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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Wheelchair athletes show what being a team really means

This week the city is being honored as the host of the 33rd National Veteran Wheelchair Games. By all accounts, we've done it up right and if you get the chance you ought to come on down to the convention center for some great sport. In fact, for those of you just a little burned out with professional sports where much of the action seems to be off the court or the field and in the courtroom or financial pages, these athletes are a refreshing change. Whenever I watch wheelchair games I can't help but remember getting a call from Chuck Porter back in the late 1970s. It was summer and I was a sportswriter sitting around the office waiting for the football season. Porter said his Florida Wheels basketball team was going to be playing a tough statewide schedule and we ought to come down and take a look.
The Wheels practiced at the old Trailer Park gym on Rome south of Columbus. The un-airconditioned gym with half its lights out wasn't exactly the Sun Dome, but a gym rat's paradise. When I showed up they had already been working out for about a half-hour and I stood there and watched as they finished up their drills and broke the squad down into two teams. The gym was a steam box, and the players were already drenched in sweat. They had an extra chair, so Porter called over and asked if I might want to scrimmage with the team. I guess I should have known I was being sucked in and should have realized I was fresh meat. Like most games of skill, if you don't know what you're getting into, you can pay a price. The Wheels took the game seriously and all of a sudden I was caught up in what seemed a chaotic clashing of chairs and elbows and then a mad race down to the other end of the court. The rules said you had to dribble the ball after so many pushes of your chair and with other players slamming their chairs into each other it was like playing ball on bumper cars. Yeah, well, I held my own for about three or four trips up and down the court before realizing that not only could I not keep up, my hands were already blistering up and turning raw. Mercifully, they let me take a break, mostly because I was getting in the way sitting in the middle of the court out of gas. After practice, several of them rolled out of the gym and down the street to Leo's bar and lined up on a long table set up just for them. It was like any other team going out for beers after a game. I came back to practices all summer, caught up with a group of men who had created their own world built around a game. Paying for it out of their own pockets, they traveled around the state taking on the other half-dozen teams and oblivious to any thought of being disabled. They were as competitive and proud of their abilities as any team I ever covered in sports. And when I was with them, I realized what being a team was all about. The Wheels disbanded years ago, although other teams and leagues still exist. But I learned something about the value of sport that summer and that competition at any level can create a permanent bond you never forget.
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