Wheelchair rugby championships bringing competition, camaraderie to Wesley Chapel

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. - The smile on Randolph Johnson's face while he's playing wheelchair rugby is proof of how far he's come.

"I woke up one day and I couldn't brush my teeth," he said.

Since being injured in a car crash in 2013, the sport is the one thing that has made him feel whole again. It offers speed, scoring and camaraderie. After his car crash, the 6'6" star athlete had to find a new way to play.

"In between those lines, we're not thinking about that," he said. "We're competing. We're playing as fast and as hard as we can."

He landed at Tampa International Airport on Thursday to take part in the National Wheelchair Rugby Association's 18-team, three-division championship bout.

<div>National Wheelchair Rugby Association</div>
National Wheelchair Rugby Association

The sport is simple: carry the ball across a goal line painted at each end of a basketball court. It's 4-on-4 and full contact, requiring passing and dribbling.

Steve Servis heads the Tampa-based team called the Warriors.

"I'm not worried about getting hurt," said Servis. "What's the worst thing to happen? Break my neck again."

<div>National Wheelchair Rugby Association</div>
National Wheelchair Rugby Association

This weekend's competition is free and open to the public for a reason. They don't want spectators to come looking for differences; they want them to see similarities.

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"A lot of people come in and they see the injury and they don't know how to approach us," said Mike Delancey of the Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch. "But when they see each other joking, they see that we do the same things, whether you're in a chair or your body."

For the players, it's about being together with those who have gone through some of the most difficult challenges imaginable, only to come out on the other side realizing that while things are different, they aren't over. Rather, they're just beginning.

<div>National Wheelchair Rugby Association</div>
National Wheelchair Rugby Association

"Seeing people leaving the hospital for the first time and not knowing what to do and just being scared," said Delancey. "And then they get on the court and they start seeing people with less function than them doing more. And now, next thing you know, they're in the gym, they're taking care of themselves better."

They're going to be at Wiregrass Arena in Wesley Chapel all weekend with play starting Friday at 10 a.m. Events continue until noon on Sunday.

There will be food trucks, and admission is free.

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