Dave Ceruti broke his neck playing football as a high school freshman. The injury took away the use of his legs, but left intact his desire to compete.
After spending frustrating years on the sidelines, he found an outlet with a sport just then catching on in the United States — wheelchair rugby, also known as quad rugby, or "murderball,'' as it was called in an award-winning 2005 documentary.
''I came out to practice, and I was just hooked,'' says Ceruti, 47, of Wesley Chapel.
That was 22 years ago. Now, the former player in the worldwide Paralympic Games coaches the Tampa Generals, 10 players from cities throughout the region, including Tampa, Brandon, St. Petersburg and Spring Hill.
The team plays this weekend in an international tournament, drawing 10 teams from Brazil, Canada and the United States.
Part of a continuing effort to draw a wider audience, spectators will be admitted free to the event at All People's Life Center on Sligh Avenue. Longtime Generals player Justin Stark believes the problem is the lack of exposure — people who have never seen the sport envision a bunch of guys puttering across a court in wheelchairs.
"Once they see how fast it is, and guys crashing into each other, it kind of opens people's eyes,'' says Stark, 33, who lives in Spring Hill.
It's wildly popular among the audiences at the Paralympic Games.
"Really, you can't get a ticket to it in London in 2012,'' he says.
Like Ceruti, Stark spent most of his teen years frustrated, wanting to take part in sports. He was injured at age 10, the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he puts it. He and his 8-year-old sister, Jennifer, were playing at a friend's house in Plant City when the friend's father snapped and starting shooting, killing Jennifer, paralyzing Stark, and then killing himself.
At age 17, Stark discovered the thrill of wheelchair rugby.
"I could go and compete and be a true athlete again.''
In the sport, teams block, maneuver and pass in an effort to get the ball across the goal line. The ball carrier cannot go 10 seconds without dribbling the ball or passing. Opponents try to snatch the ball or knock it out of the carrier's lap. Players, who are strapped in their chairs, are free to crash into the opponent's wheelchair, and do so with gusto, often upending the chair. But they face a foul if they touch the ball carrier and are sent to the penalty box.
"I played all sports in high school, and it's basically all of them rolled into one,'' says Clayton Bache, 28, also of Spring Hill.
The newest member of the team, having broken his neck in a car crash last year, Bache saw his first wheelchair rugby game while undergoing therapy in Atlanta.
"I at first thought, how are we going to play any kind of rugby? We're quadriplegic.''
But after seeing the intensity of the game, the strength of the players, he says, "I fell in love with it right there.''
Invented in Canada during the 1970s, the game started catching on in the United States in the 1980s. It grew from six teams to about 40 teams today, says Ceruti. They compete in a series of tournaments from October to April, when the post-season playoffs begin.
Recreational therapists with Tampa General Hospital formed the Tampa team in 1989, hence the name, Tampa Generals. The first coach, Terry Vinyard, took the team to three national championships in the 1990s. He's officiating at this weekend's tournament.
Vinyard, 49, who lives part of the year in Tampa and part in Australia, where he coached the national team, says players embrace the game so enthusiastically because it's a true contact sport, unlike wheelchair basketball or track.
"Now, here was a chance to compete in a court sport at a higher level,'' he says. "It gave so many opportunities to so many people."
The sport spawned a market for athletic wheelchairs, modified with extra shielding to withstand frequent crashes. At least three companies make the chairs, which cost $3,500 to $4,000 and more.
Despite the crashes and spills, "you don't see that many acute injuries,'' says Stark. Maybe someone will hit his head in a fall and need a couple of stitches. "Typically, it's kind of wear and tear over the years — shoulder and elbow injuries.''
Along with the scrapes, bruises and aching shoulders comes a huge psychological and social benefit.
"There's not a book to show you how you can get on living life,'' Stark notes, but seeing others with the same injuries living active lives — working, going to school, driving cars, traveling — can offer inspiration.
"It lets you know you can have a regular, fulfilling life.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected] tampabay.com.