Quad rugby satisfies local’s athletic urge

He doesn’t move all that fast. His wheelchair is positioned as a defensive protector of the goal line. Most times, others push beyond him through the orange cones and score with ease.

Lee Browning wants to get better. Stronger. Faster.

He wants to crack the starting lineup.

Once an athlete, always a competitive mind.

He played soccer and baseball and football as a kid. He ran and ran and never dreamt of not running. Took up the drums at age 11. Fell in love with music.

By 19, he was using a cane.

By 21, he could no longer walk or play.

He is 36 now, and his disease continues to worsen over time until, well, his heart will just give out one day.

The USA Sevens has brought together 16 professional rugby teams from across the globe the last few days at Sam Boyd Stadium, where a champion will be crowned after 44 games and amid an international festival of carnival attractions and intercontinental cuisine.

Champions in their own right competed in a stadium parking lot late Friday afternoon. Champions of determination and spirit.

Quad rugby is not for the weak of nerve, athletes who crash specially designed wheelchairs into others with a fierceness that rattles even the strongest resolve. For your next movie night at home, rent “Murderball.”

It is a story beyond inspiring.

“It becomes addictive and then a way of life,” Browning said. “Being a quadriplegic, depression sets in rather easily. But rugby takes us away from thinking about the things we can’t do. All of a sudden, it becomes about what you can do and what you can get better at.”

Friedreich’s ataxia is an inherited disease that causes progressive damage to the nervous system, a member of the muscular dystrophy family that produces symptoms ranging from gait disturbance to speech problems to heart disease. They first noticed something was amiss with Lee’s coordination in elementary school. He couldn’t ice skate, and everyone in the Browning family could ice skate.

Most of his teammates on the Sin City Skulls are in chairs because of spinal cord injuries, including a team captain (CJ Arinwine) and former marine and college basketball player who fell asleep at the wheel nearly 19 years ago driving to Las Vegas and woke up from a coma seven days later.

Rugby is a hard, punishing game that takes a serious physical toll on competitors. But for those quadriplegics who play it, the violent crashes of chairs also can be therapeutic.

Their motto: Smashing stereotypes one hit at a time.

Browning attended Valley High School and earned his master’s in music composition from UNLV, where he continued playing in the pep band even after he was resigned to a wheelchair. He joined the Sin City Skulls five years ago and hasn’t been the same since.

“He is a strong person who always wanted to do everything for himself until he realized he couldn’t anymore,” said Lee’s mother, Sue. “He still gets furious when he needs help from others. But rugby has enhanced his life in a remarkable way. It gives him purpose.

“He looks forward to each week because he knows there will be a few practices or maybe a tournament out of town. He just comes alive when it’s time to play. He just comes alive.”

There are national rugby unions in more than 100 countries, and sponsorship in the United Kingdom alone exceeds billions of dollars annually. But there is no better quad rugby played than in the United States, which ranks first among the 20 nations that play the Paralympic sport first developed in Canada 33 years ago.

It’s a game more closely associated with wheelchair basketball, ice hockey and handball than the Rugby football thousands will watch and cheer inside Sam Boyd Stadium this weekend. Except for the contact. In this, rugby is rugby, be it from a chair or a scrum.

You will find Lee Browning pushing himself around the neighborhood to better condition himself for the game, daring his body to continue its decline while he chases a spot in that starting lineup. There is a medication called Idebenone that through preliminary tests in humans has shown to reduce the rate of deterioration for those with Friedreich’s ataxia.

So he waits. And hopes. And continues to find strength in sport.

“I want to one day be the one everyone relies on to make a play or provide a block,” Browning said. “Hearing the crowd applaud … That’s really cool. I have found a lot of strength through family and friends, but rugby has given me something very special in life.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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