Attorney Elton "Bud" Harvey III was a longtime soccer player in an adult league who was looking for a new way to stay in shape during the winter months. A soccer teammate encouraged him to try rugby and participate in a weekend game to see how he liked it.
That was in 1992.
"My friend told me I’d just play for one period," said Harvey, a 65-year-old real estate attorney in the West Hartford office of Baillie & Hershman. "One period turned into a game and a game turned into 20 years" of playing rugby.
He gravitated to the physicality and camaraderie of the sport: "I like the fact that you can hit and be hit and at the end of it, you can pat the other guy and say, ‘Good job.’"
He’s been kicked in the head, suffered a few concussions and sported the typical bruises over the years, but his interest in rugby has continued to grow. While playing for his Wallingford-based rugby team, the Connecticut Grey, he heard about another rugby team called the Connecticut Jammers that was based out of Gaylord Hospital.
The Jammers are a wheelchair rugby team consisting of quadriplegic players from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Harvey was asked to coach the team, and he has been leading the Jammers since 2002. "I love the sport of rugby, and this is an opportunity to give a little bit back," said Harvey.
Just As Aggressive
Wheelchair rugby consists of four players on each side and games take place on indoor basketball courts. Players move in specialized wheelchairs that cost about $4,000 each and are specifically designed for quick movement and safety. Players advance the ball by passing and must do so within specific time limits. Points are scored when a player with the ball crosses the goal line.
"Anything you see in rugby, you’ll see in wheelchair rugby," Harvey said. "And there’s nothing the guys like better than sticking somebody and knocking him down."
Just how physical is wheelchair rugby? The original name, when developed in Canada in the 1970s, was murderball. Since then, it’s spread throughout the world and will be in the spotlight this year at the Paralympics that will take place right after the Olympics in London.
To be eligible for wheelchair rugby, players must be quadriplegic and they must be able to push a manual wheelchair. Jammers players range from 19 to 55 years old. Right now, it’s an all-male team, but women are welcome to play, too. "We had a female player, but we lost her to law school," Harvey noted.
The Jammers are the only wheelchair rugby team in Connecticut, so they’re frequently on the road one weekend a month between September and March playing five to six games per weekend; they practice on the other weekends. Their travel takes them to New Hampshire, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
Every December, they host their own tournament at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.
"The typical wheelchair rugby player is a risk-taker who broke his neck in a motorcycle accident or doing flips into a swimming pool," Harvey said. "Guys who come to this sport were always active before they got injured and they want to stay physically fit and physically active."
Harvey’s main influence as a coach comes in devising the lineups, which isn’t as simple as it seems. In wheelchair rugby, each player is assigned a numerical value – between 0.5 and 3.5 – according to their level of disability. The rules require the four players on the floor for each team to not exceed a cumulative point value of 8 so as to maintain a competitive balance. It’s Harvey’s job to keep that mix of Jammers players within the game’s rules.
He draws a lot of inspiration from seeing how dedicated his players are to devoting time to play the sport and for older players to teach the younger ones.
"It’s a good bunch of guys," he said. "The best part is to get a newly injured person and to see the look on their face when they realize they can go out and hit somebody. Life is not over. There’s a lot that you can do."