Image depicts a wheelchair football athlete on a football field, the lights flared behind him while he throws a football.

Edition 21 | Summer 2020

Move United launches nationwide wheelchair football league

by Reinert Toft

Teams formed, plans made, the new USA Wheelchair Football League (USAWFL) was set to debut in 2020.

With the support of an NFL-Bob Woodruff Foundation Healthy Lifestyles and Creating Community (HLCC) grant, the new league planned to spread the word in a significant way, via the 2020 NFL draft in Las Vegas.

USAWFL is the newest team sport offered by Move United, a new organization created after the merging of Disabled Sports USA and Adaptive Sports USA.

“We were [even] going to do a demo game, and the NFL was going to try to get some of their athletes over to hop in some chairs and play against our players,” said Karalyn Stott, the league’s commissioner and program manager at Move United.

Like so many things on tap for 2020, the new league’s unveiling didn’t go as planned. The coronavirus pushed the pause button for the USAWFL.

There is still hope, however.

A wheelchair football athlete poses for a picture. He is holding a football and looking directly at the camera.

Adjustments were needed to keep some of the momentum going for the eventual start of the league. USAFWL still had its big announcement when U.S. Marine veteran Brad Lang delivered the message during the Panthers fourth-round pick in the NFL draft.

Glimmers of hope came when states attempted to open up. Disappointment followed instead with resurgences of coronavirus infections.

Patience and continued program building became the keys to success for the teams participating in the inaugural season. Four organizations were invited to participate in the pilot season, including Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association from Chicago, Midwest Adaptive Sports from Kansas City, Ability360 from Phoenix, and Angel City Sports from Los Angeles.

“In this time of COVID-19 and not being able to meet in person, it’s a lot about athlete recruitment and relationship building and training for coaches and really trying to put together a solid foundation so that once we are able to practice and meet in person and compete, the league will be at its best,” said Stott.

Virtual training has become crucial to athlete recruitment and relationship building, and leading the charge for virtual training at Ability360 is strength and conditioning program specialist Luke Rumbyrt.

On top of zero gym access, Rumbyrt also had to consider an adaptive athlete’s history and functionality, some of which he had never met in person. Thinking outside the box became mandatory rather than a thought experiment.

“If you would have asked me back in March if we could keep an entire program afloat only by virtual means, I might shake my head and tell you it’s not possible,” Rumbyrt said in a follow-up email. The results have exceeded expectations. “We are [still] learning every day, but our football team continues to grow, and the interest from athletes only continues to increase.”

When the league does debut, expect it to be fast-paced, hard-hitting and exciting. “We want it to be what people think of football,” said Bart Salgado, the Angel City Sports coach.

On a 228-foot long by 66-foot wide field, the seven-on-seven game will be moving fast. The uptempo pace-of-play features a running game clock and, similar to the NFL, a 40-second play clock.

Each first down marker is 15 yards apart, but the offense will have set downs. For example, if the offense took over the ball at the three-yard line, it would be first and twelve. But if the offense took over the ball at the 13-yard line, it would be first and two.

Each team will have four downs to reach the first down markers, or they will either have to go for it or “punt” the ball. Defenses will have to remain vigilant, however, as every offensive player is considered an eligible receiver.

“That’s super exciting because you’re just not isolating anybody in their role,” said Nick Pryor, the head coach of the Ability360 team.

Special team plays such as punting and kickoffs will involve throwing the football downfield. Field goals have been eliminated and teams will have to score their extra points on conversions from the three-yard line. One point is awarded to a team for a successful passing play and two points for a successful running play.

To keep a level playing field, USAWFL adopted the classification system from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.

This classification system is points-based. These points take into account the leg, abdominal, and upper body function of an athlete, which leads to a final classification ranging from 1.0 to 4.5 in half-point increments.

A wheelchair football athlete poses for a picture. He is holding a football and looking away from the camera.

Points become important when identifying matchups during a wheelchair football game. “If you take a 4.5, and you match him up against a 1.5, or a 1.0, I can tell you who’s gonna win that 9.9 times out of 10,” said Kolton Kincaid, the coach of the Midwest Adaptive Sports football team.

Each football team will have a 21-point limit for the players they will have in play.

According to Salgado, expect the final scores of these wheelchair football games in the 30s by both teams.

Although this is the first-ever nationwide wheelchair football league for adults, wheelchair football has been around since the 1960s. In the last 30 years, cities like Santa Barbara, Calif., and Las Vegas supported wheelchair football tournaments like the Blister Bowl and the Xtreme Bowl, respectively. Other regions throughout the country have also supported competitive and recreational leagues.

Despite the setbacks to the start of the USAWFL, the increased time for program building among the inaugural teams will eventually translate to a high-quality product on the field. A reward that fans of the game will enjoy.

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Reinert Toft

Reinert Toft | Writer

Reinert Toft is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication with a B.A. in Sports Journalism and an M.A. in Mass Communication. Reinert currently works for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management as a data analyst but maintains his passion for sports whenever he can whether it’s TV watching, fantasy sports leagues, or pickup basketball.

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