Inside Events: USA Wheelchair Football League
7 Nov, 2020By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Executive Director Glenn Merry
Football has been getting a lot of attention. From high school boys to women’s flag at the college level, the sport is never far from the headlines. The latest iteration, however, creates opportunities at all levels, for all ages. USA Wheelchair Football League has made its debut, with teams in four major cities nationwide. Glenn Merry, Executive Director, spent some time explaining the sport to SDM.
Sports Destination Management: A lot has been going on with your organization.
Glenn Merry: Yes, it has! Move United is a relatively new brand. Disabled Sports USA was the predecessor and it had been around since 1967. I came on board as executive director two years ago, and over the last 18 months, we started putting together a vision of what we wanted disabled sports to be for people. Another group, Adaptive Sports USA, had been having conversations with us, and we decided to merge the two organizations. It worked out well because we had 128 chapters as Disabled Sports USA and they had 70. In the process of rebranding as Move United, we wanted to emphasize physical movement as well as competition. We also had the opportunity to extend more into summer sports than we had before, and to hold multi-sport events.
SDM: How did the idea of wheelchair football come about?
Merry: At the same time we were working on rebranding, we had been meeting with The Bob Woodruff Foundation and the partners through the NFLSalute to Service Program about starting a new sport, one that would be open to people in wheelchairs. COVID obviously put some interesting pressures on everything; we had the floor space and the equipment, but competitions had to be delayed. We’re now looking at the Spring to kick off a clinic series to ensure athletes are ready to play before the League begins competitive play in the Fall of 2021.
SDM: It is great to have the NFL’s involvement.
Merry: Yes – part of our discussions with them included hosting events at the NFL draft and possibly along with the Super Bowl. Of course, there was a virtual draft instead but we were able to have online promotions and one of our athletes was featured. The Super Bowl is in Tampa this year and although we don’t know what will happen, we’re optimistic. It’s a nice tie-in with the NFL’s Salute to Service program as well.
SDM: Why is now a good time for wheelchair football?
Merry: We have a history of serving wounded warriors. We think many of those people will be interested in trying out the sport. Last year, we hit an annual record of helping 2,100 wounded and injured individuals. We have been offering programs with Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center.
SDM: Let’s talk for a minute about the four areas you have targeted for start-ups of USA Wheelchair Football programs – Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix and Los Angeles. What drew you to those areas?
Merry: What we tried to do to find strong NFL markets where there were also strong Move United chapters. The athlete pool is very promising so we’re now in the process of trying to attract the athletes. We have a partnership with Xenith, the helmet manufacturer, which is really great.
SDM: If the program opens in 2021, do you anticipate hosting a championship?
Merry: We do. We’re in the process of looking at where we could host that. Our original idea was to do it at the Super Bowl, but I think at that point, we’ll be doing more of a presentation with it as a demonstration sport, maybe in a 3-on-3 or 6-on-6 format.
SDM: Wheelchair Football USA is a brand-new organization. Did you have to create rules?
Merry: We had to create everything. We literally set up the rules and guidelines and brought a conference together.
SDM: Is it played on grass?
Merry: It is a harder surface because these are players in wheelchairs; however, it can be played on a parking lot. That makes the pace of play a little quicker.
SDM: What size is the field?
Merry: It’s 60 yards long plus end zones and a bit narrower than a standard football field, which allows for appropriate spacing with the game being 7-on-7.
SDM: You mentioned earlier that Xenith, the helmet manufacturer, is a sponsor. Is this tackle football?
Merry: It’s not tackle in the sense that people are used to seeing on a field but there is a great deal of physicality involved – a lot of passing and blocking. There is going to be physical interaction – athletes bumping into one another, hitting one another’s chairs. It takes a modified chair – something that has been beefed up to take the hits but protect the player.
SDM: So it’s not like flag or touch football.
Merry: No, that seemed a little too tempered for our players. They want that physicality; some of them already have played tackle football and they like the idea of getting back to it.
SDM: Are people grateful to find out that a football program is being developed for them?
Merry: That’s an interesting question. The answer is that we’re not looking for people to be grateful; we’re looking for people to expect to be included. That, for us, is evolution of sports. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this July but there is still so much that needs to be accomplished to create equality. We need to get to a point where there is inclusivity automatically. We are not trying to create heroes as much as we’re trying to show that people can do anything they set their mind to. There is a point that is coming where when we get to 2028 and the Paralympics in Los Angeles, the country has an awakening. People are going to wake up and say, “I didn’t realize this was possible.” That’s what we want.