Wheelchair basketball athletes take game to next level

The Kansas Wheelhawks were among a handful of teams that participated in a wheelchair basketball tournament in Topeka last month.

Last month, several wheelchair basketball teams from Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma came to Topeka for the Kansas Accessible Sports Invitational.

The round-robin tournament showcased different levels of talent.

“Even though you have a disability, you can do amazing things,” Josh Ruoff, said.

Josh Ruoff graduated from Seaman High School last year and made his return home as a member of the Missouri Tigers. His friends and family were there to cheer him on.

“It’s kind of cool to show them that I’m doing something pretty cool with my life and it’s all because of them,” Ruoff said. “They’re the reason why I’m at Mizzou and doing well.”

Mizzou is one of a handful of schools in the country that offers a wheelchair basketball program. Even though Josh grew up a Jayhawk, he was anxious to make the move to Columbia.

“It was a tough transition,” Ruoff said. “Academically, it’s a whole new world. Plus, you have to balance basketball on top of that. You’re getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning for a 5:30 AM practice and you’re also going to classes throughout the entire day. It’s a challenge but I’m getting the hang of it.”

Another player that’s new to the game is Matt Bollig. A year and a half ago he suffered a weightlifting accident, which paralyzed him from the waist down.

“Matt Bollig is a prime example,” Jim Kesler of the Kansas Wheelhawks said. “He came out and started playing with this team a year ago just months after his injury. I’ve never seen a person get involved that fast and that quick, but he’s a competitor.”

Bollig was a standout quarterback at Chanute H.S. and later became a starter at Ottawa University.

“Matt’s story is incredible,” Ruoff said. “He is probably one of the strongest young men I’ve ever met. He could have so easily have said, “I’m going to feel sorry for myself and do nothing,” but no, he’s trying to do something with his life and it’s so cool.”

Although Matt’s life has changed, he found a new home in a sport that he knew little about.

“At first, I didn’t really know what to expect and that kind of made me leery of playing when I first got hurt,” Bollig said. “I met some of the guys that have been playing with the Kansas Wheelhawks here in Topeka and I started driving up here and practicing with them and that led me to start to love the game.”

The Kansas Wheelhawks welcomed Matt with open arms and the invitation to return still stands.

“We just hope that when they get their education, their degrees that they find a job and come back in this area,” Kesler said. “So they can come back and play with us so some of us can retire someday.” 

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