EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 12, 2012

Power to play

Soccer on wheels lets kids get into the game

By Mary Schwalm Staff writer
The Eagle-Tribune

---- —

PowerCats player Ben Safford passes the ball up to his brother Sam, who quickly spins around a defender and effortlessly slips the ball past the goalie for the first score of the game. Sam pumps his chest and races back to the centerline cheered by a boisterous crowd of friends and family.

As the University of New Hampshire football hosts William and Mary down the street, the Hamel Center on the Durham, N.H., campus is rocking as well. The Northeast Passage PowerCats are hosting the Sudbury Sharpshooters for a double-header of “Power Soccer” and parents, friends, students and curiosity seekers pack the metal stands at the baseline and cheer loudly as the game is underway.

Sam and Ben Safford, of Pelham, N.H., and students at Methuen’s Fellowship Academy, are two members of the PowerCats, a team in the wheelchair sport of Power Soccer, which is gaining momentum throughout the country. The fast-paced, action-packed, light-contact sport combines the skills of the wheelchair operator with the speed and power of the chair itself.

The chairs are equipped with a metal or plastic foot guard and engineered to race at just over 6 mph. Two teams of four (three players and a goalie) attack, defend, and spin-kick a 13-inch rubber ball in a strategic game similar to soccer. The game is exciting, zippy and fascinating, but more importantly, life changing for everyone involved.

Kait King, the PowerCats head coach rallies the team like any coach would: “You’re doing great,” “nice pass,” “awesome save” and “get back on defense!” are repeated on cue.

Northeast Passage, King’s employer and the organization behind the PowerCats, works with individuals with disabilities to create an environment where they can enjoy the same recreation with the same quality of life and independence as their non-disabled peers. Power Soccer provides just that opportunity, where athletes can take it to the next level, the Paralympics, should their dreams be to do so.

“The sport is so unique, and it’s the greatest opportunity for young kids with significant disabilities to be a part of a team in a positive competitive environment with the opportunity to release that competitive nature that everyone has.”

Warren Jennings, of Londonderry, cheers on his son, Anthony, a freshman at UNH, playing in his first season with the PowerCats. “This is so wonderful. I’m so proud of him.”

Anthony Jennings, like a lot of his teammates, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at an early age, seemingly robbing him of a chance to play competitive sports into his adulthood. While he can still stand and walk now, Power Soccer has given Anthony many reasons to accept his future in a wheel chair.

“He got his first chair just a few months ago, and understandably, he resisted, but he needed to prepare for a chair. He has always loved soccer, and Power Soccer has given him the opportunity to get out there and be competitive in a way he hasn’t been able to in many years,” Warren Jennings said. “And as a dad, it’s been a joy to cheer him on and support him.”

“It’s been my first chance to play a sport since I was 10,” says Anthony, after just completing a speed test, one of the requirements before a game. Through a prideful smile, he continues, “The game means a lot to me. I get to play a sport, be competitive and have fun, just like someone who plays baseball or football. I’ve always loved sports, so this is a great opportunity for me.”

“You just need to remember to tone it down a bit, you’re older than some of these kids,” says Warren.

“Yeah, yeah, Dad, OK,” Anthony says as he whirls around and heads for the court.

Anthony joins Ben and Sam to fill out the line, with the support from veteran goalie Joe Miller, 9, of Haverhill.

Miller, a Pentucket Lake School fourth-grader, has four years experience on the court for the PowerCats. He thrives on the action, but is quick to encourage and praise the defensive efforts of his teammates.

For the calm in Joe, his father Eric Miller has the energy you’d expect from a typical fourth grader. The beaming father boasts of Joe’s successes while articulating every parent’s worries and dreams.

“When you get a diagnosis like this (muscular dystrophy) so many things flash through your mind: Will my son ever drive, go to prom, be able to play a sport? Power Soccer has been pivotal for me. I can actually say I’m a coach. I’m like the Little League dad of Power Soccer. And of course it’s been great for Joe. He’s playing a sport, learning to work as a team, and having a great time.”

While the kids race around the court, the parents are together, sharing in common ground. They talk about their challenges, frustrations, innovations and successes as they face similar expectant hurdles from the disease.

“We can learn from each other, support each other,” says Kim Foote, whose son Josh plays for the PowerCats. “And it’s nice for the kids to be with other kids like them, they already have so much in common. There’s a built-in support network here, and I’m so thankful and grateful to have it.”

Sam scores another goal, his second of the game, this time against his brother, who is filling in at goal for the Sharpshooters after a wheelchair went down with a mechanical failure. Collectively and in unison, the PowerCats parents jokingly wish their mother Lori Safford a pleasant ride home. She’s quick to laugh, and is thankful that her younger boy got the goal.

“I know Ben didn’t let that happen on purpose, but they are learning what it means to be on a team, to play together and compete. It fills me with pride,” Lori Safford says.

As shrieks and laughter emanate from two pirouetting power chairs zooming and zipping on the open court, Lori Safford rolls her eyes like any parent would.

“Keep in mind, they are still two teenage boys,” she says. “But they come home exhausted, and that’s invaluable. I might complain about a ding, dent or scrape on my walls, and while I’d never tell them so, I’d deal with a hole to see them happy and learning to be part of a team.”

For more information, visit the Northeast Passage website at nepassage.org.