American Wheelchair Football League debuts in Arizona

Teams from across the country have competed in the American Wheelchair Football League, including some from New York (Greater Buffalo Adaptive) and Florida (Hillsborough County Adaptive). (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

Ability 360 / AZ Cardinals quarterback coach Nick Pryor said, “We are athletes with a disability, not athletes with a disability. We are trying to diffuse this into the universe. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

Putting pressure on the quarterback was important during the Hillsborough County Adaptive v Ability 360 game. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

Even though it’s technically a tactile game, players throw vicious punches and face physical blockages on every try in a wheelchair football competition. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE – Justin Walker, a player for the Ability 360 / AZ Cardinals wheelchair football team, has felt skepticism about his sport. Soccer is a fast paced contact game, and for some it is hard to imagine that it could be played in a wheelchair.

Walker likes to prove this notion wrong.

“When someone says wheelchairs and football, the first thing they think of is ‘Impossible’,” Walker said. “For me and my friends, this has been our dream since we were kids.”

Walker and his friends recently made that dream come true when teams from across the country gathered at WestWorld in Scottsdale for the inaugural Move United Wheelchair Football Tournament of the United States Wheelchair Football League. The tournament was played in conjunction with the Phoenix Abilities Expo.

“(It’s) a bunch of guys and girls who sit on chairs and buckle up to play soccer,” Walker said. “For this tournament, we are trying to change minds and show people the impossible.”

In 2019, Move United, a nonprofit that operates parasports in more than 200 communities across the country, announced the formation of four wheelchair football teams in Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Phoenix. After building relationships in all four cities, the organization grew into the United States Wheelchair Football League modeled after the American Football League.

Wheelchair Football League games are played in a seven-on-seven format and, like any other football game, consist of four quarters. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

Wheelchair Football League games are played in a seven-on-seven format and, like any other football game, consist of four quarters. However, the players do not draw flags. Instead, Wheelchair Football League games enforce one-handed touch rules.

The touch is not always soft.

Even though it’s technically a tactile game, players throw vicious punches and face physical blocks every time – and they all do it in wheelchairs.

“For me, I’m always up for a challenge and football is a challenge in itself,” Walker said. “But now you throw a chair in there. … You throw 14 chairs on the ground, and it’s like bumper cars on steroids.

It’s an inspiring spectacle. But Ability 360 / AZ Cardinals player coach Nick Pryor said it was more than inspiration. It’s real football for those who play.

“Disabled sports are generally an inspiration, but it is not for us,” said Pryor. “We are athletes with a disability, not athletes with a disability. We are trying to diffuse this into the universe.

Over 100 athletes and cheerleaders took part in the inaugural tournament. Although they crashed during the game, they bonded afterward while sharing a common goal: to raise awareness and build community.

“To have friends, family and people who don’t even know what wheelchair football is, and to be able to see it and be amazed by the energy and the big hits is awesome,” said Angel City Sports / LA Rams player-coach Bart Salgado. “It’s all worth it. “

Mikenzie Adams-Davis, member of the US National Adaptive Cheer, added that camaraderie is one of the league’s greatest benefits.

“Just being able to travel to where other athletes are and having good conversations with people who live life and work the hardest is inspiring,” said Adams-Davis.

Most of the players, teams and cheerleaders traveled thousands of kilometers to participate in the tournament. For teams like Angel City Sports and Hillsborough County Adaptive / Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they’ve come to claim a national title. However, other teams hoped to gain valuable experience.

Although competition can be physical, sportsmanship is often the theme after the game. Here, the Ability 360 team applauds Greater Buffalo Adaptive. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill / Cronkite News)

For example, Cleveland-based Adaptive Sports Ohio opened the eyes of its players and staff to a whole new world by participating in the event.

“Our goal was to be here and represent Cleveland, Ohio,” said Adaptive Sports Ohio coach Brian Veverka. “A lot of our teammates have never been to Phoenix. Many have never been outside of Ohio. And many have never even flown before. So it’s a whole bunch of experiences for the first time.

And organizers are already looking to get the word out and expand the league even further.

“It’s not just about telling your family and friends, but also their friends,” Walker said. “Everyone in one way or another is affected by a disability. You might not have one yourself, but you know someone who does. Just being able to talk about it and broadcast it can help expand the league. “

Over the past two years, the United States Wheelchair Football League has grown to over 400 members with players, coaches and cheerleaders. Walker and others are hoping the WestWorld tournament will inspire even more growth.

“It’s a sense of pride not only for them to come to us, but we want the best facilities and to leave here thinking that’s what it is,” Walker said. “We want them to go home and take the things we did in our tournament and keep it going.”

Pryor agreed.

“After this week you will be able to see all the people who play adapted sports… will want to play and build a team,” said Pryor. “It’s going to grow every year, and all of these adapted sports across the country will get funding to do things like this.”

Many teams are supported by NFL clubs in their community. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have agreed to support the Hillsborough County, Fla., Team which competed in Scottsdale after coach Caleb Schillace spoke to the Bucs about the wheelchair team.

“Myself and a few other coaches reached out to the Buccaneers and explained to them what was going on, and they were on board,” Schillace said. “The Wednesday before we left they were able to send us with a lot of different loot gear and brought in former player Dexter Jackson to send us.

“They have been a great support system, and we feel like we are an extension of the Buccaneers organization.”

The Arizona team is supported by Ability360, a facility in Phoenix that offers adapted sports and fitness options for people with disabilities, as well as the Arizona Cardinals.

The team wears red and black jerseys with white helmets, as the NFL Cardinals often do.

“This relationship with the Cardinals is incredible,” Walker said. “We wouldn’t be wearing half the clothes we wear without them.”

The Cardinals are just one of the Valley’s professional sports franchises that support programs for adapted athletes.

“It’s amazing to work with all of our local organizations and professional teams because it really gives our members and our team a sense of belonging to something like this,” said Pryor. “They want to know more. It’s something special, really.

Veverka said that when people get a chance to see wheelchair football, it will only continue to spread and develop.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now we see him at the Paralympic Games with some of our country’s best athletes participating,” said Veverka.

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