The Charlottesville Cardinals don’t see their disabilities as an obstacle to their success

Story by Raven-Taylor Beaty

Photos by Michelle Lee

Clang! You can’t help but shut your eyes when you see these players collide in wheelchairs.

These athletes play with such skill and intensity, that the term disability disappears. The Charlottesville Cardinals wheelchair basketball team brings a positive recreational outlook for athletes with disabilities. Since the team’s creation in 1980, more than 475 athletes have played for the Cardinals. The team is co-ed and open to players of all ages. The youngest player on the team is 18, and the oldest is 77. Currently, the Cardinals are ranked 16th in the nation.This is a big accomplishment for the team, given that they had the opportunity to compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association National Championship. The Cardinal team captain, Brandon Rush, 30, has been playing for the team for 16 years. Rush was born with full mobility of his lower body. He fractured the T11 vertebrae of his spine, during a mountain bike accident when he was 14. I woke up in the dirt. I opened my eyes and looked around. [I] did a push up, tried to get up and my lower legs didn’t move,” Rush says. Rush knew then that he had lost mobility of his lower body.

Rush attended Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, in Charlottesville, after his accident. He says he remembers his experience there as being enjoyable. Rush says that both his physical and occupational therapists took the time to shape his learning experience in a wheelchair into something new and exciting. “They kept it fun,” Rush says. Rush never felt like he was at a disadvantage, and the open communication he had with his therapists made him strive harder to adjust to his new lifestyle. “When you feel like you can talk to someone, then you feel like you want to do good for them, Rush says.

It was through a presentation at Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, that Rush first heard about the Cardinals. Rush had always enjoyed playing basketball, so he took an opportunity to see the Cardinals practice. He has been with the team ever since. When it came to learning how to play basketball in a wheelchair, Rush was not immediately the stand-out he is on the court now. “It was something new to get used to, the whole mechanics of actually shooting the ball,” Rush says. He says you do not realize how much energy is generated from your legs in order to put the power behind the ball to shoot it.

Rush gradually learned about the techniques and the skill set the older, more experienced, players possesed. Rush rose to the challenge to be better than the players he was playing against. “If you want to play you got to work hard and get your position and get in where you you fit in,” Rush says. Like Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, the Cardinals also provided a positive environment for Rush to continue to flourish after his accident. Mentors such as the late Herman Key and Rick Shifflett, played a pivotal role in the beginning of Rush’s career with the Cardinals. Shifflett helped Rush “understand certain things that happened on the basketball court,” along with “things that happened off the basketball court too.”

He was taught the importance that his actions are not only a reflection of himself, but also a reflection of the team as a whole.

Overall, Rush chooses not to focus on his disability, but instead focuses on his current abilities and what the Cardinals has brought to his life. The Cardinals travel across the United States and Canada. Rush says he travels about eight to nine times a year. “It all kind of blurs together after a while,” he says. Atlanta, Alabama, D.C., New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania are some of the places that Rush has traveled with the team. In between all the traveling, Rush makes sure that he spends time with his 9-year-old son. He makes the time to pick up his son from school during the week. “A lot of the times when I have my son with me, I bring him to basketball practice,” Rush says. Rush is genuinely well-liked by his teammates.

Rush’s teammate, James Cook, 23, is an undergraduate at Virginia Tech studying mechanical engineering.  He has been playing with the Cardinals for two years. According to Cook, Rush is very friendly and a good teammate. “He is someone you can talk to, kinda like a mentor almost.” Like Rush, Cook was born with full mobility of his lower body. Cook was involved with sports throughout the majority of his life. He has played lacrosse, soccer, football and both water and snow skied. But a severe car accident caused him to lose mobility in his lower body.

Playing for the Cardinals has allowed Cook to continue to showcase his love for sports. “Sports is everything, so to be able to get out here and play sports again is just really exciting,” Cook says. The coach of the Cardinals, Tom Vandever, also speaks highly of Rush. “He is one of the spark plugs. He gives energy to the other players,” Vandever says. Vandever describes Rush as a very humble and well-rounded person.

In 1982, the Cardinals formed an advocacy group for people with disabilities called the Independence Resource Center. Rush works at the Independence Resource Center as a peer advocate. He helps people with disabilities learn how to live independently in the community.

Rush is often requested by rehabilitation centers in the Charlottesville and Richmond area, to come in and talk to newly injured patients. Vandever says he gives “them a perspective of life is far from being over.” The Charlottesville Cardinals travel to high school and elementary schools to do demonstrations. The students have the opportunity to get into wheelchairs and play the team in wheelchair basketball. They experience what it is like to have a disability. Vandever says that the Cardinals strive to teach others about the emphasis on “ability opposed to disability.”