Zak Madell caught a long pass to score Canada’s first goal of the night in a hard-fought, double-overtime match against their American rivals.
Moments later, with two defenders set to pin him down, he picked up speed and rammed them hard, forcing his way through to score, again.
Time after time, it was the 21-year-old wheelchair rugby phenom who always seemed to come up with the spectacular goal and draw spectator cheers.
But nearby, and making much of that action possible, was often Trevor Hirschfield.
“We’re kind of the unsung heroes,” Hirschfield said of low-point players like him who have less upper-body function.
“The odd time we get the ball and score a goal but, for the most part, we’re grinding it out each play trying to help guys like Zak and our ball handlers advance up the floor to get goals.”
The Canadians did plenty of that Wednesday night but not quite enough to overcome their toughest competition at the Parapan Am Games.
The Canadians held the lead at the end of the first three quarters, but only by a point or two, and with just six seconds left on the clock they tied things up 51-51 to force three minutes of overtime.
At the end of that, the game was still undecided at 55-55.
It took another period of overtime to finally settle things, by a single point, with the Americans wining 60-59.
Unless something very unexpected happens in semifinal play on Thursday these two teams will face each other in the gold-medal final on Friday at the Mississauga Sports Centre. The stakes are high with the winner earning a 2016 Rio Paralympic berth.
In wheelchair rugby, just as in football, athletes play to their body type and strengths. An offensive lineman isn’t going to run downfield for a pass and a player like Hirschfield, who has no hand movement and limited arm function, doesn’t often make the long catch or race down the line to score.
What Hirschfield can do, arguably better than anyone else in the world, is tie up opponents and open holes on the court that helps a player like Madell advance up the floor.
In wheelchair rugby athletes are ranked according to their impairment. Those with the highest degree of impairment are 0.5 or 1, like Hirschfield, and those, with the least are 3.5, including Madell. The four players on the court can only add up to eight points.
“The fact that it takes four guys on the court to make it happen is something I enjoy and, of course, the contact,” said Hirschfield. “I grew up playing hockey and football . . . I like hitting guys and I like getting knocked around.”
Wheelchair rugby was invented in the late ’70s by quadriplegics in Winnipeg who wanted a full-contact sport suited to athletes with limited arm function, as well as lower body impairment.
In those early days, there were few rules beyond getting two wheels across the line, with possession of the ball, to score with defenders looking to “kill the man with the ball.”
That’s how the sport was first popularized by the 2005 documentary aptly named “Murderball.”
Now, there’s a shot clock and more strategic play but there’s still no shortage of contact. Equipment managers routinely run on court to fix chairs, replace wheels and throw down protective pads to right flipped over chairs.
And those pads are to protect the hardwood floor, not the players. They don’t need protection. For many of the athletes, that’s the very point of this game.
David Willsie, who suffered a spinal cord injury playing hockey, wasn’t sure he wanted to play a wheelchair sport at first.
“I didn’t want to go to a sport where they’d pat me on the back and say thanks for coming out,” he said.
His very first time out he learned that wasn’t how wheelchair rugby is played. So do spectators.
“At first they see the wheelchairs, and then after they see the wheelchairs as a piece of equipment to play the sport, just like you need skates to play hockey,” Willsie said.
“When they first turn up it’s ‘Oh, those guys in wheelchairs play pretty good.’ But it’s addictive and they find themselves cheering when someone gets knocked on their head.”
They really do.
And when American star Chuck Aoki was pinned on the goal line, each new thud of a Canadian chair ramming him brought ever louder cheers.
“The chairs have gotten so much better and faster and everybody is a full-time athlete now so the competition level is through the roof,” said Willsie, who at 47 is Canada’s oldest player.
“The old days were good but it’s a much better game now, especially for the fans,” he said. “It’s fun and you get to hit people. That has not changed, that will never change.”