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Take No Prisoners

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By Sarah Pressley
Jeff Butler is ready for battle.
His hands are covered by gloves to hide his raw, calloused knuckles, and they’re wrapped in duct tape—sticky side facing out for a better grip. They push his wheelchair forward and across the court. 
He uses the chair to block an opposing player from reaching his teammate, a woman with short hair and a look of don’t-mess-with-me determination. She wears long sleeves to protect her arms from the friction burns of the rotating wheels. As she carries the ball toward the other team’s key (like the end zone in football), athletes on the sidelines shout, “Use it!” They only have 12 seconds to get across the court. Meanwhile, Butler’s block has set off a series of maneuvers by other players that results a loud crash—an aggressive double-amputee on the opposing team has toppled to the floor. A referee runs to help the fallen player, and the game of quad rugby continues.
It’s not called “murderball” for nothing. “The term ‘quadriplegic athlete,’ most people don’t even think of,” says Butler, a junior accounting student and player for the Texas Stampede, the quad rugby club team in Austin. “Typically when people think quadriplegic, they think of someone who is paralyzed from the neck down, doesn’t have significant function in his arms and would be really out of place on a sport court. People think [wheelchair rugby] is a feel-good sport, but we aren’t going for, ‘Thanks for participating.’ We want to win.”
Butler’s competitiveness dates back to a childhood spent playing sports. At 13, he was quarterback for his Fort Wayne, Indiana, junior high school team. One night, driving home with his family after a game, Butler stretched across the back seat of his parents’ SUV, not wearing a seatbelt. As his father drove through an intersection, another car crashed into the SUV, colliding with the exact spot where Butler’s head was resting. His c5 and c6 vertebrae were broken and both legs are now paralyzed. He has feeling in his arms but they don’t function as they used to. 
“Coming home for the first time was the weirdest thing,” says Butler, whose hospital stay lasted three months. “Your clothes are in the closet, your cleats are on the floor, and the last time you were in your room you were walking around.”
With the help of his parents, sister, friends, a personal trainer and physical therapy, Butler eventually began to regain strength and mobility. But he missed playing sports.
Two years later, a family friend who had lost both legs due to injuries sustained while serving in Vietnam introduced Butler to quad rugby. After getting over his preconceptions that a wheelchair sport couldn’t be that intense, Butler tried it out and quickly fell in love with the intensity and competitiveness. To have an outlet for competition was great,” Butler says. “Especially one as rowdy as rugby, which is full contact and very hard hitting.”
Butler joined the Indianapolis club team, commuting every Saturday to practice throughout high school and his freshman year at Indiana University. Along the way, he met James Gumbert, who coaches the Texas club team and the U.S. national team, and decided his future was in Austin.
Butler transferred to McCombs and joined the Stampede, hoping for a better shot at making the national team. He is equally committed to rugby and his education. Eventually he wants to become a CPA and run his own business.
“One of the things that set [Butler] apart is that he’s a student of the game,” Coach Gumbert says. “He understands things that players who have been around a lot longer don’t.”
In December, Butler tried out for the U.S. Paralympic quad rugby team. The youngest player there, he advanced to the final round of cuts, falling just shy of landing on the roster. He’ll try out again next time.
“We have a lot of longevity in the sport,” Butler says. “You can start when you are 15 and play until you’re 50. What other sport can you say that about?”
Butler knows he wouldn’t have had a career on the football field, but now he’s got a sport for life. "It’s an interesting situation that led to me [potentially] playing a sport for the next 30 or 40 years.”
Quad Rugby Rules and Regulations
Quad rugby games are played in four quarters, lasting eight minutes each, with four players from each team on the court at a time. Players score by crossing the other team’s key line with two wheels while holding the ball.  Only three  defenders are allowed at the key at one time, and they can’t stay for more than 10 seconds, or their team receives a penalty. Once a player has the ball, they have 10 seconds to dribble or pass, and 12 seconds to advance past half-court.
Each player is assigned a number ranging from .5 to 5 that corresponds with his or her level of physical ability. Butler, with his limited arm function, is a .5. 
Lower point players focus on the tactical aspects of the game, while the higher point players focus on the more aggressive physical plays.
The ball used is similar to a volleyball but is over inflated to provide better bounce. The game is played indoors on a hardwood court of the same measurements as a regulation basketball court.
April 18, 2012 — 7:17am