HPOU puts some impressive Wheelchair Rugby players On the UH field against some really dedicated athletes!

Michael Ybanez

It was a picture-perfect Cougar day on Saturday, April 8, when HPOU Board members, participants and their families and friends met at the University of Houston Recreation Center to participate in their fourth HPOU-sponsored Wheelchair Rugby event.

Co-hosted by the UH and Adaptive Athletics, a student-led organization dedicated to promoting athletic programs for students with disabilities. They provide unique programs and events throughout the year according to their stated mission.

About the Game

Initially known as Murderball due to the aggressive nature of the sport, Wheelchair Rugby is a team contact sport since all players have a combination of impaired upper and lower extremities. Most players suffer from cervical spinal cord injury and have some sort of quadriplegia as an effect.

The sport was first introduced to the U.S. in 1981 by Brad Mikkelsen and the object of the game is to score a goal point by crossing the goal line with possession of the ball while an opposing team is defending the goal. The team with the most points at the end of regulation time wins.

Adaptive Athletics UH partners with the Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), which has supported seriously injured First Responders on numerous occasions in the past. The UH is the only university in Texas to offer wheelchair rugby and other Adaptive Athletics sports as a merited part of their sports programs.

Speaking to Adaptive Athletics, co-founder Sergio Brereda said, “Since its founding Adaptive      Athletics at the University of Houston has been a big part in my life. I saw a need at UH and that need was to form a bond with students with disabilities. I wanted to create a legacy here on campus for such a community.

“The SMASH Tournament does just that. Students on campus rallied together to make this tournament possible. A friendly tournament that people from all walks of life and abilities, coming together, creating lasting memories through Wheelchair Rugby. It’s just a way to get people to know more about the sport, people living with disabilities, and a chance to spend a few minutes, where there are no disabilities; recognizing that everyone has abilities.”

Past rugby events were keen on the minds of veteran participants “Chargin” Charlie Vasquez (HPD assistant chief), Luis Menendez-Sierra and his wife Myrna, and Rosalinda Ybanez as they all vowed to place high in the winner’s circle this year. Menendez-Sierra and Ybanez are HPOU Board members. AC Vasquez sported a head cam to record the team’s efforts, which he later posted on YouTube under the banner HPOU Wheelchair Rugby 2017.

The HPOU lineup included Sierra-Mendez and wife Myrna, Sgt. Francis Dominguez (Human Resources), Officer Cassie Dominguez (South Central), AC Charlie Vasquez, Leonard “Lenny Smith” (Narcotics), Linda and Michael Ybanez and son “Mikey,” and Christian and Casey Falls.

Together they formed the nucleus of the HPOU wheelchair warriors and teamed with veteran wheelchair athletes Juan Rodriguez, Greg Cortez and Carl Williams, all of whom served as coaches and mentors as well as inspiration to the able-bodied athletes as they proved that people with “handicaps” can be just as motivated and athletic as any person.

Many Teams Participated

Teams from across Harris County who participated included Adaptive Athletics Alumni, Trustmark Bank, Catholic Students Association, Texas Obesity Research Center, HPOU, Bunny Bowl Rejects, One Step Closer Foundation, and Raising Canes.  Support staff for the games included Dr. Michael Cottingham, AA co-founder Sergio Bjereda, Elyssa Davila, Chelsea Nad, Breann Wilson and Sarah Hoffman, who kept score and timekeeping duties.

Officer Lenny Smith squeezed into a multi-thousand dollar competitive wheelchair specially designed for wheelchair rugby and played his initial game. “This has changed my mind about handicapped persons,” Smith said, “They play on such a higher level, both physically and mentally. They are true athletes.”

Assistant Chief Vasquez was unofficial team captain and led the charge on many plays, giving strategic advice to both veteran and first-time players. Vasquez is an accomplished athlete in his own right who recently finished the Houston Marathon in full uniform!

Despite this, he continues to be amazed at the strength and mental determination of wheelchair athletes. “They are some hard-charging and very determined athletes who don’t let their disabilities keep them from enjoying a full life,” Vasquez said. “They embody the never-quit attitude shared by our law enforcement community.”

First-time players Christian and Casey Falls made some pivotal plays throughout all three games and vowed to remain avid supporters of Adaptive Athletics. Another first-timer, Cassie Dominquez, vowed to put together a team from South Central Patrol if the event is scheduled for another year since UH falls into this patrol area.

Team HPOU won two of three games and ended its final game with a 41-19 win over the Adaptive Athletics Alumni to claim the consolation championship.

HPOU has given constant support over the past years to individuals and organizations that deal with disabilities and will continue to do so as a vital part of community involvement.