U.S. Marine Corps calls on Williams to coach wheelchair basketball team in Wounded Warriors Games
Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News June 27, 2011
By Marianne L. Hamilton, for Silicon Valley Community Newspapers
On his laptop screen, Rod Williams traces a fingertip over a sea of faces. Softly, he recites the grim inventory of their injuries.
“Double amputee. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. Shattered legs and arm. Brain injury. Quadriplegic. Blind.”
But look: All are smiling widely into the camera’s lens. Attired in scarlet T-shirts and sweats emblazoned with the logo of the U.S. Marine Corps, they are flushed with the thrill of recent victories.
Williams is now grinning as well, his pride in his team apparent. With his powerful biceps and chest, it’s no stretch to imagine Williams putting this crew through its paces–or through Marine Boot Camp, for that matter.
But Williams does his coaching from a wheelchair. And today the Los Gatos resident is recounting his experiences in mentoring the Marines’ wheelchair basketball team at the recent 2011 Wounded Warriors Games.
Held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the Paralympic-style Games included 200 wounded, ill or injured soldiers from every branch of the military. Most incurred their disabilities during active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Williams, who is the laboratory information manager at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, shares an intimate bond with his team. At just nine months old, he contracted polio. His legs withered; braces and crutches became his sole source of mobility. Still, the Campbell native attended mainstream schools, graduating with the Campbell High School class of 1969. He went on to earn degrees in microbiology and chemistry from San Jose State University, but not before friends ignored his protests one evening and convinced him to join them at a fraternity party. There he met one Kathleen LaFrom, a pretty 16-year-old from Saratoga. This month Williams and the former Ms. LaFrom (who is semi-retired from a successful real estate career, and the pianist at St. Mary’s church) celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. The couple has two grown sons and two grandchildren.
During his senior year at SJSU, Williams was introduced to wheelchair basketball. Sitting in a chair was a revelation, he recalls. “I found that I could do so much more. It was so much faster and easier to get around, and didn’t put so much stress on my shoulders.” Still, learning to play ball while seated took some doing. “I wasn’t very good, but I was fast. I’d been doing pretty well at track and field events,” Williams says.
Indeed, Williams eventually set several international records in wheelchair track and field. He qualified for a berth on the track team at the 1976 Paralympic Games in Canada. He returned to the Games 12 years later, this time winning a gold medal in wheelchair basketball (the last time the U.S. has earned the top honors). Williams has participated in and coached the sport ever since, both in the U.S. and abroad. He plays with a team in San Jose weekly; with his help the group went to the national championships in Denver after just one year on the courts together.
Despite these successes, Williams says he was surprised when he received a phone call asking if he’d consider training the Marines’ Wounded Warrior Regiment for the Warrior Games trials at Camp Pendleton in February. “Someone had recommended me; I don’t really know what kind of reputation I have,” he says, shaking his head. “I was certainly flattered that they asked me to help teach the guys to play wheelchair basketball.”
The Wounded Warrior Regiment was formed in 2007 as a way to aid in the rehabilitation process for Marines returning from the Middle East with life-altering injuries and other issues. “Reports say there’s an average of 18 suicides a day among guys coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Williams says. “The Marine Corps wanted to help these guys get reintegrated, get them motivated and back into the spirits they were in before they joined the service.”
Williams’ work at the VA Hospital–where he interacts daily with vets who are dealing with PTSD, brain injuries and other challenges–uniquely prepared him for the task at hand. “It’s really helpful to know how to work with them, what they’re dealing with and what can trigger an anxiety attack,” Williams notes.
More than 100 Marines converged on Camp Pendleton, each with a single goal in mind: to secure one of the 50 spots on the team that would compete in the games. Along with the tryouts for wheelchair basketball, the athletes were tested in swimming, track and field, archery, shooting and “sit volleyball,” in which participants compete while seated on the court.
According to the games’ eligibility requirements, any athlete who plays in a team sport such as volleyball or basketball must also compete in an individual sport such as shooting or archery. Thus, even though only 10 of the 50 vets who tried out for the wheelchair basketball team were chosen, many of those not selected still were able to make the trip to Colorado.
All gave it their best, Williams says. “These guys are fairly competitive by nature. I imagine some people would have a phobia about being in a chair; like if they got in one, they’d never get out. But these guys have such a tremendous attitude. “… They were all so excited to be a part of the games.”
The most difficult part of the process, says Williams, is teaching an athlete how to navigate and shoot from a wheelchair. Less than 20 pounds and lighting fast, with the distinctive “bow-legged” wheels that have a tiny turning-radius, the vehicles can–and often do–send inexperienced occupants tumbling to the hardwood. In video footage of a wheelchair basketball contest, defensive play is somewhat akin to a hockey dust-up.
“The chairs are pretty high tech, and the guys are strapped in,” Williams says. “But still there are parts of the body that come into contact, and crashes. It’s a very physical game.”
During the trials, the determination of the vets to overcome their disabilities was a constant source of wonder for Williams. “The Marines brought me out there to inspire these guys, but I was the one who was always inspired.”
In one instance, Williams noticed that a player was not using his peripheral vision on the court. Not wishing to single him out publicly, Williams stopped play and began a lecture about the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings at all times. In the middle of a sentence, Williams was interrupted.
“The guy said, ‘Hey, coach, I know you’re talking about me. But I just had one-fourth of my brain removed two months ago, and they took out the part that controls all of that. I don’t have any peripheral vision left!’
“The really incredible thing about this guy was that he’d never shot a bow and arrow before, but he decided to try archery. By the time the games came around, he ended up winning a bronze medal. In a way I think the fact that he has that tunnel vision, that focus really ended up helping him.”
Williams identified 10 wheelchair basketball players for the team, and then returned home to Northern California. He was resigned to the idea that he would not be a member of the coaching staff at the games–particularly since the trials at Camp Pendleton had drawn the head coaches of the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks and the Utah Wheeling Jazz (the nation’s fifth-ranked wheelchair team). However, Williams’ team had eked out a dramatic 25-24 victory over their opponents during the final game of the trials.
And then in April, the phone rang.
On the line was Col. Jay Krail, executive officer of the Wounded Warriors Regiment. Was Williams planning to go to Colorado Springs, Krail inquired?
“I said I hadn’t really thought about it; I figured I was just doing the trials.” No, Krail replied, Williams was wanted in Colorado. “I told him I’d have to check with my work. He said, ‘No, that’s been taken care of; you’re going to Colorado Springs.’ I was pretty sure that if I said I had to check with my wife, he’d say, ‘No, that’s been taken care of, too.’ ”
Two weeks before the opening ceremonies, Williams made the trip to the Olympic Training Center to begin working with the basketball team. Despite the need to train in multiple sports–and to become acclimated to the 6,400-foot altitude–the Marines performed admirably. Outfitted with prosthetics, one double amputee who played for Williams also posted a 12-second time for the 100-yard dash (barely two seconds behind the world’s fastest able-bodied sprinters). The Wounded Warriors Regiment swept the track and field competition, winning gold in 16 out of 20 events. They also dominated in the shooting contests, ascending the podium in 20 out of 24 events.
Not to be outdone, Williams’s basketball team thrashed their Navy and Air Force competitors in preliminary rounds before facing the Army in the finals. The red and gold gave it their all but in the end they fell to their rivals 44-19, relinquishing last year’s gold medal for a silver.
Lance Cpl. Austin “Red” Allen, a resident of South Carolina, never made it to the Middle East. Just before he was to be deployed, a rifle accidentally discharged during a hunting trip, taking with it 75 percent of his kneecap. Multiple surgeries (including one that removed his calf muscle) followed; wheelchair basketball at Camp Lejeune was prescribed to help him regain his strength. His innate athletic ability–Allen played basketball and football prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps–combined with the training he received from Williams landed him a spot on the wheelchair basketball team.
“The games are really a big deal; I guess it’s a pride thing,” Allen says. “And the camaraderie with my team was so cool. I learned a lot from coach Williams. When I got to the trials, I didn’t know that much about the game. But he taught me a whole bunch; I would never have made the Warrior Games without him.”
For Cpl. Richard (“Rejy”) Bacchus, preparing for his deployment to Iraq proved nearly as dangerous as an actual tour of duty. During a fast-paced training hike–weighed down by a 50-caliber machine gun, a backpack and the rest of his gear–Bacchus stepped into a hole, severely damaging his left ankle. Barely recovered from that injury, two weeks later another hole claimed his right ankle. He’s just had his seventh surgery to repair torn ligaments and cartilage and buy a few more years of mobility. Eventually, he has been told, his right leg will be amputated.
Still, Bacchus is an avid sit volleyball player, and next month will become a resident athlete with the national team. He says that adding wheelchair basketball to his exercise regimen (and meeting Williams) has expanded his vision of what’s possible in unanticipated ways.
“Being a part of this team has really molded my attitude and my perceptions about my life,” he says. “It takes you from what you can’t do to what you can do. Playing this sport has been one of the best parts of my reconditioning program that I’ve ever found.”
Asked about Williams’s coaching abilities, Bacchus has nothing but positives to share. “Coach is a really smart guy, and he’s a great player. I didn’t realize that he’d been in the Paralympics. He’s really humble.”
Scrolling through the Wounded Warriors Regiment’s Facebook page, Williams stops to click on videos showing his team’s prowess in all sports. Here’s a swimmer, a double amputee whose subsequent brain tumor robbed him of his sight. There’s the track star whose legs and one arm shattered like glass following the explosion of an IED (improvised explosive device). Heading over the finish line at a cycling event are still more double amputees.
“I was so “… amazed to be asked to be their coach,” Williams says haltingly, his azure eyes misting over behind his glasses. “I still get very emotional every time I think about it.” Then, shifting his gaze back to his team, Williams smiles again. “The important thing is that these guys know that it’s not like it was after everyone came home from Vietnam; they don’t have to deal with these issues on their own. There’s a support group out there to help them.”
Will Williams ever hang up his coach’s whistle? “I’ll do it when these young guys start kicking my butt. Until then, they’re going to have to scrape me off of the court with a spatula.”
In other words, Williams is definitely on a roll.
More information about the Wounded Warriors Regiment can be found at www.woundedwarriorregiment.org/index.cfm.