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‘Football is football’ for Raiders wheelchair athletes

Raised in a rural Hawaii football community, the quarterback fantasized about playing but instead had to cheer from the sidelines. The wide receiver excelled in high school sports, but didn’t always enjoy their seriousness. And the defensive end is new to the game, quickly learning and adapting to the X’s and O’s.

They are Nicholas “Ola” Marasco, Darnell Calahan and Beya Tep, three of 24 athletes who play for the Las Vegas Raiders team in the USA Wheelchair Football League.

“You think about football, and you think about wheelchairs; you don’t think that they go together,” Calahan said. “But you will find out real quick that passion for sports is passion for sports.”

Game rules are dictated by NCAA and NFL regulations. Each team fields seven players on a hard surface — such as a parking lot — with dimensions measuring 22-by-76 yards.

The national league’s 11 teams are located in NFL cities and are named after those franchises.

Touching replaces tackling, but it can best be described as physically punishing pushes, coach Bob Murray said.

“Everything else is football,” team coach Bob Murray said. “It’s slobberknocker football.”

The coach added: “The chair itself is just a way to play the game, but football is football no matter how you chop it up.”

The Raiders recently ended the 2023 season with six wins and six losses — a winning record for the team’s inaugural season, the coach stressed.

The city of Las Vegas’ Parks and Recreation Department operates the team with the Raiders Foundation, the Bob Woodruff Foundation and Move United, which specializes in adaptive sports and runs the league.

Last month, the city hosted one of the four national tournaments at Llama Lot in downtown Las Vegas.

One of the games birthed a spicy rivalry between the Raiders and the Buffalo Bills after a rowdy content, which Las Vegas won in overtime thanks to a play drawn up and executed by Marasco.

“We’re a great team, we have a great group of athletes that are athletes, I mean they’re true to the sport,” Murray said. “They train, they take care of their bodies they do everything that an athlete would do, and we have fun doing it.”

Marasco, who comes from a football family, was born with an underdeveloped leg that forced him to walk on crutches and prevented him from playing the sport.

He said that his nationally ranked high school football program shuts down the community game nights and that he would cheer for his cousins from the sidelines under Friday night lights.

Marasco, 41, excelled in ocean sports until he lost his other leg in a surfing accident about a decade ago.

That didn’t stop him.

He’s a well-rounded athlete who played for the Phoenix Suns and Cardinals teams in national wheelchair leagues before the Raiders brought him to Las Vegas. It was his teammate, Calahan, who noted in an interview that he’s also a professional powerlifter and Paralympian for team USA.

“My man, Ola, is being a little modest,” Calahan quipped.

Marasco described playing football as a dream come true.

“For all of us, there was a point where if we’re gonna move, we gotta move,” he said, noting that he willed himself “past the darkness.”

“You start telling yourself, ‘Hey let’s be happy, you deserve to be happy,’” he said. “‘Let’s be the best that you can be … the best version of yourself.’”

Tep, who also plays wide receiver, joined the team six months ago not knowing any of the basics because she had never followed football.

She said she immediately felt a connection to the sport.

“I loved just how physical it is, and how much it challenges me, having it be a male-dominated sport,” said Tep, 37. “It really challenges me in so many ways.”

An autoimmune condition took her ability to walk on January 2020.

“I’ve always been an active person, and when I was in the hospital, bedridden 10 months with no physical activity or therapy, it was very, very tough on me,” she said.

Tep, a California native, said she is grateful to be in the team.

“It’s really a blessing to have something like this for people like us who are limited in our mobility,” she added. “It doesn’t make me feel like I’m disabled because I can still have a great time, I can still play a sport.”

The athletes encouraged everybody, including the able-bodied, to try the sport.

In September, a pair of their counterparts in the NFL’s Raiders, AJ Cole and Jakob Johnson, did.

But Calahan warned that it takes a special set of skills, a lesson his brothers learned while still having a blast.

“It’s not like the biggest man wins,” he said. “You can hit the gym all you want to, but if you can’t make those turns and those cuts in your chair … whoever has that ability is going to make the play.”

Calahan grew up in Las Vegas and served in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment special forces. He jokes about the day he broke his back in 2019, falling as he posed for a photo atop a tree.

“The tree was fine,” he quipped.

He credits his loved ones and the military for taking care of him.

“Life is very good,” he said. “I have some great people around me.”

Still, he longs for the activities he cherished, such as playing with his young family members or expressing enthusiasm with full-body movement.

“I never had a moment of darkness,” he said. “(Although) I dislike being on a chair.”

“When this happens, you just don’t know how to feel,” he added. “The younger it happens to you, the harder it is to accept.”

He lives to the fullest, realizing that life is short. And while it took him some convincing, he decided to give wheelchair football a shot.

“You can’t be afraid to live … so many people are afraid to do certain things because nobody wants to look bad when you’re learning,” he said. “But you’re never going to be able to do anything unless you’re learning.”

He added: “Take a chance, live your life, you have one life, you better live it.”

The players echoed each other, expressing hopes that they can someday be an inspiration to younger generations who’ve experienced their trauma.

The spirit of adversity is partly why Murray, a longtime city employee, continues to coach.

Asked what qualities he admired from his players, he was succinct: “Everything.”

“Their dedication, their love for the game, their compassion…their them, every aspect of them,” Murray said.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com Follow on X @rickytwrites.

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