By J.D. Moor
The offensive and defensive lines set up in formation, ready to go.
Andrea Arnold, coach of this Atlanta Wolfpack team, blew her whistle to set things in motion. As the players moved about the field, the coach wasn’t all together pleased with what she saw.
“Only thing I don’t like about that play, Terry, is you stay in the pocket too long!” she shouted to quarterback Terry Chambers.
“The hardest part is making choices between how Coach Andrea tells me to play and what my gut tells me to do,” Chambers said later.
This is wheelchair football. These athletes are students with disabilities, but also with capabilities that propel them to compete in this rough sport and to play wheelchair handball and basketball, and to win. The Wolfpack, which practices and plays its home games at the Carl E. Sanders YMCA in Buckhead, has claimed five state championships.
Chambers is the team captain. He’s a 10th grader at Carver High School and he’s been playing the three wheelchair sports for six years. He, his brother and his mother suffer from familial spastic paralysis.
“I look different on the outside, but on the inside it feels like I‘m walking like a normal person. I always thought I wanted to be a rapper, but now I want to do this forever, compete overseas and win medals,” he said.
Arnold, who’s been coaching the team for six years, is a recreational specialist with the city of Atlanta. Any boy or girl, grade 1-12, whose primary disability is physical, is eligible to play. They may walk unassisted or with devices, but they must sit in manual or power wheelchairs to compete. The Wolfpack is part of the league organized by the American Association of Adapted Sports Programs and Atlanta Public Schools.
Arnold wishes more school systems would adopt adapted sports programs. “Our students don’t drop out. Many go to college, when beforehand that wasn’t considered possible for this population of kids,” she says.
As you might expect, wheelchair football is different from the more familiar game. It’s played on an indoor basketball court, six players to a team. Players tag each other instead of tackling. Each team gets six downs. Teams may pass or run the ball. Field goals, kick-offs and punts are thrown. Extra points and field goals are scored when the ball travels through the brackets holding up the basket.
Chambers‘ co-captain is 15-year-old Lacey Todd, an eighth grader at Coan Middle School. She‘s only one of two girls on the football team and the only girl on all three teams. Her favorite position is quarterback, but she usually blocks or is a wide receiver and a rusher on defense.
“We call Lacey ‘the runner’ because she is the wolf in the Wolfpack and she always gets us moving,” Chambers says.
Todd calls her captain a big brother: “If you don’t know how to do something, he’ll say, ‘Yes, you can,’ and show you how.”
Todd has Larsen Syndrome, which has affected her mobility but not her attitude. “I’m playing these sports, not watching them on TV. So I’ve set my goals a little higher and it keeps me going. The coaches believe in us and think we can go much further in life,” she says softly.
Arnold sees how much these activities help her athletes. “Lacey is often the smallest player on the floor, but she’s no longer intimidated. She’s outspoken and she’s even become demanding,” she said. “Terry has learned leadership skills. He’s accountable and much more disciplined.”
Six seniors graduated last year, and the Wolfpack is rebuilding with rookies. They have yet to win a football game this season. They have two more games on April 21 and may not make the playoffs. Still, Arnold knows the team has even bigger challenges ahead. “We need funding and better parental support. Our kids deserve to have their friends and family at the games,” she says.
Win or lose, 16-year-old Chambers says he always enjoys the beginning and the end of each competition.
“I like those pre-game jitters,” he said, “the whistle blowing to start the game and the sportsmanship of shaking hands with your opponents at the end, looking them in the eye and saying, ‘Good game.’”