Wheelchair rugby coach Scott Hogsett prepares to catch a ball

It’s Always About Winning: Wheelchair Rugby with Scott Hogsett

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Wheelchair rugby coach Scott Hogsett prepares to catch a ball

It’s Always About Winning

By Steve Carr
Photo by Loren Worthington

What makes a champion? Gold medals and gleaming trophies. Checkmate and checkered flags. Bullseyes and birdies. First to the top and last-spelled word. Breaking the tape and smashing a record. Buzzer beaters and walk-offs.

But what makes a champion a champion? Not those champagne showers or pitching mound pile-ups. Not milk guzzles or Gatorade baths. What makes a champion a champion is a deep-in-their-soul unquenchable thirst that drives an inexplicable push not just to be the best at what they do, but to make those around them even better.

Heart.


2017 Duel in the Desert

Athletic fields are not heart’s exclusive domain, but they’re certainly a primary target.

“Not all rehabilitation centers have a champion like Scott Hogsett. We’re super blessed to have him on our team,” said Jo Crawford, a recreation therapist and Manager of Human Resource Programs at Banner Neurological Institute. Hogsett has coached, counseled, cajoled, encouraged and helped heal emotional scars there for hundreds of newly paralyzed men and women over the past 20 years. “It’s a win for us when we see our patients living a full life and Hogsett’s a major part of that happening.”

After five minutes with Hogsett, his passion for life – and for winning at every level – hits you harder than any jarring rugby wheelchair
collision, although there’s measurable satisfaction from both. Ask wheelchair rugby players, particularly those who were athletes before their injuries, what attracted them to the sport in the first place, and the answer is pretty universal.

“ When you’re injured and you go through something intense like that, you tend to think life will never be the same again,” Hogsett said. “When you play wheelchair rugby and hit someone for the first time, it brings back a sensevof normalcy.”

Finding the path back to normal doesn’t come easily for everyone after a life-twisting injury. Crawford says that’s what makes Hogsett so special at what he does, not just at Banner but also as the player/coach of the recently crowned national champions Phoenix Heat.

“There’s usually a correlation between Scott and a lot of these guys who are injured,” she explained. “It’s not just the sports connection, although that plays a significant role at times, but it’s also living a higher-risk lifestyle which is how most of those guys were injured. Recreational therapy is the one therapy that brings everything together from physical therapy and occupational therapy and gets you living again. We introduce them to life. Scott shows them how to do it.”

There’s also an ulterior motive. “You think at first how nice it is of Scott to come in and spend all this time,” Crawford laughed. “He’s also recruiting players to play one of the hardest wheelchair sports on the planet. You can see right away he comes from a leadership perspective. He can see these guys with athletic ability. If you’re an athlete before your injury, you’re an athlete after and he’s trying to find that segue.”

Like he did with Phoenix Heat teammate Joe Jackson, who sustained the same spinal cord injury as Hogsett, only Jackson was hurt during a Hamilton High School football scrimmage while Hogsett broke his neck after being tossed off a 10-foot high porch. “There was an immediate chemistry between Scott and Joe,” Crawford recalled. “Joe was a football player and Scott was a big baseball player and now they’re not only on the same team, but they play the same position.”

Crawford sees rugby as motivation to be active. “Scott brings so much not just to the sport but to the healing process. When you have someone like Scott, you can see he has a great life. He’s married, has a son and travels all over the world. When they see Scott they think, ‘I can drive, have sex, date, go to college and have a great life.’”

“When you go through rehab,” Hogsett said, “people start to think you’re made of glass and then you start to think that. In the beginning, you might be, but when you start playing a sport, you’re an athlete, and that’s who you used to be. Now, you’re playing wheelchair rugby and you’re no longer made of glass.

“Everyone who plays this sport has a life. We love the sport and the adrenaline rush and, at the same time, it’s a team, a family with everyone working together. The sport is therapeutic for all of us. We all went through something major and this helps not just within the sport, but outside in the great friendships you make. We have a lot in common because of the disability and what has happened to us.”

But, like all great athletes, Hogsett works from a different mindset, not unlike someone like Michael Jordan who once said “I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come.” A sweet jump shot doesn’t hurt either, and, like Jordan, Hogsett was born with and nurtured an athletic ability that puts him, often head and shoulders, above those he plays with.

“As a coach, Scott has a player perspective because he played at the elite level for a long time. He’s one of the best in the world at his classification. Some would argue that he is the best and it would be hard to find an argument that he wasn’t,” said David Mengyan, Commissioner of the United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA). “Sure the game has changed, but he’s adapted to it. Look at the team he has around him and what he has accomplished.”

Those well-chronicled accomplishments include his real-life role in the Academy Award-nominated 2005 documentary Murderball (the original name of quad rugby) about the deeply emotional, often ugly rivalry between Team USA and Team Canada leading to the 2004 Paralympic Games. The film earned Best Documentary honors at the Sundance Film Festival.

Canada may have captured the top prize at the 2004 Games, but Hogsett and his teammates earned gold medals at the 2006 and 2010 world championships, a 2008 Summer Paralympics gold, and bronzes in 2004 and 2012. His 2014 induction into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame as the only disabled athlete added his name to a prestigious list of icons including Jerry Colangelo, Sean Elliott, Lute Olson, Curt Schilling, Misty Hyman, Jake Plummer, Fat Lever, Heather Farr, Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson and Charles Barkley.

David Reece, who helped raise money to build the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center that the Phoenix Heat call home and continues as a donor, attended Hogsett’s induction. “He’s an unusual guy. He has the ability to do things with his disability that have been good for him instead of bringing him down,” Reese said. “He’s so positive and has an inner fire. At his induction, I was worried because I’d never heard him speak before an audience. There were three other inductees. He blew us all away. The others were good. He was so much better. There’s so much depth to him and he’s got that confidence and fire. He’s performance oriented. He’s also a little loosey-goosey.

“He is just a phenomenal guy, phenomenal father and a great, great husband. He’s a leader. No matter what the obstacles are, he overcomes them,” Reece continued.

Some obstacles, though – okay, one in particular – are harder to overcome. It gets back to that inner fire, which for Hogsett that obstacle was not winning gold at the 2012 Paralympic Games when the intense, years-long rivalry between Team USA and Team Canada may have hit its peak.

“We were the Dream Team. And we were our own worst enemy,” he said. “We came out flat in the semi-finals against Canada, our biggest rival and our enemy. There were errors by the players and the coaching staff, but we didn’t show up for that game and, at that level, no matter who you are or how good you are, when you’re in the semis, you have to show up. We didn’t.”

Even an agonizing comeback to overcome an 8-point deficit wasn’t enough. Canada eked out a 50-49 win before falling 66-51 to Australia in the gold-medal round.

“Everyone makes sacrifices and a lot of people tend to forget how competitive the Paralympics are,” he said. “Paralympic athletes, disabled athletes are just like any other athlete who commits, trains hard and when you don’t get what you train for your whole life… well, it’s hard to explain.

“In 2012 when we didn’t win gold, it took me a year-and-a-half to get over it. I was thinking about it 100 times a day. I still have a hard time listening to Coldplay, which played during closing ceremonies on the day we lost. I could hear that music rattling through the whole Olympic Village. It still brings back awful, awful memories. That’s how deep it goes with an athlete. That’s why you play at that level because it hurts so much.”

Phil Pangrazio, President and CEO of Ability360, which sponsors the Phoenix Heat and hosted the 18-team national tournament in April, first met Hogsett in the early 1990s when the Heat’s predecessor team, the Arizona Dust Devils, was literally just getting rolling and practicing in a Mesa grade-school cafeteria.

“Scott was special from the get-go,” Pangrazio said. “You could tell he was good. He had the athletic skills and, clearly, he had the speed for a Class 1. Scott more than anybody worked on his game. Scott was definitely the best Class 1 player on our team.”

Fast forward 20-plus years and the fire still burns. Hotter than ever.

“What motivates me? I’ve always been an athlete and an athlete at heart. Everyone thinks that because you can push a wheelchair, you can be good at this sport. It’s nothing like that at all. I learned that right away. This is a sport that’s strategic and competitive at the same time you’re working with a disability. It’s challenging at all levels.”

Hogsett leverages that challenge as a motivator to players wearing the Phoenix Heat uniform as well as to rugby players in countries around the world where his reputation as a leader, player and coach are in high demand.

Scott Hogsett sits with his team, all sporting neon green jerseys.

“A champion is someone who commits to play and compete at the highest level,” he said. “The focus is not just on the game, but it’s about training, who is coachable and everything you give up for that moment to be a champion. That’s why being a Paralympian or an Olympic athlete, you train for four years, giving up everything for that one moment. And, if you win, it’s an unbelievable feeling. If you don’t become a champion, everything you gave up was for nothing.”

Hogsett hates that “nothing” feeling. It’s obvious if you watch him play and coach, something he’ll do more in the coming years; he’s giving up playing time for younger players to learn and grow. It’s also what attracts the world’s best players to Phoenix and led to his hiring last June for a two-week coaching assignment to build up a floundering program in Russia.

Phoenix Heat teammate Ernie Chun moved to Phoenix in 2010 from Tennessee where he played for four years after leaving his native Hawaii.

“I’d seen what Scott had done with Joe Delagrave who relocated from Wisconsin to play for him. When Joe told me about Ability360 opening, that was icing on the cake,” said Chun, who just returned from Japan with Team USA and a tournament championship. “His hard-ass style of coaching is good for me. I can be lazy and he pushes all of us for sure. His style is different from other coaches I’ve had. Their knowledge is awesome, but Scott knows how to develop a player. He sets you up to be the most productive you can be in your rugby chair.”

USQRA Commissioner David R. Mengyan underscored Chun’s assessment of Hogsett’s game knowledge.

“If you sit with Scott and talk about the game and what he wants from you, he really has a clear understanding of the big picture,” said Mengyan, who plays for the Detroit Wheelchair Rugby Club. “He makes people better players, not just by coaching but by being on the floor with them. I’m not a great player, but if I have the right guys around me, then the things I do well can shine. And those players make me successful. That’s what Scott does. He makes his players successful.”

It’s also why Hogsett’s name comes up in conversations about coaching on a national level.

“He’s got a career future in coaching if he wants it,” Mengyan said. “There are only so many elite coaches in the world and there aren’t that many people to fill them, especially with his kind of knowledge. At some point, the USA job will come available. Any team would love to have him as a coach.”

“If I got the opportunity to coach Team USA, it would be an incredible privilege,” Hogsett said. “I’d have very big shoes to fill, but I’d be honored if that happens. Right now, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I’m comfortable where I’m at. It’s a privilege to be part of Ability360.”

Hogsett’s wife, Michelle, doesn’t hold back her feelings about the value he can bring to the national team, just as he’s done in Phoenix. “Scott has a drive like I’ve never seen before in any human,” she said. “He always wants to make himself better. In doing so, he also improves the lives around him. I know that I’m biased as his wife, but I know sports well and I know that not only is Scott a good coach, he’s able to develop new players, something that’s needed at the national level.”

For now, Hogsett is focused on defending the Phoenix Heat’s national championship when the season gets underway in October.

“We’ve got some stuff in the works for the Heat. Once a team is on top of the world, everyone wants to play for us. I’ve had contact with some of the best players in the country who want to move here to play. We’ll be a better team next year, even though I didn’t think we could possibly get better. We’ll improve our depth and everything that goes along with it.”

Including how people actually see – not necessarily watch – the game of wheelchair rugby.

“The first time someone comes to Ability360 and sees rugby, they watch,” Hogsett said. “After a few hours, the mentality changes. They no longer see the wheelchair. They see athletes playing a sport and trying to win. It’s kind of a cool transition. Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes it takes longer. I just want them to see athletes and people giving everything they have to play a great game.”

Just like him.

“I give the maximum in the hope of getting the maximum.”


Steve Carr
Writer

Steve Carr is President of the Kur Carr Group, Inc., a full-service public relations agency. He has received numerous journalism awards for newspaper writing and photography, and for annual reports, newsletters and video production. He is a recipient of the Margie Frost Champion Against Poverty Award from the Arizona Community Action Association.