Thrusting her chin over a pull-up bar in a Belleville basement gym, Kerri Morgan looks like she could crush a nail with her teeth.
"Come on, Kerri," coaxes her athletic trainer, Steve Bunn, as he holds her spindly legs steady. A second passes then two before a grimacing Morgan can eke out the next pull-up in a set of eight. "Five! Let's go!" Bunn barks as she clears the bar.
Morgan is 32, a plucky quadriplegic who sometimes speaks in threes ("Yup, yup, yup") and curses only under duress. She's a woman who can't pass the pinstripe suits at Nordstrom without spotting one she'd like to hang in her wheel-in closet the same woman who, when her chair was knocked over by an able-bodied runner during a Houston half-marathon, finished the race, bruised and bleeding.
Quads to set the oft-confused record straight have spinal cord injuries, and (as many will tell you) they're not all Christopher Reeve. Typically paralyzed from the upper chest down, quads boast varying levels of function in their torso, arms and hands. Some, like the deceased Reeve, are solely dependent on caretakers. Others can make a salad and handle a keyboard.
Morgan, an occupational therapist and instructor at Washington University, has good mobility in her reedy arms and long, piano-player fingers. She can clasp jewelry and fasten buttons, and her thumbs excel at sending BlackBerry messages all the better for her full-time infatuation, quadriplegic rugby.
The premise of the game (better known as "murderball") is simple: Hold the ball and get two wheels of your gladiator-like wheelchair over the goal line. Smash the hell out of your opponents. Slam them into the hardwood and keep going.
The very injuries that make quads impervious to a stab in the leg suit them well for this fast, fiendish game. It's the perfect fit for extreme-sports enthusiasts whose competitive inner clocks keep on ticking after their bodies take a licking. The game's motto: "Give Blood."
Morgan has spent the past five years honing her murderball skills, and she works out with Bunn each week in preparation for the ultimate quad-rugby challenge: the U.S. Paralympic Team tryouts.
By all accounts she faces an uphill climb. For one, the national team is a powerhouse, currently ranked number one in the world and a consistent medaler at the Paralympic Games. Then there's the matter of size: Despite her frequent intake of large cheese pizzas from Maurizio's, the five-foot-one Morgan barely clocks in at 100 pounds.
Finally, there's her gender. Quad rugby is coed, but as Morgan's coach and roommate, Sue Tucker, explains: "Kerri's definitely playing in a man's world." One can count the number of female players in the U.S. on two hands, and most of the coaches are men. The national team currently has twelve players, and not one of them sports a pair of X chromosomes.
Earlier this year, though, the International Paralympic Committee announced that beginning with the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, twelve-player rosters must include at least one woman. The new rule has stirred controversy in the United States. James Gumbert, the Texas-based national team coach, says a female should have to earn a spot on the team just as a man would.
Veteran murderball players believe women need a few more years to elevate their play. Notes Ed Hooper, the Florida-based president of the U.S. Quad Rugby Association, "I think most of them couldn't play at the elite level with the males."
Still, some coaches say if any woman has a shot, it's Kerri Morgan.
"She's the best female player I know of," says Mike Sells, coach of the Tennessee TNT. "Her determination's her best strength."
"She's got the right personality," agrees Kevin Orr, the former U.S. Paralympic Team coach. "She needs speed, and she needs to be more confident with the ball."
To start, Morgan's trainer says she needs to put on at least six pounds of muscle. She'll have to push a mile in under eight minutes and fire a torrent of accurate half-court passes, one after another.
"I don't want you to be the girl that makes the men's team," Bunn tells her.
Clearly fatigued, Morgan is struggling to finish the pull-ups, and her exhalations are growing louder. Between completing graduate-school applications, traveling to weekend tournaments and coping with the recent death of a 31-year-old teammate, it's been a grueling couple of months. The night before this workout, Morgan rolled off a plane from a four-day business trip to Boston and went straight to rugby practice, then out for beers at Blueberry Hill. She returned home at 1 a.m.
But when Bunn finally plops her back into her chair, Morgan reaches for a water bottle and smiles.
"I've been wanting her to commit to this for a long time," Bunn says.
Of the estimated 250,000 quadriplegics in the U.S., only 500 play murderball. "It'd be the difference between a figure skater and a hockey player," explains Kevin Orr, the former Paralympic rugby coach. "You've got to want to pop somebody."
The requirement for eligibility is a disability in at least three limbs. Quadriplegics, certain amputees and athletes with birth defects can play. Paraplegics cannot.
Each player is assigned a "class" on a scale of 0.5 to 3.5, depending on their disability. Those with higher function in their trunks, arms and hands receive a higher rating. The lesser the strength and function, the lower the class, and the better suited the player is for defense. Only eight class points can be fielded at any time.
The squads square off four-on-four, with the speedier, abler pair racing for the goal line and the other twosome trying to hold opponents in place with a "picker" a pronged metal limb protruding from the bottom of their chairs.
These stabilizing chairs have evolved over the years, but the rules have never mandated protective gear. "This guy said to me once: 'You don't wear helmets?! What if you break your neck?'" recounts Paul Rickman of Belleville. "I just looked at him like, 'Dope!' Been there, done that."
The clock doesn't stop when somebody flips and breaks a wrist. Blisters and butt sores come with the turf. "I think it's nuts," exclaims David Gray, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Washington University and Kerri Morgan's boss. "I'm a quad, and I'm not playing. The bottom line is if you hurt yourself like break a bone it could be fatal."
Counters Florian Thomas, director of the spinal cord injury/dysfunction service at the St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center, "I think the game looks more dangerous than it is. These players are extremely athletically trained."
Like the placement of tape on their hands and arms, and like their varied injuries, no player's M.O. ever seems to mimic another's. Some push their chairs with their knuckles, others with the palms and an occasional back of the hand. Watch closely, and you'll see some players snare the ball between their wrists. A few use their forearms to grasp the ball and their chin to trap it in their lap. Whatever works.
The sport is young, imported to the U.S. in the late 1970s after a handful of Canadian quadriplegics took a shot at wheelchair basketball in a rehab session but couldn't net a single basket. Drawing on the rules of basketball, hockey and able-bodied rugby, they devised their own rough-and-tumble game and named it murderball.
"We had to change the name officially a while ago," says Ed Hooper, "because corporate sponsors didn't want to be associated with the word 'murder.'"
Sponsors are the sport's holy grail. Between tournament and travel fees, it can cost a team more than $30,000 a year to compete. The custom-made wheelchairs cost up to $5,000 and may last only two to three years.
Some teams have corporate backing, but the St. Louis Rugby Rams (Missouri's only squad) pay as they play. "We get little bites here and there," says Morgan, the Rams' co-captain, whose chair is sponsored by Balance Bar. "But I would love to get one of the [St. Louis] companies or sports organizations behind us full-time."
The Rams have competed for twelve years, but they only recruited Sue Tucker, a suffers-no-bullshit volunteer coach, four years ago. "We used to suck so bad," says the 28-year-old Tucker, a former point guard for the Washington University Bears basketball team. "We'd be happy if we lost by ten points instead of twenty."
But this season which runs from September to April the Rams have placed in the top three at every tournament they've attended, and their prospect of making the top-sixteen cut for the national tournament in April appears better than ever.
What's more, the Rams' roster recently spiked from ten to sixteen players. "Murderball is the fastest-growing wheelchair game in the world," says Hooper. "Soon I think even China will have a team."
In the past year, eight new squads joined the United States' 39-member league. Africa, Latin America and Australia already boast teams, and Italy recently became the latest European nation to put a squad together. Credit goes to the 2005 documentary Murderball, a provocative film that revolved around the fiery personalities of the U.S. national team under Kevin Orr between 2001 and 2004. Hailed by critics and nominated for an Oscar, the movie chronicles the team's one-point loss to Canada at the 2002 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and its attempt to settle the score at the 2004 Paralympic Games.
"I've probably seen it 30 times, at least," exclaims Eric Newby, a nineteen-year-old Ram, who quotes from the film regularly.
"It's an awesome movie," agrees Morgan, employing one of her favorite adjectives. "The only problem with it is they never say the sport is coed!"
On the morning of November 3, the directors of the Kutis Funeral Home in south county lowered Jason DeSalvo's coffin so that his rugby teammates could see him.
Coach Sue Tucker and Kerri Morgan arrive at the wake shortly after 6 p.m., just as some of the veterans are counting the number of teammates who've died four and reminiscing about the team's early days when they practiced at a south-city recreation center and knocked back beers afterward. "That was before we got all serious," says Vito Lucido.
Tucker heckles Clayton Braun for missing his private workouts with her, while Braun makes fun of Morgan's separation-from-her-rugby-chair anxiety. Mark Greeley, meanwhile, offers up a joke: "What do you call a quad without teeth? Useless."
The team passes around a permanent marker, and everyone writes a few last words on a rugby ball that will go into the coffin. "J-Dawg," as they called him, lies at the front of the room in a black suit with his hands, shellacked with foundation, crossed over his mid-section. Morgan can't take her eyes off them.
"Those aren't his hands," she says. "He refused to wear tape, so he always had holes all over his hands. He had rugby hands. But those aren't them."
DeSalvo, of Ellisville, was a spry, sandy-haired fourteen-year-old when he dove into a shallow swimming pool and broke his neck in the summer of 1989. He finished high school, went on to the University of Missouri-Rolla and became a computer programmer for Amdocs. He glided through life in an electric wheelchair and much preferred working on his beer knowledge than working off his beer belly.
Last year DeSalvo met Tucker and Morgan and, at their urging, went out for the Rams. He couldn't make it around three-quarters of the court's perimeter before stopping to catch his breath at his first practice. "It was hard," DeSalvo said two days before he died. "Everybody's doing circles around you."
Tucker recalls thinking: "Oh, boy, he's never coming back."
But by this fall, DeSalvo could complete numerous laps around the court. And after almost seventeen years in a power wheelchair, quad rugby motivated him to trade it in for a manual one. "What got me was I put wrist weights on every morning in front of my computer and just pushed and pushed," he said. "I love rugby. It's physical, it's social, and it helps your inner self."
The weekend before his death, the Rams held their annual home tournament in Sunset Hills and, to DeSalvo's surprise, Tucker put him in for several minutes during the team's biggest match against the Chicago Bears. He went home that Sunday evening, ordered a pizza with a friend and settled down to watch the other Rams St. Louis' NFL team. He didn't feel well and retired early.
Sometime later DeSalvo vomited in bed and asphyxiated. He lay in the hospital on life-support for two nights.
"After the tournament, Sunday, everybody was on such a high," Morgan said the day before DeSalvo's death on October 31. "This was not what we were expecting to hear first thing this morning. But at least he had his rugby family. There were twelve of us trying to cram our chairs into this little hospital room to be with him."
Ranging in age from nineteen to fifty, the Rams hail from as far away as Springfield, Illinois, and Columbia, Missouri, and the narratives of their accidents are eerily similar. One day they are driving, riding a dirt bike or diving into a cool, beckoning body of water. The next moment they remember comes weeks later, when they wake up in a hospital. Suddenly the back of their neck carries a scar. Beneath it is a fractured vertebra replaced with titanium. But they can't lift their arms behind their head to touch the grooved wound. Their legs are leaden.
"You get home from the hospital, and it's discouraging," says nineteen-year-old Ashley Rawie. "You're like: 'What do I do with my days now?'"
Marriages collapse; friendships dissolve.
"It's a bummer," adds Rawie, "but you learn not to sweat the small stuff. You find out really fast who your true friends are."
One place new relationships form is rehab. That's where 23-year-old Clayton Braun and 24-year-old Justin Knight met, only to learn they both dove off ski boats into the same Mississippi River sand bar a year and three days apart.
After Knight saw how Braun had taken to rugby, he decided to also go out for the Rams this past autumn. "Every time I play I get more into it, and I improve," says Knight. "My shoulder and arm strength, my endurance, skills, coordination, everything I'm getting it back. And it's helping in everyday life."
Tragedy may have forged the Rams' union, but a fierce desire to get on with a normal life is the glue that keeps them together. They share everything from personal hygiene tips to the best positions for sex. Before rugby, many of them didn't even know what, if anything, they were capable of.
"You see people like Kevin [Brown], who gets real cocky about things, and you say, 'Well, if he's doing that, I can do it, too,'" explains Mike Cooley, of Columbia. "My wife used to do everything for me. She dressed me, she fed me everything. Within one month of coming here I was doing it all for myself."
Brown, in fact, does triathlons. Mark Greeley and Larry Porter are racers. (Porter won the Berlin marathon this year.) Vito Lucido water-skis and Mike Norris snow-skis. Steve Henry, a Boeing engineer, has gone parasailing, and Paul Rickman, who has sky-dived twice, used to be an aerobatic pilot with his own Cessna 150.
"Don't call us the Special Olympics," Rickman warns. "Those are for people with mental issues. The Paralympics we're jocks."
Kerri Morgan has been a quadriplegic for 31 years. On June 12, 1975, the day after her first birthday, she ran a fever of 108 degrees and her body went rigid from the chest down. Doctors at a hospital in Long Island, New York, where Morgan was born, eventually diagnosed it as acute transverse myelitis, a rare spinal cord dysfunction that strikes 1,400 Americans a year.
The doctors couldn't say one way or another if Morgan would ever walk. "That was what was so difficult," recalls Morgan's mother, Joan.
Kerri Morgan thus went through life graduating from a wheelchair to a walker, on to crutches and a pair of canes. She endured fourteen years of therapy, marked by endless repetition of simple tasks. She hated every minute of it.
"They made me dress these stupid dolls, and button them up, and zip them up, and I'm like, 'I don't want to do that! Stop making me do that!' The dolls had little shoes, and I couldn't tie them, and it just pissed me off. And then it was time to go to school, and we had to practice things like getting on and off the bus. We must have practiced that a million times, figuring out strategies so I could go to school like everybody else."
When Morgan was five years old, the family moved from New York to a Ballwin subdivision. Kerri's older brother, Mike, made sure she was included in all the neighborhood kids' games. But first he figured out which non-running positions she could master.
"In football he made me the quarterback, and I could throw the ball better than most of the boys," she recalls. "We practiced over and over in our basement [before we went outside]. He'd suit me up in hockey equipment and start reaming pucks at me, and say, 'You better start catching them!' He was the first person to tell me if I was being a whiny baby, and then he'd give me a 'swirly.'" (Translation: He'd stick her head in the toilet bowl and flush.)
Morgan had no problem making friends. She was the vice president of her senior class at St. Joseph's Academy and of her sorority, Pi Beta Phi, at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She also never let her disability hold her back. Like many college kids, for instance, she studied abroad. When she learned that London's underground rail system couldn't accommodate the motorized scooter she used then, she took taxis to meet up with friends.
Despite years of sampling different modified sports ice skating, horseback riding, swimming Morgan never really found an athletic niche to suit her ultra-competitive nature, inherited, she says, from her father.
"Growing up, playing Candy Land, he would never let my brother or me win. He'd cream us and then be like, 'I beat you!' My mom would be yelling at him, but he would argue back. He'd say: 'Life is competitive, and you have to work for things. You don't just get them.'"
Six years ago, walking with a pair of canes attached to her forearms, Morgan began to experience constant pain along her sides and back. She'd hobble home from work at Wash U. every day, pop some ibuprofen and go to bed. Finally, she saw a doctor.
"She told me my impaired gait was causing the problems, and if I didn't want to have any more pain I'd have to quit walking," Morgan recalls. "I definitely had issues with that."
Months later, the pain unbearable, Morgan broke down and bought a wheelchair. She didn't tell her parents until she visited at their new home in Southern California. "I thought it was viewed as: 'You're using a chair, you have more of a disability.' But my life is so much better. I probably should've tried it sooner than I did."
Not long after Morgan started using a chair full-time, she was skiing at Hidden Valley when a then-Rugby Ram, Neil Hayden, noticed her specifically, her nimble hands and recruited her to the team.
"I originally just did it because I was a workaholic at that point, and it would make me leave the office," Morgan says.
In addition to teaching, Morgan runs a research lab at Wash. U. and sits on the Missouri Assistive Technology Advisory Council. "She has worked through the night to get grants ready to go out," says David Gray, her boss. "I'll leave at two in the morning and come back at seven, and she hasn't left."
In the early days of Morgan's rugby career, her teammates rankled her, saying she was too small to play. This prompted her to study videos of the national team and push up parking garage ramps to stay fit. Soon her size became an asset: good for squeezing in and out of small holes on the court and yanking 360s to outsmart her defenders.
Every Saturday for a season she and teammate Kevin Brown left St. Louis at 4 a.m., drove to Memphis, practiced with the Tennessee TNT for five hours, then drove back home. As she puts it: "When you get bit by the rugby bug, you'll do just about anything."
On tournament days Kerri Morgan, #1, can often be found outside the gym for a pre-warm-up warm-up: circling laps in the parking lot, pushing up a nearby hill, pumping her head to the Metallica coming over her iPod. She does all of this to scare away the butterflies.
Tucker calls Morgan "Princess," in reference to her obsessive color-coordinating of her jersey, shorts and bandana. But Morgan is no priss. Classified a "3," she's the team's primary ball-handler and starts every game. This season she's broken a thumb, gotten walloped in the jaw and flipped.
"The first time I ever got flipped I think it was in Michigan at a tournament the poor guy that flipped me, everybody was booing him because, you know, he flipped a girl," she says. "Well, he deserved it, actually. He was a jerk."
The Rams' only home tournament of the season took place the weekend before Halloween at South County Technical High School. In past years they haven't hosted more than a handful of spectators.
This time the stands are a quarter full.
The Rams win two games handily but throw away a match against TNT, losing by one point. During the final match against Chicago, Tucker is on her knees smacking the floor half the game. The Rams kept turning the ball over to Chicago. As St. Louis began to trail further behind, Tucker started yelling at the refs and crying "Dammit!" again and again.
Chicago's #11, who also plays for Canada's national team, has it out for Morgan, at one point ramming her right into the scoring table, sending the trophies flying.
When Greeley pops a tire, Mike Cooley's wife, Leslie, and the assistant coach, Katie Jacobson a.k.a. the "pit crew" sprint out to put a new wheel on his chair. During time-outs Morgan needs her foot placement adjusted by Jacobson, and Brown needs water sprayed on his face.
The score is 46-26, Chicago, halfway through the final quarter, when Tucker calmly reclines in her chair and diagnoses "a bad case of fumble-itis."
But with eighteen seconds left, Porter makes her proud by forcing a fifteen-second violation on the opponent and being sure not to reach for the ball (a foul). "Nice!" she cries. Porter races past Tucker and says, "You know how hard it was not to touch that ball? It's like being at a titty bar with free money!"
Final score: 53-36, Chicago.
"Ugly," concludes Tucker.
An hour later, most of the team has packed their van for the ride home. But Morgan is still in the gym, hunched over the floor trying to scrub away skid marks, taciturn and grimacing. She's wishing she hadn't pooped out in the final quarter of the game against TNT. She's pissed that more teammates aren't helping clean the floor. She's disappointed that reporters from KMOV (Channel 4) came by the tournament only to interview players on the subject of stem-cell research for a counterpoint to a segment on an anti-stem-cell rally.
At her loft a few weeks later, Morgan describes her politics (Republican) and her position on Missouri's hot-button stem-cell issue (complicated).
"Obviously, I'm for it," she says. "But I'm against how they advocate for it. I don't like the whole you-need-a-cure-otherwise-you-don't-have-a-life spiel. I mean, you can have a life sitting down."
Surrounding Morgan is plenty of proof: wheelchairs made for road-racing, rugby, road-biking and mountain-biking, the latest issue of Sports 'N Spokes on the counter.
Two years ago Morgan decided to get into triathlons and looked for local races. She found the Lake Saint Louis Triathlon, held every September, but worried she might have missed the deadline. "I called them up and I said, 'Hey, is it too late to register for the wheelchair division?' And there was this really looong silence. Finally they're like, 'Um, it's not too late, but we don't have a wheelchair division.'"
So Morgan explained what equipment she had and how she needed an earlier starting time than the able-bodied athletes, and that was that. "They were awesome about it," she says. "Now more wheelchair athletes do it."
Only in her sleep does Morgan let her mind wander to what life on two good legs is like. "When I dream, I run."