|Tom Hamill lofts the quad-rugby national trophy that his team has won two years straight.
About 30 years ago, Tom Hamill ’80 looked up “rugby” in an encyclopedia.
“That’s the first time I heard about it,” Hamill remembers with a laugh. “I read the entry, and I thought it’d be a sport I’d enjoy playing—everybody got the ball, everybody was part of the action.”
Hamill played rugby while studying political science at Dickinson and, during the college’s off-season, for the Carlisle Gaelics—now the Old Gaelic Rugby Football Club of Cumberland County. But in 1985, after he’d joined the Morris rugby team in New Jersey, he broke his neck playing the game.
The injury, Hamill says, was the result of improper positioning in the scrum—the tight formation in which rugby players crouch next to each other, lock arms and push against the opposing team. “The person who was across from me came against me standing up instead of crouching,” Hamill explains. “I went to the Magee Hospital [in Philadelphia] for rehab.”
Hamill was now a quadriplegic—lacking functional ability in all four limbs. But that didn’t keep him from staying active in the sport he loved.
His rehabilitation therapist introduced him to quad rugby—a contact sport for quadriplegics. In quad rugby, also known as wheelchair rugby or “Murderball,” players from each team pass a volleyball back and forth, cross into their opponent’s half court and bring the ball across the goal line to score. Each team’s defense tries to block the other players from scoring.
“It sounded great,” Hamill says. “It’s a team sport, a contact sport and something that ‘quads’ can play.”
At the same time he was reconnecting with rugby, he was finding a new career. He’d worked in the restaurant business after graduation from Dickinson, but his long-term goal was to attend law school. He earned a degree from Delaware Law School and has been practicing disability law in New Jersey since he graduated in 1989.
And the quad-rugby team he found, the Magee Eagles, is right across the Delaware River. Hamill has been playing with the Philadelphia team since 1996, and for the last two years, he has coached the team—leading his players to the title in the United States Quad Rugby Association (USQRA) Division II national championship in April.
“Because I’ve found rugby and rugby found me, I’ve been living a very normal life [despite his injury],” says Hamill, who still practices law and also is a volunteer commissioner for the USQRA. “That’s the biggest thing rugby does for me.”
In quad rugby, players are classified according to their mobility on a scale from 0.5 (least) to 3.5 (most). “A 3.5 can go out and ‘run’ like a maniac,” Hamill explains. “The lower numbers do more of a blocking role”—often so aggressively that they knock other players out of their wheelchairs. Hamill’s rating is a 1.0, so when he plays a game he’s on the defensive end.
“Quad rugby gives you the ability to be around other people in the community with similar injuries,” Hamill says. “When you’re around other ‘quads’ who are out doing things in life, there’s such an exchange of information and experience that you don’t get in rehab.”
He gives the example of the teammate he watched transfer his legs into a bed from his wheelchair. “This was 17 years after I was injured,” says Hamill, “and, after watching him, I developed a new way to get my own legs into my bed. A therapist can’t tell you how to do something like that. This kind of learning goes on all over the sport.
“I’m so glad I got involved with quad rugby,” he says. “It’s been incredibly enjoyable and challenging, and it’s pushed me mentally and physically.” •
For more information about quad rugby, visit: www.quadrugby.com.