National wheelchair football tournament hosted by Buffalo for the first time
Move United’s USA Wheelchair Football League, or USAWFL, launched in 2020 and since then has supported over 850 athletes and coaches, of which 315 are veterans. Earlier this month, Buffalo hosted its first USAWFL tournament, welcoming seven teams, each named after their NFL counterpart.
Darnell Calahan was one of the newest athletes on the field during this tournament, having joined the Las Vegas Raiders just four months ago.
“So, this is the first time the Raiders has a team," said Calahan. "So this is our second tournament, but this is our first year, but I know some of the other teams have been teams for a while now.”
On Friday, September 29, ahead of the tournament, athletes gathered at Riverworks for fellowship and seemingly endless chicken wings. That night Calahan made one thing clear: this sport is just as competitive as any other.
“I think that's really important because it's gonna be real shameful to dominate during your first year, second tournament over all these established teams,” said Calahan said regarding the other teams, as his teammates chuckled. "This is going to come out real bad if we don't dominate, but we will though, we will."
Calahan happened to celebrate his 29th birthday that same day. But looking around the room, the league isn’t made up of young men. There’s diversity in age, gender, race and disability. All athletes play the game using a sports wheelchair, but not all use a mobility device full-time. Some people in the room had been disabled their whole lives and some became disabled later in life.
“For me, football has been a part of my life since I was five years old," said Gabriel Palacios, Calahan’s defensive coordinator and quarterback. "And I'll be honest, for about, you know, five to 10 years or so there was a spot where it wasn't. And I didn't feel right. So getting back into the sport, for me has been huge emotionally.”
Palacios is a Marine Corps veteran, who was wounded in Afghanistan. When he moved from Alabama to Nevada, he helped start their wheelchair football team.
“I can honestly tell you that the adaptive version, wheelchair football is, is twice as hard if not more than able-bodied football," said Palacios. "Because you have to be thinking about more things and you actually have to be doing more things to do the same thing.”
And while a huge part of this weekend was just enjoying a sport that has allowed some to play football again for the first time in years, and some to play it for the first time ever, it’s bigger than that.
“The long-term vision is for every single NFL team, all 32 teams, to be represented in the adaptive version of the sport," said Palacios. "That's going to take a lot of work at the state level and at the local level. The one thing, that we, that I, personally wish that we had more is media coverage, because I believe that that's one of the biggest ways aside from word of mouth, that's going to get this league into the forefront. Really I want this to be seen by everybody.”
That visibility is important, as the league is still building support and finding locations to even host these tournaments. Often they take place at convention centers or parking lots large enough for two playing fields. This tournament happened in a parking lot at Erie Community College.
“No other tournament that we've been to, you know, it's had this type of setup," said the Buffalo Bills’ Adam Page. "With the bleachers and everything, and the food trucks, but it shows that the community, I mean, obviously, Buffalo, we're huge with football, so any type of football that it is, or really any sport, the community, you know, really gets behind us.”
But visibility isn’t just important for the future of the league. That visibility, they hope, will create more opportunities for everyone with a disability to play sports. Bud Carpenter is a former athletic trainer for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Now, he’s the USAWFL’s Buffalo Bills Defensive Coach and sits on the executive board for Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports, which hosted the tournament and is working on a youth football league.
“My greatest part to this is to get the kids program," said Carpenter. "This is wonderful for disabled vets. It's wonderful for disabled people to play this. And right now you're trying to add more teams around the country, but it's an expensive venture. If you can now grow that internally, where you can get all these youth programs up and running. That to me is paramount.”
Other teams are also working on building youth programs while building up what they hope to someday be a league that is just as well known as the NFL.
Author's note: The term "able-bodied" is used in direct quotes from athletes in this story. While non-disabled is a neutral term often used to describe people without disability in stories about disability, members of the disability community sometimes use "able-bodied" to describe people who are not currently disabled or do not currently identify as disabled. This story also uses person-first and identity-first language interchangeably, reflective of the diversity of preference in the disability community. WBFO follows the National Center on Disability and Journalism's style guide, which can be found here and has more information on disability language.
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