TAMPA — Every so often, Ryan Lindstrom leaves the basketball court to hydrate. He takes a few sips of water or sports drink, sets it aside and reaches down for a spray bottle. After pushing and pulling on the pump a few times, he pulls the trigger to mist his face and thick arms.
It’s day one of tryouts at the Lesley “Les” Miller Jr. All People’s Community Park and Life Center, and as a quadriplegic with severed sweat glands, Lindstrom doesn’t want to risk passing out.
The 37-year-old retired Navy veteran from Brandon fell asleep while driving 18 years ago, breaking his neck and requiring him to use a wheelchair full time. He found adaptive sports through the James A. Haley VA recreation and rehabilitation center program when his therapist took him to a wheelchair rugby game soon after the accident. Still wearing his neck brace, Lindstrom sat in the crowd and immediately was inspired.
Since then, he has played rugby, basketball — on Tampa Bay’s nationally competitive National Wheelchair Basketball Association team, the Strong Dogs, which just finished fourth in the Division I championship — softball, hand cycling and archery.
Adaptive sports help him “keep busy and help other people,” he said. “And trying not to be fat. It helps a little.”
His newest venture: wheelchair football.
Tampa is now home to one of nine teams that will play in the USA Wheelchair Football League’s inaugural season this fall, a program of the nonprofit para sports organization Move United. It’s the latest addition to Hillsborough County’s adaptive sports, which already included tennis, archery and the Strong Dogs.
While no one has decided on an official name for the new squad, the county is in talks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers about a potential partnership, which would allow both teams to share the moniker. Official practices start Aug. 1, and the league will host two round-robin tournaments in Phoenix and Chicago in September and October, respectively.
The USAWFL was founded in 2019 with four teams (Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Phoenix), but unable to play until 2021 because of COVID-19. Funding for the five-team expansion, which included Tampa, came from a grant provided by the NFL-Bob Woodruff Foundation.
While the league’s NFL ties are seen in some aspects of the USAWFL’s rules (like playing 15-minute quarters and requiring athletes to wear helmets), it’s largely a very different game.
Rather than playing 11-on-11, seven guys sit on each side of the ball. Of the seven people on offense, one plays quarterback while the other six are all eligible receivers.
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The playing field has to be on a hard surface (like a court or concrete) and is much smaller in size (60 yards long and 22 yards wide). Instead of a kickoff to mark a change in possession, a player has to throw the ball downfield. A tackle means touching the opposing player above the waist with at least one hand so as to avoid potentially dangerous falls for the individual and/or their chair, which must be up to USAWFL code.
Like in many other adaptive sports, there’s also a one-to-4.5 point system assigned to each athlete based on their degree of mobility. One is the lowest degree of mobility, while 4.5 is the highest (a quadriplegic like Lindstrom would be on the lower end of the point spectrum, he said). The seven men on the playing field at any given time can’t exceed 21 total points. This allows for a more level and competitive playing field that accounts for varying degrees of ability.
Caleb Shillace, rec sports supervisor for Hillsborough County, said the biggest challenge with this new sport, for coaches and players alike, will be learning the rules of the game.
Back when Shillace worked a similar job in Ohio, he dabbled in wheelchair football. There was no official league, and while not everyone involved required wheelchairs, all the players used them to level the playing field.
“They would play against other organizations as a way to break down barriers for people with disabilities,” Shillace said. “Of course now, it’s more on a competitive level, so it’s more fun.”
Carlos Quintanilla is excited to add another adaptive sport to his resume. He was one of 14 athletes to attend at least one day of the two-day tryout process. Quintanilla uses a wheelchair because he was born with spina bifida, a disease in which the spine and spinal cord can fail to develop properly. He first heard about wheelchair basketball in his hometown of Tampa from a friend at Camp Boggy Creek, a camp for children with serious illness, and has been playing since he was 13 years old.
“I was like, ‘Hey, let me check it out,’” he said, “and fell in love with basketball ever since.”
Now 22, Quintanilla has played archery, tennis, table tennis, swam and has a scholarship for wheelchair basketball at the University of Arizona.
“I’ve done pretty much every sport,” he said. “Just not football.”
Chair skills and cardio, two crucial elements of Quintanilla’s basketball game, will be useful skills to carry with him for football. To start tryouts, the eight players in attendance had to complete a 20-minute “push,” meaning they had to push the wheels on their chairs to do laps around the gym for 20 minutes straight, taking minimal breaks for water. Quintanilla, one of the younger, more mobile guys out there, seemed to have the easiest time with it.
He welcomes the grind. The challenge of learning something new and pushing himself in the process is thrilling. While several players will likely line up on both sides of the ball, Quintanilla is set on playing tight end.
And there’s a bonus beyond new athletic adventures. Just ask Lindstrom.
“You’ve got like-minded people, like-abled people, and it helps,” he said. “As someone in a chair who’s disabled, you learn from other disabled people how to live life better. How to live an easier life.”