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Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company
Local News : Sunday, November 12, 2000

Amputee athletes gather here for World Cup
By Christine Clarridge
Seattle Times staff reporter

There was a time when no one on this particular soccer team was sure he would ever walk or dance or make love again, much less compete for a world cup.

But on Tuesday, 46-year-old Thomas Feller, who lost a leg to a car accident at 19, will take to the field as a striker for the United States Amputee Soccer Team.

Teammate Farah Aden, 17, who lost a leg to civil war in Somalia when he was 12, will play midfielder.

Don Ersland, 57, who had a leg, withered from childhood polio, removed when he was almost 40, will be a defender.

They and 14 teammates will compete here this week in the World Cup 2000 Amputee Soccer Championship against teams from Russia, Georgia, England, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Moldova and Brazil.

"Make no mistake about it: This a world-class competition," said Bill Barry, the U.S. team's first coach and now its ambassador. "The play is blindingly fast and powerful and the athletes are world-class by any stretch of the imagination."

But amputee soccer is more than just a game. It's an international support network that sends amputees from Third World countries home with new and better prostheses. It's a fraternity whose members find camaraderie and acceptance. It's a place where athletes can put on their shorts and focus not on what they can't do, but on what they can.

Donations welcome
Donations to support the amputee-soccer team may be made in the name of the team, the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, in care of the Washington State Soccer Association at 7802 Northeast Bothell Way, Kenmore, WA 98028. For more information, call 425-485-7855.

"To walk out on the field and see people like you, amputees, who are running hard and sweating and competing, who feel free and whole and who have a gleam in their eye," said Feller. "Well, it changes your life."

A kick and a brainstorm

The tournament comes home this year to Seattle, where the game was born 20 years ago on the sidelines of a pickup basketball game on Mercer Island.

Donald Bennett, now 70 and retired, was standing on his good leg, leaning on his crutches, when the basketball flew out of bounds toward him. Instinctively, he booted it back into play.

Then it hit him: If he could kick a ball while standing on crutches, he could play soccer.

He invited amputees he had met at support groups and clinics to join him. It was an awkward beginning - crutches flailing, people falling down. Beginners had to fight the reflex to kick the ball with their missing legs.

But as it turns out, the world's most popular sport is well-suited to amputees.

In football, baseball or basketball, players need arms to catch and throw, and legs to run. But in soccer, only goalies can handle the ball with their arms or hands.

So field players in amputee soccer - all missing legs or feet - face little disadvantage; they propel themselves on forearm crutches, using their lone legs to kick.

Goalies have two able legs, but are missing an arm or hand.

Prosthetic limbs are left behind when players take the field. An artificial leg becomes painful dead weight on sprints and turns. Playing without prostheses also evens the odds between above-knee and below-knee amputees.

"Other than that, you'd be surprised how few differences there are between it and able-bodied soccer," Barry said.

Balls in amputee soccer have been clocked at more than 100 miles an hour - faster than in regular play, Feller said. The players use their crutches as fulcrums, and swing their whole bodies back to gain momentum and force on kicks.

Since the game's inception, Bennett and Barry have traveled the world teaching the sport, promoting it as an antidote to the ravages of accidents, land mines, civil wars and disease.

A few years after they started playing, Barry got a call from a general in El Salvador. "He said, `We've had a civil war, and we have thousands of young men who have been put in a corner. Come and show us what to do.' "

Hundreds more calls followed.

"We can't teach them fast enough," Barry said.

Stories of loss

Farah Aden was playing soccer on a field in Mogadishu five years ago when the first shots of civil war erupted.

"Bullets came from everywhere," he said. "A lot of kids died in the field."

He was shot in the left thigh. His grandmother dragged him home and the family fled that night, before Farah could be treated. He begged his parents to let him die rather than take his infected leg.

"I felt sorry for myself," said Aden, a student at Cleveland High School. "I very much loved soccer in Africa and I thought I would never play again."

Defender Don Ersland, a retired Boeing engineer, was 7 when he contracted polio. He wore a leg brace and walked with difficulty. But his brothers and friends made allowances for him on the ballfields.

Then he got to high school.

"All of a sudden it was organized and competitive and I couldn't play anymore," he said. "I came to hate my leg."

As the years passed, he looked for a surgeon who would remove the atrophied leg, but time and again, they refused.

He was almost 40, working in Seattle, when a doctor agreed to perform the amputation.

"As far as I was concerned I lost my leg long before that," Ersland said. "All I felt was relief."

Feller, the team coach and striker, was a lifelong sports fiend. As a teenager, he played semi-pro soccer, hiked with 85-pound packs and ran 16 miles every Saturday.

He was just days from starting college in 1973 when he and a friend went on an end-of-summer camping trip in British Columbia. Driving home on a narrow mountain road, he swerved to avoid an oncoming car, lost control and went over a cliff.

"I undid my seat belt and tried to step out of the car but my bones came through my Levi's," he said. His left leg was in shambles: calf bone shattered, skin ripped, muscles torn, heel crushed.

He was refused admission to a nearby hospital, he said, because his insurance meant nothing in a country with socialized medicine.

Young people had been crossing the border to avoid the draft, he remembered. "The Canadians didn't want to get mixed up in that. I begged them. I told them I had insurance, I had money."

Doctors finally fitted his leg with a temporary cast and released him to his father, who sped to a hospital in Seattle. The cast, which became a tourniquet around his swelling leg, was immediately removed in Seattle, but the blood had been cut off for too long and he got gangrene.

"When they told me they would have to take my leg or I would die, I felt like, `What's my third choice?' " he said. "But what it came down to for me was life or death, and I chose life."

He went to college and became a draftsman. He married, had two girls and divorced.

Fifteen desk-bound years passed before he saw Bennett's amputee soccer team at play - and found the courage to step on the field himself.

Feller has since remarried, had a third daughter, gone to work for a prosthetics company where he fits limbs on amputees, and taken over from Barry as coach.

"I don't know how to describe it," he said. "Soccer had been a big part of my life, a part that I'd thought I'd lost forever, and then to walk out and see it . . . I felt as if a whole world had opened up."

`Suddenly, you are not different'

Each member of the U.S team took a different route to amputee soccer. Feller's dad called and told him to get down to the local field, pronto. Aden came across it on the Internet. Ersland heard about it while he was being fitted for his first prosthesis.

Once on the field, though, they travel a similar path.

At first, they stand shyly on the sidelines and insist they just want to watch. But, just as Bennett discovered 20 years ago at the pickup basketball game, they find it hard not to kick a ball when it rolls their way. Before long, they're regulars.

"They come off exhausted with a gleam and a glint in their eye that wasn't there before," Barry said. "It makes a light go off in their head: If I can do this, I can do anything."

Midfield player Ed Rosenthal, 44, who lost his leg at the knee in a motorcycle accident 13 years ago, put it this way:

"You see, suddenly, that you are not different. Everyone out there is just like you, an amputee. And you see that people are not frail. Their stumps are not frail. It's very cool and it's very liberating."

There are benefits off the field, as well.

"We start talking to each other," said Stephen Wilber, 54, the team's player representative who lost his lower leg in a motorcycle accident at 26. "We ask each other `How did you lose your leg? What kind of foot do you have? What kind of leg?' "

The U.S. team faces long odds against countries such as Brazil and Ukraine, where soccer is the national passion and amputee soccer is well-funded.

"That would be like a high-school team taking on the Knicks," said Rosenthal.

The U.S. team scrapes together funding from private donors and their own pockets. This year's tournament was almost canceled for lack of money until the U.S. Soccer Foundation stepped in with a grant.

But money hassles are incidental to the players. They play for the love of the game - and for what they give, and get back.

"What we do out there transcends politics and sports," said Barry.

Each time the games are held in the U.S., players from other countries are sent home with vastly improved prostheses and crutches. Local prosthetic designers and teaching hospitals have been encouraged to work with the visiting amputees, turning the soccer teams into learning laboratories: How to best fit the pointed stump that results from a cobra bite or the splayed stump from a careless amputation.

Amputees who serve as test models walk away with a new limb.

"The legs that some of these countries have are just terrible," Wilber said. "You can't imagine how great it feels when someone marvels about what they can do with their new leg."

But more important is what they learn to do without them.

Unlike the days when they first lost their limbs and dreaded the stares, these athletes now want people to come out and watch them play.

Said Rosenthal: "When I play, when I run, I do it for myself and also for the people - and especially the kids - that are watching, hoping that if anything like this ever happens to them, they'll remember that once, a long time ago, they saw a man who didn't let having one leg stop him."

Christine Clarridge's phone message number is 206-464-8983. Her e-mail address is cclarridge@seattletimes.com.


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