in her second season with the Tampa Generals. This is also the second season for Leevi Ylönen a “high-pointer” and one of the fastest on the court.
“I’m a high pointer that means I’ve got lots of function and I’ll be dealing with the ball that’s my job. So, I need to be speedy,” Ylönen said.
The Tampa Generals recruited Ylönen who plays on the Finnish National Team. Just like back in 1996 when the Tampa Generals recruited Dave Ceruti while he was member of the U.S. National team.
“They (Tampa Generals) were the first super power team in the sport where they just dominated,” Ceruti said. “Back then, the Tampa Generals were the gold standard of rugby.”
Ceruti, who goes by Rudy, became a player, then a player-coach, coach and now serves as assistant coach for the Generals. He said the team slipped in its standings a few years back while it was developing a local player base, but the Generals are climbing back to their former dominance.
And the international tournament is part of the team’s path back to the top of the standings.
The tournament is free and open to the public and Ceruti said it’s a fun game for the general public to watch, but with one caveat.
“Most people look at it as a human interest story – like a feel good story – like it’s good that you’re out there and if you want to feel that way fine,” Certuti said. “But that’s not why we’re doing it. We are doing it to win.”
You can listen to a radio story about the Tampa Generals on WUSF Public Radio and watch a practice video of the team below: