Rattlers ready to Knock & Roll


By Louis Hillary Park
Staff Writer

Jan. 13 - Tires squeal. Steel bumpers grind against sheet metal fenders. Sparks fly from undercarriages. The vehicles tilt up on two wheels, they go. And there's a crash!



NASCAR?

No.

It's quad rugby, and the vehicles are wheelchairs that can race like dragsters, pivot like sports cars and block like tanks.

"I've flipped every way possible," Chip Dytko of Hobe Sound was saying as his team, the South Florida Rattlers, prepared for this weekend's Knock & Roll Tournament in Jupiter. "I've gone face forward, all the way onto my back. A total rollover.

"When you get a good hit, you can smell it. It's the smell of burning metal."

Dytko, who has been a quadriplegic since a 1984 diving accident, says the sport - which is played with a volleyball on a regulation basketball court - requires all of the stamina and physical toughness of its namesake, but is really a basketball-hockey hybrid when it comes to execution.

Played in four eight-minute periods with four players per side, there's dribbling, passing and steals, and lots of teeth-rattling, chair-tilting floor checks as opponents try to cross a 26-foot, 3-inch section of each end line. Each score is worth one point.

"There's a lot going on out there," says Dytko, the father of two teen-age sons and a senior assistant engineer at Pratt & Whitney, working on the Space Shuttle main engines. "There's a lot of strategy involved. There are any number of offenses and defenses."

All are on display starting at 9 a.m. Saturday Jan. 12 at the West Jupiter Recreation Center at 6401 Indiantown Road. Eight teams from as far away as Ohio and Texas, California and New York will participate in event, which began Friday.

The finals are set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13.

Come on out. Grab a seat - just about anywhere. A full house is far from expected. Fifty or so people is about the biggest crowd Rattlers' player/manager John Bishop of Lake Worth has played before in the United States - "and most of those were friends and family," he says.

That's a far cry from some 10,000 who filled to the rafters the Sydney arena where the finals of the 2000 Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby finals were held. Several thousand more would-be spectators milled around outside hoping for tickets while the game between Australia and the United States was broadcast live on the Australian television network.

The match went back and forth, but with only seconds remaining, the top-seeded U.S. team pulled out a 34-33 gold medal victory.

"It was amazing overwhelming," says Bishop, a former treasurer of the National Quad Rugby Association, who helped manage the American squad. "Disabled athletes are as well known in Australia as Olympic athletes are here."

Bishop, a big man with a lumberjack's shoulders, says it's hard to pinpoint the reasons for the cavernous disparity between the international interest in wheelchair sports, and the general lack of interest in the United States.

Whatever the reasons, Bishop and Dytko agree that participating in quad rugby - also known as wheelchair rugby - isn't done for the roar of the crowd; it's done to feel again the pounding of a competitive heart inside a body that is largely paralyzed.

"When you wind up in a wheelchair, it doesn't mean life stops," says Dytko, who grew up playing baseball and racing dirt bikes near his family's Connecticut farm. "I'm not satisfied to be an observer, without the adrenaline rush (of competition)."

In fact, Dytko isn't satisfied to be an observer in any aspect of life.

While still in a hospital bed recovering from his spinal cord injury, he married his fiancÈe, and later fathered two sons. Though the marriage ended after six years, Dytko continued to raise his children from a wheelchair. Ryan, now 17 and a junior at South Fork High in Stuart, and J.D., now 15 and a freshman at Palm Beach County's Dreyfoos School of the Arts, have grown up as cheerleaders and pit crew not only for their dad but for the entire Rattler team.

The Dytko brothers can run the clock, keep the score book, referee a game or help repair one of the $1,800 to $2,700 custom-built wheelchairs used in quad rugby. And when there are not enough players to practice, or someone needs a break, Ryan and J.D. are eager to strap into a chair, tape their hands and fill-in on the court.

"I love playing whenever I get the chance," says J.D., whose major focus is music.

Ryan, who plays defensive end for the South Fork Bulldogs, says growing up with a father in a wheelchair has its benefits - such as traveling with the Rattlers to three or four tournaments a year as far away as Arizona.

On the serious side, "it's taught me more responsibility," he says. "I think I adapt more quickly to things." "The only two things I don't do are walk and see the dirt on the top of my refrigerator," says the 42-year-old Dytko, whose slender build and narrow face harbor blue eyes full of intensity and focus. "I'm really no different from any other father."

But each spinal cord injury is very different. A few inches - even a few millimeters - up or down the spinal cord can make the difference between having full use of you shoulders or very limited use, nearly normal arm strength or nearly no arm strength, complete use of your hands or hands that are of no use.

Those differences were the impetus for the creation in the 1970s of quad rugby, which gave a competitive team sports outlet to quadriplegics who do not have the hand dexterity necessary for wheelchair basketball.

For further fairness, each quad rugby player receives a rating of 0.5 to 3.5 depending on his or her level of ability/disability; and a team cannot have players equaling more than 8 points on the court at one time.

Even though it originally was called "murderball" because of the aggressive nature of play, Bishop, who has been quadriplegic since 1976, says the game really isn't as violent as the ominous name implies.

In fact, because of the rating system, it's equally competitive for men or women, he says - noting that the founder of the Rattlers in "92 was female quadriplegic, Brenda Cole.

"The things I liked best were the exercise, and the camaraderie of the team," remembers the petite Cole, who played for Rattlers for some three years before moving to Tennessee.

"Endurance was a piece of cake for me (but) when it came to size and strength, that's where I was really lacking."

Whatever the differences in skill land ability levels among players, Rattlers' Coach Aaron Banfield says the one thing that unites a good team is the commitment to the game.

"The level of dedication among many quad rugby players is close to that of a professional athlete," says Baffled, who has been the Rattlers' coach for three years and been associated with the team for nine years. "Everyone on our team, at one time or another, has made sacrifices of time and money to be able to participate in the sport.

"It should be a very competitive tournament."

louis.park@scripps.com


If You Go


What: The second-annual Knock & Roll Wheelchair Rugby Tournament.

When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, and 9 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 13; the finals are set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: West Jupiter Recreation Center, 6401 Indiantown Road, Jupiter.

Admission: Free.

Information: www.quadrugby.com or call 561-747-3455.