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Maryland Mayhem quad rugby team provides opportunity for wheelchair athletes

It might sound crazy, Randy Johnson said, but the car accident in March 2013 that left him with two fractured cervical vertebrae was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Before his life changed forever, Johnson was a 6-foot-6, 308-pound star athlete, reaching the semi-professional level in basketball and football. Excelling at sports was part of his identity, almost to a fault.

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"People could have called me very egotistical, and they wouldn't be lying," he said.

That is, until he started playing quad rugby.

On Jan. 7 and 8, Johnson competed alongside nine teammates with the Maryland Mayhem, his team for the past three years, at the third annual Maryland Crab Pot Tournament, a six-team event hosted by the Mayhem at CCBC-Dundalk. The Mayhem took second place, falling just short of the rival Philadelphia Magee Eagles, the former national champions.

Since the sport has no leagues, all games are played in tournaments, which each team is required to host. Teams are part of the United States Quad Rugby Association, which was founded in 1988 with six member clubs and now has over 40.

Quad rugby (short for quadriplegic) combines elements of basketball and ice hockey, and is played on a basketball court. Players, who must have a disability that affects at least three limbs, compete in wheelchairs in teams of four with the objective being to carry the ball — a volleyball — across the opponent's goal line to score a point, and can use their chairs to block and/or hold their opponent. The game was originally called murderball because of its aggressive style, and it's not uncommon to see players knocked out of their chairs after a collision.

The Crab Pot tournament, with teams from such places as Akron, Ohio, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia, is run by volunteer staff from the University of Maryland Rehabilitation and Orthopaedic Institute, which sponsors the Mayhem, whose players have received treatment there .

The institute, formerly known as Kernan Hospital, has had an adapted sports program for over 25 years and holds an adapted sports festival each year on the hospital grounds to help introduce patients to wheelchair sports such as basketball, rugby and bocce.

Lori Patria, now the manager, helped start the Mayhem in 2012 and said sports such as rugby "help extend rehab beyond the inpatient stay." Patria, director of rehabilitation therapy services, has seen firsthand how much of a difference playing a competitive sport has made on players' lives.

Johnson is one of them. He joined the Mayhem within the first six months after his injury, but he needed help to transfer from his chair and couldn't handle much of his self-care needs. Now, he lives on his own and has participated in Paralympic team training camp in Birmingham, Ala., with the goal of making the United States national team.

"I used to pick him up from practice, and I'd have to help him get out of his chair into my car. And now I open up the door, he rolls up to it, I start doing something else and he slides over by himself," said Andrew Schaffer, an assistant who joined the Mayhem after learning about the team from his wife, who works at the hospital. "When he first got his apartment and he fell out of his wheelchair, he would have to call 911 to get back into it. Now he's got the strength and the knowledge of how to adapt."

Patria calls the close-knit team a family, and it's easy to see why. When Johnson first moved into his apartment, the team, which has nine members on its support staff in addition to two coaches, surprised him with a housewarming party. They helped him find furniture, and Johnson's kitchen table was even a gift from Patria's mother-in-law.

And it's not just the team members that offer support. The Mayhem, as the hospital's only competitive adapted sports team, has become a source of pride for staff and residents. The marketing department helps make signage, programs and banners for tournaments. The Fridays before competition are spirit day, so people wear Mayhem t-shirts. Mayhem meatballs are eve served at the cafeteria.

"You go to one practice, and you're done," Patria said, "You're like, 'I want to do more of this.'"

Mike Henley, a recreational therapist at the hospital who competes for the Mayhem, said he was "annoying the [expletive] out of management at the hospital to sponsor a team for a long time," before one was started. Since then, rugby has helped him quit smoking, keep up his endurance and introduce him to some of his best friends.

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"You see a change in people that start playing," he said. "If they have enough confidence and dedication to go to practice once a week and last all season long in rugby, they start thinking they can go back to work or go to college."

The day after Henley's 18th birthday, he was riding in the passenger seat of his friend's Jeep when they got into an accident, breaking his neck and fracturing his skull. At first, he didn't have any function in his right hand, his left hand was weak and he didn't have any movement from the chest down.

Since then, he has regained some movement in his legs and can walk with crutches and a brace on his left leg. He's married, has a 2-year-old son and likes to do handcycling and monoskiing in his spare time.

"You probably hear all these stories where guys are like, 'Yeah, I was in my hospital bed and the doctor came in and the first thing he told me was, 'You'll never walk again. You'll never play sports again,'" he said. "That's not true. Doctors don't do that."

Still, after a week or two in shock trauma, it's the answer he wanted most. His nurse told him his chances of walking again were slim, which is when it started to sink in that his life would never be the same. At that point, he wanted people to stop sending get-well cards. What if he never did?

It was later that he found his inspiration in the 2005 Oscar-nominated film "Murderball," a documentary about quad rugby that focuses on the rivalry between the Canadian and United States teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games.

"Before that movie, being in a wheelchair was pretty dorky," Henley said. "But then that movie made it sort of cool to be in a wheelchair."

When Johnson was Henley's patient at Kernan, Henley showed him the movie. That's when everything changed.

"I thought playing sports was over for me," Johnson said. "But when he came in and showed me this sport, I realized it was something I could do."

For a time after his injury, Johnson wasn't motivated to do anything but lie in bed. The accident had robbed of him of part of who he was: a physical, strong presence on the court or field.

Now, the man teammates call "Albatross" because of his long wingspan is dominating a different game. It inspired him to share his story as part of the hospital's ThinkFirst program, where he tells kids that "you don't have to break your neck to get the reality check that I did."

In January 2016, Johnson showed just how much the sport and his team means to him. Tattooed across his chest are the words "Mayhem For Life."

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"When I laid in the bed that day before Mike rolled in, I thought about all the things that I never would do anymore," he said. "I would never score another touchdown. I would never dunk a basketball again. But then Mike said, 'I got this kick[butt] sport you can play,' and I see people getting flipped out of chairs. I said, 'I can definitely dig that.'"

The accident still weighs heavily on Johnson's mind, but he doesn't dwell on the what-ifs, rather on the opportunities ahead. This past weekend, the Mayhem boarded a plane to Florida to compete in another tournament, the furthest the team has ever traveled for a competition. There's a pretty good chance the team, which has placed in three of the four tournaments it has appeared in this season, will compete in the postseason.

This experience, and the relationships he has formed, is why Johnson feels he owes everything to his team. The accident changed his life, but in his mind, it happened for a reason.

"Just because of what I've taken from it, and what I've gotten from it, I'm a much better person now," he said. "I'm a much better human being because this happened to me."

twitter.com/cjdoon

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