Super Humans of Sport: Rebirth Through Rugby
Jeremy Finton wheels out to center court at the Libertyville Sports and Fitness Complex in Libertyville, Illinois. It is a large building, two stories high. There are several basketball courts inside along with some artificial turf fields. In the rear, behind a few youth basketball games, there’s a gathering of wheelchair rugby teams.
Finton’s black jersey is adorned with a scarlet “6” on the back and large “Ohio” across the front. His long black pants rattle from spasms in his steel framed chair nonstop as he bumps fists with an opposing player. His bald head shines against the lights of the gym and his tattoos are shone perfectly along his pale skin.
It’s been 14 years since Finton suffered a major spinal cord injury after slipping on a rail that guarded a pool outside his apartment in Dayton, Ohio. At the age of 22 he had felt invincible, but with a single step he had lost the ability to feel his legs.
“Let’s work on fast transitions, good ball handling, no bad passes,” Finton says to his teammates.
A tall, brunette woman with her hair in a ponytail wearing a referee’s shirt with black pants stands in the middle of the court with a white volleyball in hand. Players from the Ohio Blitz and Grand Rapids Thunder make their way toward her.
A point system is used to determine which players are allowed to be on the court at the same time.
Players are given a number ranging from .5–3.5 at half point increments based on their level of physical function. Left without the use of his triceps, trunk, and hands, Finton is classified as a .5 or a low-pointer as some call it. Teams are allowed to have a maximum of eight points on the floor.
In order to score, one member must have the front or back of both wheels cross the goal line on one end of the court with the ball in their lap within 40 seconds.
The rugby chairs are designed differently from everyday ones. Beneath the seat is a wide metal structure that appears similar to the bottom of a shopping cart. There are two small wheels on the front and backside.
The referee hands the ball off to a young Thunder player who rolls to the middle of the sideline. She stretches her right arm out to one end of the court to show which way the ball is headed. Finton gets into position right in front of the inbounder and forces the opposing team’s bald and skinny low-pointer to maneuver around him. The whistle screeches again. The game has begun.
Grand Rapids’ inbounder lobs the ball over Finton’s head but it falls through the hands of his teammate and bounces to the floor. The ball is locked up by Ben Waker, the youngest member of the Ohio Blitz, who turns around but finds himself trapped with defenders to his front, right, and back. Waker turns his head to the right and bounces the ball behind two defenders and on its way up it lands in the hands of Shawn “Chops” Vogelsange.
With a clear path ahead, Vogelsange makes his way to the opposite end of the court and crosses the line for the first point of the game. Vogelsange hands the ball back to the referee and rolls back to the other side, wiping sweat from his sideburns on the way back. The ball is inbounded and is caught by a bald, pale man with a goatee. Waker blocks his path but he moves around him thanks to a screen set by his husky and balding teammate.
He crosses mid-court but is cut off by Vogelsange. He comes to a sudden stop before tossing the ball over Vogelsange’s long and extended right arm. A chunky player with curly hair, glasses, and a missing right hand turns his head back and stretches his left arm out to catch the ball as it bounces his way. He eases past the line for the score.
Finton takes the ball out and does a bounce pass to Pita Luga, a young man with jet black hair. He turns his chair around as the one-handed defender blocks his path. Finton rams his into the front of the defender’s chair, creating a loud thud that sends vibrations between the two. Luga swings back out to his left, turns around, and speeds down the side passing by everyone for the score.
The Blitz beat the Thunder, 58–43. Finton rarely touched the ball but helped his teammates out by setting picks. The team heads back to the Holiday Inn and celebrates by ordering some of Chicago’s finest pizza. The next day, they finish out the tournament with losses to the Clippers and St. Louis Rams. The Blitz finish the weekend in 4th place.
Jeremy Finton’s life changed July 1, 2001. He returned to his apartment in Dayton, Ohio from his grandmother’s funeral. He was tired and grieving. He just wanted to sit and relax with a few friends who had come home with him.
As they approached the door of the apartment, they joked about the two-foot deep kid’s pool that loomed just 10 feet away from the door. Its small, compact structure was juxtaposed with a large railing about waist high.
As his friends joked about jumping in the pool, Finton, seeking a relief from his grief, turned from the door and took off in a full sprint toward the pool.
He took a long stride and lept into the air with his two slender arms stretched out wide. His attempt to the clear the plastic railing with a towel rack attached was futile. He extended his arms but couldn’t clear his entire 6-foot frame with a leg getting stuck on the bar. The back of his head and neck slammed into the bottom of the pool.
“It was a dead man’s float,” Finton said. “Mickey Mouse convulsions. Chest compressions.”
He knew at that moment something was wrong, but he remained calm. His friend’s turned into a mixture of frightened and concerned. They reached into the water to pull him to safety.
He instructed his friends to support his neck and rotate his body to prevent further injury. He tried to use his legs but they were not working.
Finton felt like he could still flex his muscles . He was sure.
“Feel my leg,” Finton said. “I’m flexing it, right?”
His friends looked at him with a wide-eyed stare. Finton knew from the look it couldn’t be good. He knew his fate had been decided with this one moment. Life would never be the same.
“At that point I didn’t know what life was going to entail,” said Finton. “All I pretty much know is I can’t move.”
Despite his knowledge of the situation, he wouldn’t allow himself to come to terms with reality.
He had received his associate’s degree from Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, and had dreams of becoming a chef. All his hard work was going down the drain in one split second decision.
He was slowly seeing it slip away as he heard the sound of an ambulance rushing up. He knew those flashing lights were for him this time. He slipped in and out of consciousness as he was loaded in the back on a stretcher.
The ambulance brought him to Kettering Hospital in Dayton, Ohio around 10 p.m., where he was greeted by familiar faces. He was employed there as a patient transporter. He saw the looks of concern on his co-workers’ faces.
He was taken into a room with a nurse by his side and waited for the doctor to arrive. He was hooked up to a heart monitor with wires running alongside his body.
His time as a patient transporter allowed him to recognize the signs. The numbness. The way people treated him during the visit.
The damage to his spinal cord had left him paralyzed from the waist down with limited use of his triceps and no hand function.
He underwent surgery to fuse his neck vertebrae and remained in intensive care for two-and-a-half weeks.
Finton was transferred to Miami Valley Hospital to begin rehabilitation. He maneuvered through occupational therapy and physical therapy. But it was his state of mind that was most broken.
He struggled with simple needs like feeding and cleaning himself, and spent the next three and a half months learning how to do everything again.
“Wanting to get out of there. Wanting to walk again. Wanting to do normal stuff,” Finton said. He couldn’t imagine a scenario where he would be able to transition back to being a normal part of society.
After he was cleared to leave rehab, Finton moved back in with his parents, which presented a new set of challenges.
“It’s not fun when you’ve been on your own and independent for a couple years,” Finton said. “That brings that whole dynamic back. You’re always their baby so you always have that thing going.”
Weeks after moving back in, Finton and his parents were at odds about his future. His parents wanted him to use a power chair, but Finton said he felt like it would make him too dependent.
His parents wanted him to return to school, but at that time in his life Finton wasn’t ready. His life, as he knew it, was over. He suffered from depression and only wanted to play Final Fantasy on his PlayStation 2 all day.
“It took a long time for me to get into the sports because it wasn’t a priority,” Finton said. “I was perfectly content sitting at home playing video games. It was an escape if you will.”
Nine months after his injury Finton and his parents decided it was best for him to get out on his own again. He moved into a small apartment to begin a new life. From there, Finton learned that being in a wheelchair didn’t have to keep him from living his life.
Finton became aware of a number of activities from his time in rehab and support groups at the hospital. It wasn’t until his core group of able bodied friends began pushing him to try new things that he started exploring options. In 2003, Finton was encouraged by one of his quadriplegic friends to try rugby.
Finton was soon introduced to Bret Harbage, coach of the Ohio Buckeye Blitz wheelchair rugby team based in Columbus, Ohio. From 2003–2006, Finton would only attend practice on occasion without consistency. After his parents forced him to go back to school in 2006, Finton became committed to using rugby as an outlet.
“It was really a lot of work to get there,” Finton said. “I still played video games but I went to practices and that became a routine.”
The beginnings weren’t easy for Finton. He didn’t have much experience so he spent a lot of time watching others from the sideline. While he was frustrated with his lack of playing time, he used it as motivation to work even harder.
“It was that part of ‘Well how come I have to sit the bench? How come I can’t go play?’,” Finton said. “It was a matter of pushing and lifting and trying to get better and going to those practices because I wanted better than where I was at.”
Competitiveness wasn’t the only thing that kept Finton moving forward. He was able to develop friendships and bonds by spending time with those who shared his condition. Playing rugby allowed him to see how others were able to enjoy life in spite of their different abilities.
“The sports just took everything off,” he said. “It opened the door for everything, travel, learning, independency, learning how other people do stuff. That camaraderie and team sport dynamic, it’s there.”
Finton uses his teammates to get him out of his comfort zone — to make sure he doesn’t become complacent and too dependent on others.
“What do you need those on for? Take those off!” teammates would exclaim if they saw Finton with training wheels on his wheelchair. The peer pressure was positive in a way that made him feel accountable.
At the same time, Finton and his teammates are always there to help one another if needed. They offer their support because they can relate to each other’s struggles.
“With our group it’s ‘What do you need? How can I help?’,” he said. “You have that bond of ‘Hey you’re not alone.’”
Rugby has also played a part in helping Finton find love. He first met his future wife Tara at a rugby fundraising event at the Millersport Sweet Corn Festival in Millersport, Ohio. As a friend of Harbage, she was raising money by selling pork chops as a volunteer for the wheelchair rugby team. The conversation didn’t go too far past flirting, but he knew there was a deeper connection.
When he saw Tara’s face again two years later at the same festival, he knew it was time to push the issue. The pair began dating and were married in June 2015.
With her support he has found a part-time job teaching kitchen equipment and maintenance courses at Sinclair Community College. The couple plans to have a child together in the near future.
Rugby isn’t the only adaptive sport that Finton has tried. While he experimented with tennis and rowing, it was track and field that stuck with him. He remembered the feeling of running track and cross country in high school so the connection was already there. The familiarity of wind pounding his face and the exhilaration of crossing the finish line brought back memories.
He got back into track through an intramural club created by a friend at Wright State University. After spending two years with the club, he branched out and started attending events on his own. Finton was able to work his way up to racing at the World Championships in New Zealand and plans on competing for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team next year.
Although he has excelled in track, Finton didn’t lose sight of how rugby impacted him. During the rugby season, he traveled with some of his best friends to play a game they love.
One month later, Finton enters the Recreation and Physical Activity Center on the campus of The Ohio State University. He rolls onto the basketball court on the right hand side where a group of students in wheelchairs are waiting. They are part of the TOPPS program which provides students with physical and mental disabilities the chance to learn about different sports.
Rugby has allowed Finton to immerse himself in the community to give back those in situations like his. As he teaches passing drills to students, you can see Finton’s eyes looking intently, scouting the next batch of talent for the Buckeye Blitz.