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Dukes Conquer Hazards Of Life Through Sports

Crunch! Clonk! Craaash!

That’s a bit of the soundtrack from my recent workout with Spokane’s perhaps least-known and best-traveled sports team rolled into one.

They are the Dukes of St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, amazing wheelchair-bound athletes who rack up thousands of air miles competing in Florida, Texas, Colorado, California, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Rugby’s the game. Quad Rugby.

I know what you’re thinking: How do severely paralyzed people - quadriplegics, no less - compete at a fast-paced, hard-hitting sport like rugby?

The answer was driven home to me when I ran into the Dukes the other day at the YWCA gym.

Actually, the Dukes mostly ran into me.

Preparing for regionals in San Jose, Calif., next week, the Dukes conned me into a spare wheelchair. My hosts were delighted to have an unsuspecting tackling dummy to abuse.

Quad rugby is played on a basketball court, four to a team. Points are scored by wheeling a volleyball across a goal line at each end.

Easy, were it not for road warrior opponents who try to stop you by ramming their $2,500 steel-reinforced tanks into yours with the wild abandon of a panzer blitz.

Here’s the truly incredible part: All players have suffered spinal injuries so life-altering that there is no movement or sensation in their legs. Their arms have limited, sometimes minimal, use.

But their hearts are huge. Any worries I had about the fragility of these young men disappeared after the third jaw-rattling blow.

Maybe it was the fifth. I tend to be fuzzy on details after absorbing shots that sometimes sent my front wheels hopping off the floor.

I strained a muscle under my right arm pulling my wheels too hard to escape a collision. Then I bruised a bone on my left hand by foolishly leaving it in the way of an oncoming Duke.

You could end up in a wheelchair playing with these lugs.

“I told you not to keep your hand too low on the wheel,” 28-year-old Doug Nachtigal says between laughs.

There’s a good reason why this 15-year-old sport originally was named Murder Ball.

“They couldn’t get enough people to try it with that name,” explains the Dukes coach, Teresa Skinner, who has arranged for the Quad Rugby nationals to be held at Eastern Washington University in April.

Invented in Canada, the game took off, she adds, when “the U.S. got involved. This is the only team sport designed for quadriplegics.”

Skinner, 30, is Spokane’s patron saint of Quad Rugby. The occupational therapist got hooked on it while working in Atlanta. After moving here two years ago, she rounded up some athletic quads and took a proposal to St. Luke’s administrators.

Sponsoring a competitive sports team for athletes with such special needs is an expensive proposition. There are only 53 Quad Rugby teams scattered across the country, which means you either find the bucks to travel or you don’t play.

Thanks to St. Luke’s, the Athletic Round Table and other generous donors, the Dukes roll on a budget of about $37,000 a year. It’s well worth it. Quad Rugby provides a brief slice of normalcy for some lives that are anything but.

You pay some heavy dues to get a spot on the Dukes roster.

Chad Farrington, 26, was in a 1989 motorcycle wreck. Mark Watson, 31, was four-wheeling in the boondocks with a friend when the vehicle rolled. Bob Wilson, 23, fell asleep at the wheel going home from work. Neil Gustafson, 20, was a passenger in a freeway wreck.

On Sept. 11, 1994, Nachtigal was just three months married when a speeding drunk smashed a pickup into his car near Seattle.

The driver got six months in jail. Nachtigal got life in a chair.

If playing Quad Rugby brightens the lives of these guys, I’ll be a tackling dummy any day.

“This gives us something to live for, something to work for,” adds Nachtigal. “This is our reason to get out of bed and face the day.”

, DataTimes

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