Wheelchair rugby's 'not a pity game'

TIM BAINES -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET

David Willsie remembers lying face down on the ice, unable to move. Tripped up as he circled the net full speed.

It was April 30, 1995 - just recreational hockey. These kinds of things just don't happen, not at the age of 27. But it did. Willsie lay there helpless in that London rink. Not realizing that it would be a life-changing accident, a spinal injury that would cost him the use of his legs. And one that would make him one of the stars of a documentary.

Willsie, now 37, is a quadriplegic, an important member of the Canadian men's wheelchair rugby team. He's also a celebrity, with a role in the riveting Murderball documentary, just released on DVD.

"I was face down on the ice," says Willsie, in Ottawa for a Murderball promotional tour. "It was cold ... and I couldn't lift my head. I was trying to get up and go get the puck. But I couldn't move so I knew something was up. I was scared.

"I was paralyzed from that moment on. I got a little bit of my body functions back, but not much."

Life as he knew it would be different. A former semi-pro baseball player in St. Thomas and an avid golfer, he didn't want to become a couch potato. He knew he had to work hard to regain some movements. There were times when he had doubts ... "Why me" moments. But he battled through with an awesome support group of friends and family.

"I had to teach myself how to do everything again," he says. "Things like combing my hair."

And, after a rehab period, he discovered wheelchair rugby, once known as Murderball, but changed because corporate tastes found the name a bit too racy. "It's real. It's not a pity game," says Willsie. "The goal of the sport is to knock another guy out of his chair. It's full throttle and we are athletes."

PLAYING TO WIN

Watch Murderball and you get his drift. They're not "cripples" ... they're intense athletes who don't play for the sport, they play to win ... at all costs. The documentary is a real-look at the athletes' lives ... warts and all ... mainly focusing on the amazingly intense rivalry between the Canadian and U.S. teams. There are F-bombs aplenty ... and there's an incredibly funny extra segment when three of the movie's stars, including Mark Zupan, slide back a few beers and get involved in some Jackass stunts with Steve O and Johnny Knoxville.

Willsie trains for nearly 30 hours each week. That's dedication. And he's got a job, providing estimates for a construction company. He also drives, wheeling around in a modified 2005 Dodge Magnum station wagon.

He doesn't look for pity, but he says he sure appreciates help sometimes.

"People are good at heart," says Willsie. "If they open a door for me, I appreciate it. I am disabled. If I'm in the grocery store, I sure appreciate help getting something off the top shelf.

"But for everything I can't do, there are 10 things I can do. I'm a two-time Olympian and (we) won a world championship in 2002. I'm having a blast."

tim.baines@ott.sunpub.com


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