Birmingham’s Lakeshore Foundation announced last week that it has been selected as an expansion team in the new USA Wheelchair Football League (USAWFL).
The Birmingham Hammers will play wheelchair football, a full-contact sport played by both men and women with a permanent disability.
While wheelchair football has been played for more than 20 years across the country, a new, organized form of the game began under the direction of the USAWFL in 2020. The league was established through a Salute to Service Grant from the National Football League (NFL) and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
“We are excited to be an expansion team in the USA Wheelchair Football League and to add a new high-impact sport to Lakeshore’s athletic program,” said Lakeshore President and CEO Jeff Underwood.
Birmingham joins Cleveland, New Orleans, Tampa, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix and Los Angeles in fielding teams in the league. The Magic City is thus the only league city without a team in the National Football League.
But Susan Robinson, the team manager of the Birmingham Hammers, said Birmingham is more than suited for playing “with the big boys.”
“In the adaptive sports world,” she said, “Birmingham is one of the big boys.”
Underwood agreed, saying Lakeshore’s experience in adaptive sports made it “an attractive candidate for a team.” For almost 30 years, Lakeshore Foundation has recognized sports as a life-changing activity that empowers individuals and changes attitudes about disability.
“We have trained thousands of athletes from across our country and from around the world as an Olympic and Paralympic training site and continue to serve as the high-performance maintenance organization for USA Wheelchair Rugby,” Underwood said. “We look forward to representing Alabama in this national wheelchair football league.”
Robinson said the new league is for men and women who have permanent disabilities below the waist. She said it is exciting for those who may have been born with their disability and never played football, as well as for those who suffered an injury, illness or disability and thought they’d never be able to play competitive football again.
“This kind of levels the playing field,” she said. “Nobody really has an upper-hand advantage with this new league.”
WD Foster, 59, played center and linebacker in high school football, first at Birmingham’s Jones Valley High School and then at Bessemer’s Abrams High. He’s excited about the prospect of playing with the Hammers.
“I believe in teamwork,” Foster said. “That’s something I did with the (Birmingham) Police Department and military. Of course, I enjoy playing football. You just put all that together by being a part of a team and playing sports and that competitive edge, getting back into the game. When you bring all that to me it’s a lot of fun.”
Foster is a former Birmingham police officer and an Army veteran who was deployed twice, to Qatar and Iraq. He was getting ready for another deployment in 2007 when doing sit-ups as fast as he could during a physical fitness test. He came down on a rock that punctured his spine and ultimately wound up paralyzed from the waist down.
The former police officer visits Lakeshore Foundation four or five times a week. He previously played a form of flag wheelchair football there, but the USAWFL format is different. Teams play 7-on-7 on a hard surface. There are no flags; a tackle happens when a player does a one-hand touch between the shoulders and waist.
“One big difference is that everyone is going to be eligible for a pass,” Robinson said. “Once the quarterback gets the ball, you can have your linemen go out for a pass just as much as any of your receivers.”
That suits Foster, who said he’ll be content blocking and rushing the quarterback.
“I don’t need to be the one to make the touchdowns,” he said. “I’ll let (other players) do that. I would not be surprised if I’m playing on the line, although I can catch the ball pretty good.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said the community is thrilled to welcome the Hammers.
“Birmingham is not just a town filled with die-hard sports fans, it’s a city that embraces its legacy of inclusion,” Woodfin said. “We can’t wait to see these incredible athletes in action.”
Alex Martinez and Rob Welty, staff members from Lakeshore and the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, served on a committee to develop rules for the league and a certification curriculum for coaches and referees.
For more information on the USA Wheelchair Football League and the sport of wheelchair football, go to USA Wheelchair Football League – Lakeshore Foundation.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)