View Full Version : Sports help veterans get back in game of life

07-16-07, 06:22 AM
Monday, July 16, 2007

Sports help veterans get back in game of life

By Katya Cengel
The Courier-Journal

By Katya Cengel
The Courier-Journal

When he's on the basketball court, Jimmy Green's competitive juices bubble over. And he's not afraid to talk a little trash about his prowess.

"We won 35 to 32, and guess how many of the points I had?" he asked his buddies one recent afternoon, recounting his latest exploits.

Former University of Louisville football player Herb Henry shook his head: "Don't tell me you had all of them."

Green, who's 38, offered a laughing assent.

"Who were you playing with — quads?" joked Henry.

The group laughed, then rolled onto the court of the Douglass Community Center gym. Green sped away on a fast break, leaving the others to stare at the words on the back of his wheelchair — "Mean Green."

A Fern Creek native who says he always had a "jones" for competition, Green was 18 when a car accident ended his Army career, leaving him what's called an incomplete paraplegic, with no feeling below the knees.

He eventually taught himself to walk with the aid of special braces, but sank into a depression because he was no longer the person he had always felt himself to be — an athlete. His sour mood lasted until he learned about wheelchair basketball and met the men who played it.

"These guys had a life, they were married, they had kids, they were professional, they were playing sports — the only difference was that they did it a little differently than I was used to," said Green.

Once he realized what he could do on the court, Green said, he started doing more off of it, attending junior college, getting married and generally having a good time. Now he teaches other injured veterans about the healing power of sports as a volunteer with the organization Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Last month he was one of five Kentuckiana veterans to compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Milwaukee. His basketball team got trounced. But it didn't matter, he said, because the games are as much about being around other injured veterans and a part of things as competing.

It is this interaction in the community that rehabilitation doctors find the most challenging, said Dr. Kenneth Lee, chief of spinal cord injury at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.

"And there's nothing better than sports to bring this back into their lives."

'That one extra push'

Danny "Butch" Cuzzart has a saying — people who don't know him think he can't do anything, and people who do know him think there's nothing he can't do.

He can swim the 25-meter freestyle in one breath, was once a certified scuba diver and plans to enjoy whitewater rafting. All of this wouldn't be so incredible if Cuzzart, now 60, hadn't lost both legs and part of his left arm in Vietnam 41 years ago.

The son of a coal miner, Cuzzart joined the Marines after high school because, he said, "I just wanted out of that little coal town" of Lynch, Ky. A year later, in Vietnam, he stepped on an explosive device that set off a round of ammo, blowing off his legs and arm.

He ended up back home, married his high school sweetheart, Marsha, raised two children and operated a print shop. He also continued to play pool, as he had most of his life, and learned to ride an all-terrain vehicle.

Three years ago he added the Veterans Wheelchair Games to his schedule. Competing at the games, he said, offers "a sense of participation in an organized event just like you did when you had legs or could run or walk or swim."

Watching quadriplegics play soccer when they were able to move only by manipulating a mouthpiece was inspiring, said Cuzzart.

It is this realization that they can overcome their disability through sports, said Lee, that helps many paralyzed veterans realize they can "overcome their life challenges as well."

It was swimming that helped Lee, a colonel in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, get back into the swing of things after a suicide bomber careened into his convoy in Iraq in 2004, leaving him with nerve damage and musculoskeletal injuries.

The Veterans Wheelchair Games, he said, give injured veterans "that one extra push to move forward in their life," to go from "'poor me' to 'hey, look what I can do.'"

'I feel like an athlete'

Back on the basketball court, Green rebounded the ball, gave his wheelchair several pushes and zipped toward the basket, where he passed the ball to an open teammate for an easy score. His team at the community center that day won the first of several games 24 to 20.

When he heard about wheelchair basketball, said Green, "I thought, well, this might be just a group of crippled guys who get together just having something for them to do, but right away I realized that these were athletes."

Athletes who talk trash, jockey for position — sometimes knocking one another over — and play to win. Only, in this game of basketball, the wheelchair isn't a hindrance, it is part of the sport.

"So that for the two hours I'm on the court I don't feel disabled," said Green. "I feel like an athlete playing my sport."

Among other athletes just like him. People who know what it is like to use a catheter because your bladder muscle is paralyzed and understand all the other little things disabled people must deal with.

It was this interaction with other injured veterans that really helped him, said Green. Now as newly injured veterans return from Iraq, he likes to re-introduce them to sports and see the joy on their faces as they discover what he found 20 years ago.

"Being back into one of those things normal, able-bodied people do, like playing sports, you start feeling more normal," said Green. "It makes you feel more like everybody else, and that builds your confidence to live."

Reporter Katya Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224.