(Video produced by Travis Shafer and Elliott Lapin)
Team captain Earl Bowser uses the backs of his hands to push his titanium wheelchair across the battle-worn gym floor, carrying a volleyball in his lap and several lifetimes of optimism. Eight players take their sides, squaring off as metal-clad gladiators in a strategic, positional game of quadriplegic rugby.
The competition is tense, even in practice, and it doesn’t take long to realize why this team is called the NorCal Quakes. Wheelchairs collide forcefully, sending shockwaves through the gym, as if a bowling ball just dropped from the ceiling.
Screeching halts and scraping blows fill the room. Bowser follows a block and turns the corner with impressive agility, using a stop-and-go to freeze a defender before slipping through a narrow opening to score.
Following 20 minutes of pushing, passing and pivoting, the players take a water break and the true purpose of tonight’s practice is revealed: community. Every member of the team has an injury story: body surfing, diving into a pool, crashing a motorcycle, playing sports. Conversations spark about the upcoming Paralympic games, about families, about jobs. Last season, the Quakes placed second nationally in Division II of the United States Quad Rugby Association.
“It’s a competitive sport, but really the big thing is just camaraderie and being together,” Bowser said. “Being around guys that are going through your same issues.”
Bowser, a former college football player, broke his neck at a charity volleyball event 21 years ago. He had discussed it with his friends before: If he ever ended up in a wheelchair there’s no way he could live like that.
When that became his reality, though, Bowser responded differently.
“Once I woke up after surgery, couldn’t move anything, couldn’t really talk,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Eh, I can deal with this.’”
Every member of the team has an injury story: body surfing, diving into a pool, crashing a motorcycle, playing sports.
A student driver flipped the Jeep that Justin Patterson rode in on the way to football practice when he was 16, breaking his neck.
“I thought life was over, you know,” Patterson said. “Couldn’t move. Went from … playing three sports, basketball, baseball, and football at a pretty high level and then bam.”
Patterson would find his community early in quad rugby. He met Quakes teammates Chet Miller and Bowser within a couple years of his injury, and they’ve played together for nearly 20 years on various teams, winning games and tournaments together. Both Bowser and Patterson were named to the Division II All-Tournament team en route to winning the 2005 USQRA Division II National Championship.
“They’re all like brothers, man,” Patterson said. “I know [their playing style] like a book. And they know me, too.”
Patterson acts as a director of action on the court, helping new teammates understand positional play to improve their game.
“This game was truly a blessing to find out about,” he said. “It helped me be able to do a lot of things: Travel the world, for one, be independent, take care of myself, get strong, you know, learn all this stuff from these guys, too.”
The Quakes practice at Menlo Park’s Riekes Center for Human Enhancement, an eclectic facility encouraging artistic expression, musical production, physical fitness and outdoor activity. Founder Gary Riekes, musician, athlete, and Stanford graduate, wanted to cultivate the feeling of home, so he literally had the front door of his house removed and installed it as the entrance to the weight room. Bowser said the Riekes Center and the supportive staff are instrumental to the survival the team.
Quad rugby originated in Canada under the name Murderball, which is the title of the critically acclaimed 2005 documentary on the sport. The violent collisions, although downplayed by the Quakes, make the action explosive, and signify the game’s strongest connection to actual rugby. In reality, quad rugby is a Frankenstein of sports, stitching strategic and regulatory pieces of football, soccer, basketball and Battle Bots together.
Each wheelchair has six wheels: two small ones in front, the two large iconic side wheels and two additional wheels in the rear to provide greater stability. The large wheels have negative camber, which means they slant toward the rider for easier rotation and to allow the contact to occur near the floor. There are no brakes, only the players’ gloved hands and arms utilizing friction directly against the wheel.
Matches are four on four, consisting of eight-minute quarters. Each player is assigned a point value from 0.5 (low function) to 3.5 (high function) based on the severity of their physical limitation. No four-player lineup can exceed 8 points, although the limit is raised by 0.5 for each female in the lineup.
Low-point players typically play defense and have special metal hook-like bumpers on the front of their chairs called “pickers,” allowing them to sort of grab onto an opponent’s chair. High-point players are generally faster, play offense and have “wings” on the front of their chairs, designed like a snowplow to glance off other players.
Earl Bowser is rated 1.5 and is a low-point player. He employs a “backhand” stroke to propel his chair. To demonstrate: Put your hands on your hips, with the back of your hand touching your torso, fingers pointing behind you. Now push your hands forward in a sliding motion. This adaptation allows Bowser, and other low-point players, to use chest and back muscles instead of their weakened triceps to propel their chairs.
Kat Kobayashi acts as a Swiss Army Knife for the Quakes: She’s the equipment manager, the medical professional, the recruiter and Earl Bowser’s girlfriend of five years. She works at Valley Medical Center as an occupational therapy assistant, where she works with people facing similar injuries to Bowser, Patterson and the rest of the Quakes. Kobayashi sees her job not only as one of physical renewal, but also a chance to give her patients purpose.
“They’re newly injured, they’ve just broken their necks or their back and newly paralyzed in this strange body of theirs,” Kobayashi said. “All their control has been taken away from them and I feel like I have the privilege of providing some hope.”
Kobayashi’s influence on the Quakes cannot be overstated.
“If you look at our team, we’ve rostered 10 or 12 players, and I would say 50 percent of them are her old patients,” Bowser said.
Some practices feature visitors, prospective players, still coming to terms with the sudden changes brought on by their injury. Kobayashi’s knowing smile disarms her courtside patients.
“I bring them to a place like this; I don’t really have to say anything,” she said. “They just look at the guys and the activity and they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, I can do this? Even with this broken body?’”
Brian Sperle raced dirt bikes all over the U.S. and Europe before a car accident in November of 2012 paralyzed him from the neck down.
Kobayashi recruited him to the Quakes shortly after his injury.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, you’re sitting there and then [Kat] … she just did a class,” Sperle said. “When I was in the hospital I came and watched rugby, and I was like, ‘Oh, dude, this is me.’”
Three years later, Sperle has completed two half marathons in his racing chair and has found a competitive outlet in quad rugby. Still, the community and encouragement keeps him coming back.
“The best thing about it is you’re trying to figure out all the different stuff, from learning to drive, to … bathroom stuff, how do you do this? How do you transfer this? How do you do that?” Sperle said. “You get 12 different people here and everybody’s pretty open about it.”
Bowser recognized the same value in this group.
“After you get injured, you don’t really have any of your buddies that are going through the same thing,” Bowser said. “So to come into a gym where everybody’s kind of dealing with the same issues that you’ve got, whether it be year two, year one, or 21 years down the line … it’s a huge thing for guys to just get back into living life again.”
“These guys need something to look forward to, and to be good at something again,” Kobayashi said. “And I think this is the perfect venue for these guys to be able to feel that.”