The sound of metal wheelchairs slamming against each other filled the Havre de Grace Parks & Recreation Activity Center gymnasium.
Members of the Maryland Mayhem quad rugby team rolled powerfully across the court, tossing a volleyball back and forth between teammates, aiming for the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers’ goal line.
Dozens of men and women — many whose spinal cord injuries have left them with limited leg and arm function — competed at Saturday’s fifth annual Maryland Crab Pot Tournament, which brought six regional wheelchair rugby teams to Harford County.
The sport combines some of the fundamentals of basketball and ice hockey, adapted to be played in specially outfitted wheelchairs. Players on Maryland’s team say it provides them with an important sense of camaraderie.
“Everybody on the court knows the things you’re going through,” said Mayhem co-captain Randy Johnson.
Johnson grew up playing AAU basketball and went on to become a semi-professional football player. Then he suffered a traumatic spine injury in a 2013 car accident.
While Johnson was undergoing treatment at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute, his recreational therapist showed him “Murderball,” a 2005 documentary about the sport. Johnson said he was “hooked” after seeing the intensity and aggression with which the paraplegic athletes played.
“This sport is why I got out of bed,” said Johnson, who now has the team name tattooed across his chest. “It was the reason I got back to being who I was before: an athlete.”
That recreational therapist who first introduced Johnson to the game is now his teammate, Mike Henley. Most of the players on the team are Henley recruits, former patients he met through his job at the hospital and as the leader of a spinal cord injury support group. The rehab center sponsors the team.
“Most patients, when they’re in rehab, they’re real focused on walking again. That’s where their mentality is,” said Henley, 37. “They think that’s going to happen — and sometimes it does. But they need to have a Plan B, and I let them know that wheelchair rugby is out there.”
Henley says getting back into sports, especially such a fast-paced, contact sport like wheelchair rugby, shows people with disabilities how much they’re still capable of doing.
He aims to change patients’ mentalities: “If I can do this, maybe I can go back to work. Maybe I’ll have a girlfriend. Maybe I’ll have a kid.
“It gets rid of that hopelessness around life in a wheelchair and changes their attitude toward their disability,” Henley said. “That’s what rugby has done for the guys out there. It’s exposed their abilities.”
While it’s a coed sport, Audrey Sellers is the only woman on the Mayhem team. She has a form of muscular dystrophy, and, for much of her life, she said, she never tried out any adaptive sports.
A couple of years ago, Sellers went to watch a Mayhem team practice. She was at first intimidated by the “macho guys” and foreign terminology. But Sellers has since fallen in love with the game, which sometimes gets so intense that players topple their opponents’ wheelchairs.
“I really love that wheelchair rugby is full contact and allows me to be a competitor and aggressive in a way I’ve never been before,” said Sellers, 28.
The team has come a long way since launching in 2012, when some of the inaugural members struggled to build up the endurance necessary to compete. On Saturday, Mayhem won their first game of the tournament, beating the Steelwheelers 44-40. They’ll continue competing through Sunday.
Many of the players referred to their team as their family. When Johnson moved into a new apartment on his own, his teammates were there to surprise him with a housewarming party.
“On the court, we’re all ready to kill each other,” said Mayhem team athlete Shawn Hardester. “But off the court, we’re best friends.”