EDINBORO, Pa. — The small school in the small northwestern Pennsylvania town isn't for everyone.
On a late January morning, minutes before the sun rises, the Edinboro University campus is blanketed in snow, just as it always is this time of year in an area known as the "Snow Belt." It's minus 6 degrees outside and, with the wind coming from Lake Erie 30 miles to the north, it feels like minus 22.
Inside McComb Fieldhouse, shielded from those elements, Colm Williams sits in his wheelchair, holding a basketball. A native of Port St. Lucie, Fla. -- where the high was 65 that day -- this would seem a place he doesn't belong.
Edinboro among few to offer wheelchair basketball program
Edinboro University is one of seven colleges in the country with a wheelchair basketball program. Here's a look at the team. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 3/8/2014)
But on the court, he has found a home.
"Basketball makes you do crazy things sometimes," he said with a smile.
For some like Mr. Williams, opportunity lies under Edinboro's snow and ice. It brings them thousands of miles from home to be a part of something they may have never thought possible.
Together, they are the school's wheelchair basketball program, one of just seven men's and five women's college programs in the country. To those who gather in the small gym this Wednesday morning, basketball is more than a game.
"I try not to use the word 'normal,' but it makes them feel the same as every other kid that wants to be a student-athlete," said Jim Glatch, the team's coach. "It makes them feel, not normal, but no different."
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In a season in which little has gone right with an inexperienced team, a Feb. 22 game turns out to be more of the same.
The Fighting Scots came back from 11 points down in the second half only to lose by two to the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a team run by a local nonprofit organization.
The players are aggressive and the game is intense. Chairs crash into each other as players set screens for teammates. Though the chairs' wheels are angled to increase stability, a few players fall to the court and need help to get up. By the end of the game, sophomore John Herndon's heavily callused hands are covered in black residue from operating the wheels.
The loss was the team's 15th in a row, but the two-hour trip to the Thelma Lovette YMCA in Pittsburgh's Hill District is something of a reprieve from a deteriorating grind.
Known as the state's pre-eminent university for disabled students, Edinboro is the only college wheelchair basketball program in the Eastern time zone. Its closest college opponent, the University of Illinois, is a nine-hour bus ride away. In early March, the team traveled about 20 hours to the University of Texas-Arlington for its college national tournament.
By the time their season ended Friday, the Fighting Scots logged roughly 8,000 miles on the road. In addition to the travel and other expenses, each player requires a $3,000 custom wheelchair.
For all the opportunities wheelchair basketball provides, those good deeds come with a caveat -- the program is expensive to maintain.
"It is a challenge, there's no doubt," Edinboro athletic director Bruce Baumgartner said.
The program largely relies on fundraising, averaging between $12,000 and $15,000 a year in donations. Last year it raised more than $25,000. Some of that money is used for partial scholarships, which seven players on this year's team have.
Even though those dollar figures seem significant, they go only so far. When you combine that with a lack of a natural recruiting base -- the closest junior program is in Detroit -- it leads to some struggles, both for the team and the program.
"When you move into athletics, it's a little bit different of an expectation level," Mr. Glatch said. "You're expected to win, you're expected to raise money, you're expected to recruit and you're expected to graduate college students.
"We continue to graduate college students, we continue to raise money and we continue to recruit. The problem is we're not winning."
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Most everyone has that specific date they can cite off the top of their heads. For Derek Strickland, it's Jan. 24, 2005.
In his third year as an employee at a Costco in North Carolina, he turned a forklift down an aisle. When he tried to straighten it out, the machine kept turning and rammed a nearby shelf. Fearing that a crossbeam would bend him in half over the forklift, he tried to jump out from behind the beam, but instead, it caught his leg.
His left foot was shattered, so much so that he can remember it folding over when paramedics took off his shoe. From that accident came two surgeries and the hope of saving the limb, but a stinging reality emerged -- he could either try fixing his leg with as many as 15 surgeries or he could have it amputated. He opted for the latter.
A basketball player in high school, Mr. Strickland knew about wheelchair ball but didn't get involved until a few years after his accident, when he noticed a group of players at a community center in Raleigh.
With a 6-foot-3 frame, he was something of a natural in a game in which players can't jump. Soon enough, college programs took notice.
Coming out of high school, Mr. Strickland didn't have the opportunity to go to college, but suddenly, the man in his late 20s with a wife and a young son was being offered an avenue to a new life.
"Once I found out it was a possibility, that was what I was going to do," he said. "I was going for it and there was no stopping me."
Mr. Strickland, 31, seldom thinks back to that fateful day and, even when he does, it doesn't produce anger, pity or painful hypotheticals. For better or worse, it's when his path to Edinboro began.
"Yeah, it's changed my life, but I've gotten opportunities I would have never had otherwise," he said.
Though Mr. Strickland's story is unique, his road to Edinboro is not unlike many of his teammates. Nobody on the teams comes from this small town, but the sport brings them here from places like Detroit, New York, Dallas and even Jamaica.
Mariya Redden's story began in India, where she spent the first five years of her life before being adopted by a family in New Jersey.
Bubbly and genial, she has played wheelchair basketball since she was 10 and credits the game with so many positive aspects of her life.
"It just opens your mind," Ms. Redden, 24, said. "All of these people are disabled, but look how awesome they can play basketball. There's no boundaries for any of us and it's only in our mind if we have that boundary."
At an early age, she was diagnosed with polio, which weakened her muscles without making her fully disabled.
Many of Ms. Redden and Mr. Strickland's teammates were born with a disability. Life in a wheelchair is all they've known.
Freshman Hollis Muenster has proximal femoral focal deficiency on his left side, which causes lower limb defects, and on his right side, he has phocomelia, an extremely rare disorder involving malformation of limbs. There's a one in 10 billion chance of someone having both conditions, meaning it's likely that Mr. Muenster is the only person like himself in the world.
"It's pretty cool, I guess, in a weird way," he said.
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As the players slowly leave the bus and greet loved ones upon returning from Pittsburgh, Mr. Muenster is in the cargo hold of the bus, emptying out equipment. Between the chairs and their detached wheels, it's a tight fit in a narrow space. He describes packing them in as "the world's worst Tetris game."
The job is the sort of grunt work that Mr. Muenster and the other freshmen have to endure until another class of newcomers enters the program.
Tedious as it may be, there's a method to the madness for the coach.
Even more than basketball, Mr. Glatch aims for his program to teach independence and social skills. It begins when they are freshmen, with tasks like loading and unloading the bus. By the time they're sophomores, they help raise funds, and from each year on, there's a higher level of responsibility.
Not only does he enjoy getting his players prepared for life after college, he has to. The world awaiting those with disabilities can be harsh, where the chair often is seen before the person sitting in it.
Much like the school itself, Mr. Glatch's system isn't for everybody. Many incoming players aren't used to what awaits them -- living on their own, balancing classes and 20 hours of practice per week -- and that is reflected in high turnover for the team's roster.
But those who stay are rewarded. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.2 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor; for players who go through the Edinboro program, it's about 5 percent.
The players are surrounded by evidence of that trend, from framed pictures of old teams featuring several professional players to former players working as assistant coaches. It's an example of what's possible.
"We don't see the chair," Mr. Glatch said. "No one on this campus, by the time they've been here for a while, will see that chair. When you go out in public -- not only as an athlete, but as someone who wants to be employed -- we want you to have that level of confidence, that level of acceptance. I think that's what this program does more than anything."
The chair will always be there for these players, as will the uncertainty that comes with it. But even if it's just for four years, those who have been deemed different are given a chance. And for many, that's more than enough.
"I'm thankful for the schools that have these programs," Mr. Strickland said. "It's kind of hard to put into words. You get injured, you become disabled and you don't know ... how much you're going to be able to do in life moving on from there. And with the more that goes on, you're able to live really a normal life and do anything and everything you want to do.
"I had dreams and aspirations of playing college ball since I was probably 5 years old. It took an unconventional route to get to it, but it ultimately helped me fulfill a dream I had forever, for as long as I can remember."
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.