By Ken Stone and Chris Stone
Mark Browne says he’ll play quad rugby “till I’m dead.”
James Sa says the wheelchair sport played on a modified basketball court helps “flush out the scope of my life, restoring health.”
And Zak Madell says he enjoys “the physicality, the camaraderie and everything.”
The trio — all members of San Diego’s Sharp Edge team — play the ferocious metal-on-metal sport in an event that began Friday and ends Sunday, with a noon title match.
The 28th annual Best of the West tournament at Balboa Park’s Municipal Gymnasium is actually an international affair. Entries are from Australia and Canada besides Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson and Minneapolis.
Like teens on an amusement park bumper-car ride, quad rugby players ram each other even when not engaged in ball handling. Not for nothing is the sport also called Murderball.Outdoors, the sport normally includes scrums — the interlocking player formation when play resumes after a minor infringement. But not this version, which uses a volleyball instead of the oblong one employed in regular play.
One thing’s the same, however. They’re in it to win it, and play as tough as their able-bodied counterparts. (One woman played: Emily Shryock of the Texas Stampede, a paraplegic due to complications of Lyme Disease.)
Browne, 41, isn’t even the oldest player — a 73-year-old competes for Northridge.
“It’s really competitive,” Browne says. He plays defense like a fullback in football, making holes for scorers to go through while piloting a wheelchair with inflatable tires (instead of the typical hard-rubber wheels).
Browne is a class 1.0 athlete (the most disabled are 0.5. The least disabled are 3.5).
The worst part of the game?
“How sore you are afterwards,” said Jorge Hernandez, 33, another San Diego player (a former basketball player and burn survivor in the 3.0 class who goes by @Rise_Above_The_Flames.)
Sa, 27, most likes the solidarity.
“It’s being with people who understand the same things that you have gone through and being able to work together to build upon that whether it’s on the court or socially or internally,” he said after the Sharp Edge was edged 61-53 by the Texas Stampede.
What’s hard about quad rugby?
“It’s hard to think of difficult things when you are having fun,” Sa said.
Skills needed to play quad rugby include playing intelligently, understanding the game, conditioning, and “accepting,” he said.
As in: “We all have limitations on our body; some have spinal cord injuries. The physical limits that you have aren’t limits, but definitions of how to be successful.”
Zak Madell, 23, is going to school in Canada but has played the sport almost seven years.
Playing in the 3.5 class — with the most function — Madell says he always played contact sports growing up, “so I enjoy the physicality, the camaraderie and everything.”
A Team Canada player for six years, Madell says this was his first time with the San Diego team, and “everyone gets along well. Good group of people to be around.”
(Teams are allowed to use nonresidents if they can’t fill out a roster. One Phoenix player is from Japan, for example.)
Sharp Edge manager Jordan Lux says she picked up a few players for this tournament, with the eight-member team practicing twice a week.
Sponsored by Sharp Rehabilitation Services, the team includes former military and first responders. Players have all completed rehab. Some suffered injuries a couple years ago; other are 10-20 years “post-injury.”
Most are spinal cord injury victims. Other quadriplegics are overcoming meningitis, war injuries, accidents or burns.
Hosting the event is the Therapeutic Recreation Services Division of the San Diego Park and Recreation Department.
“Rugby is typically thought of as a rough sport, and watching elite quad rugby athletes from around the world compete in this physically demanding tournament is truly inspiring,” said Jon Richards, supervising therapeutic recreation specialist with city Parks and Rec.
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