A little more than five years ago, Ryan Henderson was nearing the peak of the sport he loved the most. He had won his race the night before, and he was just a day away from turning professional in motorcycle racing.
But Henderson would never earn the professional status he coveted. Racing along the Seaford, Del., track's dirt surface, Henderson caught his foot in a hole and was ripped away from his bike. The fall broke his neck and back, paralyzing him from the chest down. He spent the next month in the hospital, and he said it took him four years of rehab to "rebuild myself."
Five years after that life-changing injury, though, Henderson is again at the peak of a sport he loves. Only this time, he's not racing a motorcycle around a track. Instead, he's pushing his wheelchair up and down the court, playing as a member of the Maryland Ravens, the No. 1 team in the most recent National Wheelchair Basketball Association Division III rankings.
"That was kind of my sport. I was looking for something to take the place of it," said Henderson, whose Ravens will play against the NRH Ambassadors at the Leadership Through Athletics gymnasium in Lansdowne tonight. "I still needed some kind of adrenaline rush."
Henderson found that rush in a place he may not have ever expected. The 26-year-old mechanical engineering major at UMBC mainly played soccer and basketball as a child, and other than the occasional pickup game, he didn't play much basketball after middle school.
But he picked the game back up again about two years ago, at the tail end of his rehabilitation. A veteran member of the Maryland Ravens saw Henderson playing at a local clinic and liked what he saw, inviting him to join the team for practice.
"I had to relearn the game, but I also had to relearn everything — from the ground up — about balance," Henderson said. "I didn't really have any stepping stones. I basically had to just jump right in and try it."
The Ravens have been around since the early 1970s, and coach Eddie Diggs has been running the team since 1984. And even though his guys are in wheelchairs, Diggs said the game is just as fast-paced and intense as traditional basketball.
This year's team has 10 players, seven of whom are in wheelchairs because of birth defects.
And as an organization built around the idea of offering opportunities to disabled persons in order to build "self-esteem, self-confidence, and independence," the Ravens seemed a perfect fit for Henderson, who was looking for something to take the place of motorcycle riding in his life.
The Ravens needed him, too.
While Henderson was rebuilding himself, Diggs was rebuilding his team. They won the NWBA Division III national tournament in 2006, but they haven't been able to duplicate that success.
"We lost a lot of players. Guys retire or move on from the game. But we've gotten a lot of young players," Diggs said. "The team's chemistry is developing and our skill level is really improving."
Only four people remain from the 2006 title squad, but the younger players the team has added in recent seasons — most of whom are in their early to mid-20s like Henderson, Diggs said — have keyed their rise back to the top of the polls.
"The No. 1 ranking is well-deserved. We've worked extremely hard to rebuild the team since we won the 2006 national championship," said Diggs of his team's 9-0 start this season. "We did OK last year — we finished 23-8 — but we're off to a great start this season."
For Henderson, it's been a long journey to this point. He continued racing motorcycles after his injury in 2007, riding special bikes made for amputees and paralyzed people. He said he liked the idea of being a small celebrity, even if he was only known to people close to him.
But he took another nasty fall competing in the Extremity Games in Michigan a few years back, reinjuring his back by putting his body in a place where it could no longer handle the rigors of the sport.
"I had all the doctors come to visit me," Henderson said. "Because they had never seen a [paraplegic] break his back again."
He still rides, but it's only for fun now.
And what if feels the urge to compete, the desire to feel that bit of celebrity again? He has the Maryland Ravens for that.
"It was like finding a new family," Henderson said. "I've found my place."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun