UPDATE: In what U.S.A. Wheelchair Rugby is saying may be one of the most exciting games of rugby ever played, the U.S. team earned a Silver medal in the 2016 Paralympics, after Australia claimed victory in a double-overtime match. Japan took home the Bronze.
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As a teenager in Nashville, Ill., Eric Newby ’14, was a star football and basketball player. But now he plays a different sport — wheelchair rugby — and it has taken him all the way to Rio.
Newby will compete for the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team in the 2016 Paralympics. The competition will be held Sept. 14-18. When he found out he’d made the team, Newby couldn’t believe it.
“It was crazy,” Newby says. “It’s still emotional, and I get choked up thinking about it.”
A New Challenge
At age 18, Newby changed sports because his life changed. On the night of his high school graduation, he was riding with a friend when the truck they were in hit a concrete post and flipped, breaking Newby’s neck.
“The day I was released from rehab, I went straight to rugby practice — only five weeks after I got hurt.”
While recovering, he watched the movie, Murderball, a documentary about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby athletes who went to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. Soon after, Newby had a serendipitous encounter.
“I actually met the coach of the St. Louis wheelchair rugby team in rehab,” Newby says. “Then, the day I was released from rehab, I went straight to rugby practice — only five weeks after I got hurt.”
The six-foot-five-inch athlete who could once bench-press 300 pounds was no stranger to playing hard. But this time, he had to get used to his different and changing body, the real strengths and limits of which he wouldn’t know for a full year.
“When I look back on it, I was pretty terrible. It took me three years to get good at the sport,” Newby says. It’s no wonder. Rugby is the only full contact wheelchair sport.
“We play in wheelchairs that are custom built for each player and look like something out of Mad Max,” Newby says. “Basically, the defense is trying to destroy the guy with the ball before he scores by crossing the end line between two markers. It’s an insanely fast-paced, high intensity sport, but it’s so much fun to play, and really exciting to watch.”
Along the way, Newby became friends with Chuck Melton, a former St. Louis Rugby Rams teammate, who, it turned out, grew up in a town just five minutes away from Newby’s home. They’ve developed an almost telepathic ability to communicate during the game.
“We don’t even have to say anything. It just works,” Newby says.
Melton and Newby will compete in Rio together, as the only two from the St. Louis team to be chosen for Team USA.
It will be a reunion for the two friends. This past January, Newby moved to Littleton, Col., with his fiancée, Megan Moauro, an occupational therapist he met through wheelchair rugby. He works remotely with Stealth Creative, in the same graphic designer position he had in St. Louis, and plays for the Denver Harlequins.
Newby has become friends with the athletes he once admired in Murderball, a dream come true. In September, he’ll achieve his goal of competing on a global level. So what’s next after Rio? Newby would like to participate in a 2018 World Championship in Australia. But that may depend on a shoulder surgery he’s facing. Wheelchair rugby is a brutal sport.
“I’m on my third concussion,”Newby says. “I’ve broken my elbow, my hand, and some fingers.” But he’s happy just thinking about a future in which work and marriage are his focus.
“I want to be the hardest worker and the best husband I can be,” Newby says.
Follow news of the U.S. Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby team here.
This story also featured in the Fall 2016 edition of Maryville Magazine.