What is a chair? What is its intent? To provide rest after a hard day? To give order to the dinner table? To pull up in front of the TV set? All of the above? Yet a chair is never more than an in-between stop. In time you rise and get on with your life.
Unless it is a wheelchair.
Unless you cannot rise.
Unless, your life, like Mo Gerhardt’s, is shadowed by a congenital disease like Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, an often fatal affliction that robs you of the protein you need to build muscle. In cases like his, a chair looms the way the horizon looms for a setting sun.
“I remember the last night I stood on my own,” Gerhardt says. “I had just gotten home from a friend’s birthday party, and I caught my foot coming out of the bedroom. I went down. A normal person, someone who didn’t have my disease, would have been able to catch himself. But I couldn’t. All my weight went on my leg and I heard my femur snap. And I knew that was it.”
He was a junior in high school, his movement already slowed by his disease. They had told him, when he was 8 years old, that this day was coming, that, like others with his illness, a wheelchair was his fate. He also had been told that boys like him didn’t lead long lives. “Late teens,” they warned him as a child. “Maybe mid-20s,” they warned him as a teen.
Can you imagine your death being so … calculable? Under such a dark cloud, delaying fate is a cherished activity, and Gerhardt delayed his wheelchair as long as he could, just as he had delayed giving up his one true passion, sports. He loved sports. As a boy, he was always the slowest one, but he still ran. As a pre-teen, he would stay put as the quarterback while his older brother, David, ran around as the receiver. His parents always encouraged him. “Try whatever you want to try,” they said.
So on his American Legion baseball team, Mo swung the bat, and when he made contact, another boy would run the bases for him. And in high school, when he was no longer able to compete, he became the student manager for the baseball team his father coached. Mo kept score. Mo did the public address announcements. He loved sports so much, he wanted to be around, but being around is not the same as being involved. And being in a chair meant no involvement at all.
For 10 years after that he was locked outside of sports. He missed the sweating. He missed competing. He missed breathing hard.
And then, in his 20s, already living on what some considered borrowed time, he read a magazine article about the Wheelchair Hockey League.
He made a phone call. He showed up for a game.
And something that had died inside him came back to life.
A chance to compete
“Stay on him! Stay on him!”
The wheelchairs bang each other like chariots, circling in wide turns, heading down the floor. One player, wearing a headband, scoops the Wiffle Ball puck with his stick and lifts it toward the net. The goalie slides his chair forward just in time to block the shot with his wheel — “Good save!” someone yells — and like cars exiting a rock concert, the chairs reverse, turn and head messily in the opposite direction.
The scene is a gym on a weekend in Southfield, but on another weekend it could be Farmington Hills, Lansing, Livonia. This is the Wheelchair Hockey League (motto: “Don’t just sit there, play hockey!”). Family members line the court, some cheering. A disc jockey plays upbeat music. The “rink” is a basketball court encircled by padding, with a six-foot-wide net at each end.
But the game — well, the game is hockey, complete with face-offs, line changes, penalties and referees. They play three 20-minute periods, four players a side plus goalies, the captains wear C’s on their uniforms, and the teams are named Cobras or Hornets or Outlaws. The ultimate trophy is, like Lord Stanley’s, a cup — the Wheeler’s Cup.
As for the athletes themselves? There is no generalizing here, except that they are all over 10 years old. There are men and boys, a teenage girl, a junior high school goalie with a Mohawk. They wear ponytails, beards, crew cuts. They wear bright yellow or orange or green uniforms. And yes, they all suffer from some affliction — cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, spinal cord injury — but none plays the victim. They are too consumed with stopping, starting, whirling and accelerating, chasing the little green ball that provides a rare athletic pleasure.
“It’s an outlet for us,” says Matt Schwarck, 31, a beefy special-education teacher with a goatee and green sweatpants. Although Matt can no longer use his legs, playing hockey “lets us use our competitive spirit. And it’s cool to have teammates in a similar situation to you.”
“People say you can’t play sports when you’re in a wheelchair,” says Claire Abraham, a high schooler from Novi. “But I love hockey, I’ve always loved it. I started to play in my driveway. And now, here, I can play with other people. Sometimes they don’t even call penalties on me” — she smiles — “because I’m a girl.”
Wheelchair hockey does indeed feature some of the ferocity of its NHL counterpart. There is plenty of checking — “clanking” is more like it — and scrums occur in the middle of the floor as well as in the corners. Roughing is called. Interference is called. Players make their turns seemingly locked astride one another, draped the way an NHL defenseman drapes a forward. Hanging onto the puck is already difficult, and the defense makes it more so. The best players are able to keep the puck wedged between two sticks fastened together as they maneuver their chairs toward the goal.
“Sometimes,” one mother admits, smiling, “they run over the puck with their wheels and it goes flat.”
And then what happens?
“They stop the game until they can pop the puck back into shape.”
OK. So you don’t have that in the NHL.
A great group of friends
You also don’t have the kind of stories you find here. Like Gerhardt’s. Although warned that he might never live to see his late teens, Mo dreamed of going away to college, and in time, he did, attending Michigan State, where he roomed with a friend named Eric DeLonge from his hometown area of Traverse City.
“I told him at the start, ‘Eric, you don’t have to take care of me,’ ” Gerhardt says. ” ‘We’re just gonna be roommates.’ “
But roommates help each other out, and Eric quickly got used to getting Mo into the chair in the morning, helping him dress, lifting him into the bed at night. That was eight years ago. They room together still.
Gerhardt, now 26, a bearded, smiling, endlessly cheerful young man, seems to have that effect on people. He inspires them, perhaps because he so easily admires them. He says he looks up to his older brother, David, who is healthy, because “people are always coming up to my parents and asking, ‘How’s Mo doing?’ They rarely ask, ‘How’s David?’ Yet he’s never been resentful of all the attention I got growing up.”
Resentful? Mo boasts about the great baseball player his older brother became, and he takes some credit because, as kids, Mo had to play first base — due to his limited mobility — and when David fielded grounders “he had to drill them right into my chest because I couldn’t jump or move around. So I probably gave him good target practice.”
And then there is his best buddy, a guy named Kevin Sonnemann. When they were kids, and Mo was first diagnosed with Duchenne’s, Kevin’s mother took her son aside and explained to him what happened.
Kevin looked back at her and said, without missing a beat, “Mom, I’m gonna find a cure for Mo.”
Today, Kevin is working on his PhD in cellular molecular biology at Wisconsin, researching muscular dystrophy and, yes, trying to find a cure for Mo. If that isn’t inspiration, what is?
“To have a friend who would do something like that for me, it’s just mind-boggling,” Gerhardt says. “I can’t even put into words how lucky I feel.”
Those dreaded calculations
Of course, “lucky” is not the word most first-time spectators of wheelchair hockey would use. The players’ legs are often withered and useless. Their upper-body strength is limited. The goalies — usually those with the most limited mobility — are positioned sideways in the net, and they use their chairs more than their sticks to block shots. During one game on this day, a goalie who isn’t able to turn his head gets instructions from his healthy brothers, who stand behind the net and yell out directions.
“We don’t have a lot of kick saves in this league,” Schwarck jokes.
But though they may arrive in specially equipped vans, though they may take awhile to push through ramps, though they may require help to dress or strap on equipment, this is not some exercise born from pity. This is sports. These are people competing. These are athletes enjoying the sweat and, like any other athlete, trying desperately to win.
“I gotta stay out of trouble this game,” says Michael Belanger, a 22-year-old with cerebral palsy, who is studying business at the college level. “I take a lot of penalties.” He nods toward the current game. “Sometimes it gets mean out there. I’ve been thrown out a time or two.”
Like many recreational leagues, the WCHL has newsletters, Internet postings, banquets and postseason awards. But unlike other rec leagues, the WCHL carries a chill of mortality. If a player misses a game or a practice, there is a quiet ripple of concern. “We have had team members die over the years,” Gerhardt says. “That’s tough. You notice they’re not there for one or two games. You ask what’s wrong. Then someone says that person is in the hospital.”
It happened with a young man named Andy Siwarski, who founded the wheelchair league in this area and was president for a while. He was only in his 20s. During the season, he went to the hospital. He never came home. His jersey was retired. A leadership award is now given in his name.
It doesn’t change the fact that he was still too young.
“When that happens,” Gerhardt says, “you can’t help but think. You do your own calculations.”
“On how long you might have left.”
A call for help
If anything, this only makes them play harder, to seek more games, more competition. The league plays two or three times a month, and when it can raise enough money, it sends teams to out-of-state tournaments and special events. It is trying to raise enough to send a squad to the North American championships in August 2006. It wasn’t able to raise the funds for the 2004 championships, even though it had a squad that qualified.
You watch these wheelchair hockey games, you see the joy when a goal is scored or the hand slaps exchanged after a good play, you hear the friendly ribbing from the families — “Hey, are you guys playing cards out there or you playing hockey?” — you see the sportsmanship, the effort, the 60 minutes of healthy competition, and you realize you are truly witnessing the redemptive power of sports. Nothing less. Playing hockey may not save their lives, but it certainly makes them richer.
“The first time I got out there?” Gerhardt recalls. “I don’t know if I can put into words how I felt, other than it’s only something only an athlete can feel when he’s on the field. Unbelievable? Wonderful? All of the above?
“I remember getting my jersey for joining the league. I remember my name was on the back of that jersey. And I remember feeling that I was part of a team — not just the manager sitting on the bench, cheering other guys on, you know?
“I was out there playing.”
They are all out there playing. The teenagers, the girls, the older guys, the goalie with the Mohawk. They are playing, they are clanking, they are spinning, churning and dreaming of the Cup. And they are teaching us a valuable lesson: Just because you end up in a chair doesn’t mean you have to sit down in your life.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. For information about or to make donations to the Wheelchair Hockey League, call 517-410-0202 or go to www.wchl-michigan.com.