By Jackie Zimmermann
"This isn't hockey!" shouted rugby player Brett Harbage, captain of the Ohio Buckeye Blitz, when a player on the opposing team called for a sub.
Even those skilled in rugby were out of their element when they went up against Harbage and the rest of the Blitz, Ohio's only wheelchair rugby team. They squared off Saturday at the Grover Center gym during "Four-Play," a pay-to-play fundraiser presented by the School of Physical Therapy Class of 2008.
The event consisted of teams of four to six students, faculty and staff members of varying skill levels who paid $75 to compete against the Blitz for 30 minutes. And despite almost nonstop play from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the energy of the Blitz was inexhaustible compared to that of the opposing teams, which were faltering after a half-hour.
"It was exhausting," said Jared Braden, a first-year physical therapy student. "My arms are just hanging."
"You don't think a half-hour time spot is that long, but after five minutes you are totally gassed," said tournament co-director Brooke Vaughan, a member of the 2008 class. "We're not used to propelling ourselves with our upper bodies. You want to play the whole time, but you are so dead by the end."
The physical therapy students' interest in wheelchair rugby was sparked when Petra Williams, assistant professor of physical therapy, played clips of the documentary film "Murderball" in her cultural competency class. Vaughan and fellow tournament director David Kohlrieser were inspired to organize the event after Blitz player Jeremy Edgar came to class to help the students learn about spinal injuries.
"We thought we were just working with a spinal-cord injury patient," Kohlrieser said. "But he was like, 'I used to play college football. I'm 270 pounds. I lift all the time. Do you want to come up and play with our quad-rugby team?' We said yes right away."
Harbage started the Blitz about four years ago, after the older guys he used to play with began to retire. However, as an amateur-athlete team, members of the Blitz have to pay for all equipment and travel expenses on their own, and that can get pricey. After spending time with the players, Vaughan, Kohlrieser and the rest of their group returned from Columbus with sore arms and a strong desire to help the team raise money.
For Williams, getting students to interact with the players helped dissolve the uncomfortable feeling many have when talking to someone with a disability.
"We talk about acceptability or diversity, but it kind of seems like watching other people instead of getting to know them and connecting," she said. A sporting event, she added, offers common ground for people to talk to players and relate to them.
For the physical therapy students, the tournament was a fun way to break from traditional fund-raising activities on campus.
"Most of the fundraisers down here are 5Ks," Kohlrieser said. "This is something so much different than that."
The physical therapy students managed to get 30 teams from the university and community, with names like "Hell on Four Wheels" and "Hot Wheels," to compete against the Blitz. The tournament raised $3,200, almost enough to purchase one of the specialized $4,000 rugby chairs.
And while all the money earned went to the semi-professional team, Vaughan and Kohlrieser hoped the event also would gain attention and support from the student body.
"The initial reason was to make money for the team, but now it has grown into this awareness project for the university," Vaughan said. Having students attend the event helped show them that these are just regular, cool guys, she said.
"The turnout was incredible," Kohlrieser said of the more than 120 people who played in the tournament, not to mention those who showed up throughout the day to watch. "It was great to see so many different clubs and people from the university and community playing and cheering their teams on."
This was the first time the School of Physical Therapy, part of the College of Health and Human Services, has staged such the tournament. But its success has led to aspirations of making it an annual event.
"The physical therapy students were all really excited to play, but only about six signed up," Vaughan said. Now they know what it's like, she said, and many first- and second-year students have already stepped up to help plan future tournaments.
And the Ohio Buckeye Blitz team members are more than willing to return to campus.
"We'll be back every year if they'll have us," Harbage said. "It was awesome. They did a good job putting it together."
This page was updated March 4, 2008.