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Despite funding lag, love of competition fuels power soccer club

Posted by Christina Jedra  March 14, 2013 11:05 AM

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Photo: Courtesy of Boston Brakers

Watching a power soccer game is not much different than watching a regular soccer game.  Fouls will be called, and if the ball is struck out of play, it’s considered out of bounds. 

But power soccer has one major distinction over regular soccer: The players are in power wheelchairs.

For members of the Boston Brakers, a recently formed club, power soccer is a great way to play a sport competitively–an experience they thrive on. But a lack of funding, as well as public awareness, is holding the team back, organizers say. The team, which plays at the Tobin Community Center in Mission Hill, was recently awarded a grant for equipment from the Mission Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Trust, but it was just enough to get them started. 

“We used that money for plastic guards and to buy soccer balls,” said James Wice, 52, director of disability services at Wellesley College and the founder of the Brakers. Now, “we need to move beyond that.”

The team is trying to raise funds or secure sponsors in order to purchase metal chair guards, which Wice said have more “kick” than the plastic ones the team uses, which slow down the game.

“The ball bounces better off the metal,” he said. “It’s like a difference between using a Wiffle ball bat and an aluminum bat. [With plastic],I feel like we’re playing with training wheels.”

According to Wice, metal guards cost about $400 each, and they have to be fitted to each chair. 

Wice, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a swimming accident when he was 18, said the guardsgo from the side of the chair all the way to the front. They allow the players to drive their chairs into the oversized ball to move it, or to spin the chairs around for a more powerful shot or pass.

Wice said he has sought funding from Spalding and other potential donors, but has had no luck so far.

In addition to funding, scheduling court time has been difficult. The team plays on the Tobin Community Center’s basketball court, the standard playing surface for power soccer. The Brakers play twice a month,on the first and third Saturday. Wice said they’d play more, but they need more court time.

“If we can get court time, more volunteers and money to paystaff, we’d play every week,” Wice said. 

The passion that Wice and his team have for power soccer isn’t unusual. According to the U.S. Power Soccer Association (USPSA), whichgoverns power soccer, it’s the fastest growing sport for power wheelchair users. It’s also the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Many participants include people who suffered spinal cord injuries, like Wice, or who have disabilities such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. 

According to the USPSA, the sport dates back to the early 1970s and was introduced in the U.S. in the 1980s. Since then, many countries have adopted their own versions of the sport. The USPSA, formed in 2006, has more than 60 teams registered across the country.  During games, teams compete with three offensive players and a goalie.

Wice said he and a group of interested players formed the Brakers after attending a clinic and receiving training last May from the USPSA. Team members range in age from 28 to 62 and come from diverse backgrounds; they include a professor, an artist, and an independent living specialist.

Jerry Boyd, 43, a disability examiner for the Social Security Administration who was born with cerebral palsy, said power soccer is the first real competitive game that people in power wheelchairs can play. He has tried all sorts of sports, he said, but nothing compares to playing for the Brakers.

“I tried skiing and adaptive skating and cycling, but as an avid sports fan, nothing compares to this,” Boyd said. “[It] took me 43 years to play a competitive game. I want to get better. I want us to get better.”

Boyd said he finds motivation from his 8-year-old son, Zachary.

“I wanted to try it myself, because my son plays soccer,” Boyd said. “It’s a thing my son and I can bond over. . . Now, he can see his daddy play, too.”

Power soccer is not just popular among men. Karen Natola of Lynn, Wice’s girlfriend, wanted some excitement in her life and found that power soccer provided it. She said that playing gives her something to look forward to. 

“Playing the game is fun, but I need more practice, particularly in moving the ball around,” said Natola, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978. 

Like Wice, Boyd wants to see the sport thrive. 

“It’s on the ground floor, as we’re trying to get more sponsorship and equipment,” Boyd said.  “As people get equipment, we’ll all see the level of competition increase.”

There are other teams in New England, but Wice saidhe believes the Brakers are the only Boston team.He said there are teams in New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as Canton, Sudbury, and the Worcester area.

Boyd has high hopes not only for the Brakers, but for the sport as a whole.

“Who knows,” he said, “maybe one day we’ll play nationally or at an Olympic-level.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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