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Accident Broke His Neck, Not His Spirit

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · August 17th, 2005 · In My View
Sometimes disability occurs in a single instant, and sometimes that's a tragedy. The smart money, though, is on just figuring out how to navigate the detour and get back on track with some new techniques.

Brian Burger was 17 when he broke his neck in what he calls a completely fluke accident. An ace skier, he was reveling in the sport at Dearborn's Perfect North Slopes on an un-Decemberlike 55-degree day in 1992. He was going fast. His skis hit a patch of grass -- and when he tumbled, hard, and his head struck a tree stump in just the right way to move him from the box marked "able-bodied athletic kid" to the one labeled "quadriplegic guy needing a wheelchair for mobility."

But it would be only nine months before he was athletic again.

Burger was halfway through his senior year of high school when his injury occurred. Still, he graduated with his class and, despite the advice of "experts" who felt it was too soon, headed for Ohio State Universirty the following fall.

He'd been on campus only a week when a guy invited him to a meeting about a sport called quad rugby.

"I told him I just broke my neck last year," he says. "I didn't know anything about wheelchair sports."

But curiosity prevailed. He went to the meeting, saw videos of other quadriplegics playing a serious sport that intrigued him and, before he knew it, he was one of about five guys to start a Columbus team.

In 1999 he decided it was time to take his favorite pastime to the next level. Now you might say we have a local star tied to a movie that is one of the most talked about films of the summer.

When the movie Murderball came to Cincinnati July 29 -- a week later, incidentally, than it came to a lot of other cities -- Brian Burger was on hand opening night at the Esquire Theatre to conduct an informal Q&A.

In the event that you haven't seen Murderball, the subject of the film is sports, competition, rivalry and a whole lot of in-your-face machismo. The sport is quad rugby, the final location Athens, Greece, and the players all guys in gladiator-style wheelchairs from the United States and Canada who made it to the pinnacle of championships in their league, the 2004 Paralympic Games. It's the kind of documentary that's so riveting that you forget you're watching a documentary -- weaving the personal lives and rivalries of the players in with the nature of the sport itself.

The 16-member team, which is currently in training for an international competition in Brazil next month, holds tryouts every June. Burger, who grew up in Fairfield and lives in Lebanon with his wife and 18-month-old son, made the cut to be part of that team just two months ago.

This is not, as one of the team members points out in Murderball, a sport resembling the feel-good, self-esteem-building quality of Special Olympics. While that effort is laudable and significant, quad rugby and other paralympic qualifying sports are about rigorous training, competition and a fierce desire to win.

Here are a few relevant facts of the game. To play it, you must be able to push your own wheelchair and you must be quadriplegic. That means you must have limitations in both lower and upper body functionality. Some quadriplegics, in other words, have absolutely no movement of arms or legs. Those who play quad rugby are all somewhere on a scale of being able to move portions of one or both arms, have some torso movement, to having movement that might appear to the uninitiated as unimpaired.

To qualify, every player is tested and certified by a panel of experts. All possible muscle strength and movement is evaluated, and the player is then classified on a scale that runs from 0.5 to 3.5. To balance play, each team has up to eight points on the court at any given time. This can be any combination: two 3.5s and two 0.5s, four 2.0s or any other combination that totals eight.

Burger's classification is 1.5, and says he can play both offense and defense. In practical terms, it means that he can't fully open his hands, so he cannot grasp objects but can grip tightly once he takes hold. It means he has some triceps function on one side and none on the other.

Beyond all this limitation/functionality blah-blah, though, is a guy in our midst who broke his neck as a high school senior and made the very wise choice not to let it screw up his life.

When he left work Friday -- he's a financial adviser and trainer of other advisers for New York Life -- he headed home just long enough to pack his gear for a weekend training new rugby recruits in Indianapolis. Although his family wasn't going along this time, Burger says that his son, Braden, attended his first quad rugby game at about six weeks of age and that his wife is not only wonderfully supportive of his own dream but often on hand to help other team members load and unload gear.

"I know it's a cliché -- the whole mind over body idea that, if you want to do something and believe you can, there's a way to get it done," Burger says. "But that's the way it's been for me. ... I'm a true believer and practicer of that philosophy."

That's why he'll be at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008. That's why Murderball is a movie everyone should see. And it's why I wrote this column.



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