In action at Arizona
Hershey High School graduate Josh O’Neill outplayed 19 of the nation’s best quadriplegic athletes in late October to become a member of the United States Quad Rugby development team.O’Neill, who suffered a broken neck at age 16 as he drove home after a high school basketball game. He hit a cow on the road and waited all night for help to arrive.
He was told he would spend the rest of his life in an electric wheelchair.
O’Neill, 25, is a C5 (fifth vertebrae) quadriplegic.
At first, he had no triceps muscles on his right side, limited triceps on his left side and limited biceps on both sides. He still has no finger function. He is totally paralyzed from the chest down.
But he never gave up. Quad Rugby, also known as wheelchair rugby, is played on a basketball court. The goal is to carry the ball past the opponent’s goal line, even though they block your path and steal the ball. The offense sets picks and passes the ball if they are stopped. There is a lot of pick and rolling.
Games are four-quarters, each eight minutes – an intense, exhaustive time.
While at Hershey, Josh played football, basketball and track as a freshman, before he was injured. He nearly died in the crash.
After the accident, “We went from him being critical, to knowing he would make it, then realizing he would never walk,” Tim said.
Josh started fighting to be athlete as soon as he could after the accident. It was quite a fight. He had to learn to use both of his arms.
He first spent two weeks at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney, then went to the Craig Institute in Denver for two and a half months. He was introduced to quad rugby during rehabilitation.
“It has been a goal of his to find a sport to compete,” his father Tim O’Neill said. “He has worked diligently.”
Most people with the extent of Josh’s injuries end up in an electric wheelchair, eating from a straw, but Josh didn’t spend much time in an electric chair.
“The first time they got him in an electric chair he cruised across the overhead hallway that spans a minimally trafficked Denver street,” Tim said. “He paused in the middle of the hallway and sat there looking down on the street, and then he turned around and came back to the room. With tears in his eyes, he told me he would never get in an electric chair again.”
Josh informed the doctors he wanted a manual chair. The doctors disagreed. They argued. Josh believed it was possible, no matter what they told him. Finally the doctors agreed to change his rehab program and incorporate a manual wheel chair, if he could get in the chair himself, roll out the door of his room, down the hallway and back.
His first try to get in the chair lasted nearly five hours, his father said.
“That is five hours of work to get from the bed into a wheelchair that was next to his bed. He collapsed in his chair and had no energy for anything else. It went that way for days, but he got stronger,” Tim said.
A month later, Josh finally got in his chair, rolled out the door, into the hallway and came back.
Josh completed the program at Craig, returned to high school, graduated with his class and went to Mid-Plains for two years, earning an associate degree. He had help not only from his family but a daily care nurse as well. He worked a few odd jobs for a couple months, and one day announced that he was headed to the University of Arizona, something he’d been considering, in part because they had a quad rugby program.
He told his parents on a Friday. Much to their surprise, he said he was leaving Monday. He left his daily care nurse and set out on his own to learn to fully take care of himself.
At the time, it took him nearly three hours a day to get ready for the day, to use the rest room, get dressed and shower.
In school in Arizona, he became more serious about playing wheelchair rugby. He played several times and joined a team about four years ago.
Wheelchair rugby is the fastest growing wheelchair sport in the world, according to the United States Quad Rugby website.
There are 42 teams across the country, competing on a club level.
O’Neill is with the Brooks Bandits of Jacksonville Fla. in the Atlantic South conference. He was invited to tryout with Team Force, a 12-member team that develops players for the U.S. Quad Rugby team, which competes internationally.
Tim was excited for Josh to be invited to try out. Only 31 players from across the nation were invited. In the tryouts, players completed seven rugby specific skills tests and went head to head in scrimmages and competition.
“There were battles at every position, but in the end there’s no doubt we picked the 12 players to represent the USQRA and help develop the future of USA rugby,” said Team Force coach Dave Ceruti.
Josh will play during 2013-15 on Team Force.
Team Force is a developmental/pipeline program that feeds directly into the USA Wheelchair Rugby program. The USA is the dominant world powerhouse in the sport.
Josh said he “definitely wouldn’t be here without the help of family, nurse and friends. I have a really stubborn family on both sides. My dad taught me not to listen to others and set my own goals. He said ‘if you think you can do it, you probably can.’”
The O’Neills express a special thank-you to Patty Evans of Cycle Sport in North Platte, who tunes and maintains Josh’s chairs and hand-cycle when he is home.
Josh lifts weights and works out 4-6 times a week. He can shower and get ready for the day in about an hour, sometimes less. He drives a specially designed car.
“I’m not fully satisfied yet, but I am happy to be on this team,” he said. “I worked hard to get here the last couple years. Hopefully I can get to the next level.”
“There are guys playing in their 50s,” Josh said. “I might have a long career ahead. I’m just starting. I’m not sure I can make it, but I have to start somewhere.”
His team will have one more training camp in 2013. Tournaments and training camps will be held throughout 2014. Josh is contributing more than just athleticism. He is tackling another job that requires a lot of determination.
“I’m trying to start some fundraising for the team. We have to pay for our travel,” Josh told the Bulletin. “I’m starting research in ways to do that.”
This report was first published in the Bulletin's Oct. 30 print edition.