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Murderball duo is hell on wheels

Balancing work life and school life with a competitive quad rugby schedule is a challenge these Longhorns embrace.

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It’s a game that involves a lot of collisions, bruises, scrapes, broken fingers and trips to the welder. It’s been nicknamed murderball. And student Jeff Butler summed up the sport of quad rugby with one apt word: “fierce.”

Butler and staff member Emily Shryock were recently selected to play for the United States Quad Rugby Association’s National Developmental Team, called Team Force. Butler is a junior in the College of Liberal Arts and Shryock works as a disability services coordinator in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Both Butler and Shryock moved from Indiana to Texas a year ago, in search of a more competitive quad rugby club team. They have since joined the ranks of Texas Stampede, a club team based in Austin and coached by James Gumbert, who also coaches the USA Paralympic rugby team.

Shryock described quad rugby as sharing elements with both basketball and bumper cars: players have to cross half-court within 12 seconds and must dribble or pass the ball (which resembles a volleyball) every 10 seconds as they move down the court towards the goal line. Add to that, chairs crashing into each other and occasionally getting bowled over, and you’ve got the fast-paced, rough and tumble game of quad rugby.

“In order to play the sport you have to have impairment in all four limbs, so most of the people who play are quadriplegics as a result of a spinal cord injury,” Shryock said.

Most states have a team — Texas, naturally, has six — with a total of 46 across the country, the rosters of which are overwhelmingly male.

“There’s definitely more men — there are about four hundred players in the United States and there are only 26 women,” said Shryock, who, in 2008, was the second woman to ever play on the U.S. team on a national level.

“For a long time I was kind of a novelty player, but now I’ve kind of made my mark as a good player, not just as like, the woman player,” said Shryock. Butler said Shryock is currently the fasted female player in the world.

Emily and Jeff

Athletes Jeff Butler (far left) and Emily Shryock (second from right) take on teams from around the country on the Texas Stampede. 

Butler, who started playing quad rugby when he was 15 and just finished his fifth season, is younger than most players on the court. “I love how competitive it is,” he said. “It’s designed to be competitive for someone like me, rather than being designed for an able bodied person and adapted for someone like me.”

Shryock as well revels in the often fiercely competitive spirit of the sport. One commentator said of her in a recent match, “She’s light and she’ll get knocked around a little bit but she’s not afraid to hit anyone.”

Shryock started playing four years ago after checking out a tournament in Indiana. “I had been using a wheel chair for about a year before that and missed the opportunity to be athletic, be competitive, be on a team,” she said. “Pretty much since then, every weekend has been consumed with rugby.”

This summer Butler and Shryock will be traveling to Birmingham, Alabama to train with Team Force. This national team is designed to take developing athletes and provide them with training and competition to prepare them to be on Team USA, which represents the country at international and paralympic competitions.

Both Butler and Shryock agree that it’s a challenge to juggle being a full-time student or having a full-time job with an athletic career outside of UT — especially one that requires so much traveling — but both see themselves playing the sport for years to come. “It’s draining but it’s definitely, definitely worth it,” said Shryock.

Butler is excited about the upcoming try-outs for Team USA, which will be in December. It’s over finals week, “but no big deal,” he said with a laugh.