It's not just basketball Wheelchair club provides support and friendship

December 29, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Dennis Bozzell never liked basketball when he was growing up in southern Carroll County.

Now he plays the game in a wheelchair.

Mr. Bozzell, 30, of Westminster, has put a lot of miles on his car in the three years since a colleague talked him into trying out for the Baltimore Wheelchair Athletic Club team.

In addition to two practices a week that he attends at Chesapeake Senior High School in Middle River, the team's 1992-1993 schedule includes games in Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Roanoke, Va., and an invitational tournament in Philadelphia.

Last year, the BWAC team won regional contests and went to Canada for sectional playoffs.

When Mr. Bozzell was a student at South Carroll High School, he wasn't enthusiastic about shooting baskets with friends. But a 1979 auto accident left him paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. He could no longer live the outdoor life he had always loved -- trapping, hunting and fishing.

Now, he says, basketball "is something I can do."

Mr. Bozzell says he sometimes feels guilty about the amount of time he spends on basketball.

"It's almost selfish, because I've got kids now," he says. His daughter, Jessica, 11, is a fifth-grader at Friendship Valley Elementary. Son Dennis, 6, who lives with Mr. Bozzell's former wife, is a first-grader at Taneytown Elementary.

But the time he spends with the 13 other players on the BWAC team this year pays off in an exchange of tips on adaptations to make wheelchairs work better, an outlet to relieve the ordinary stresses of life, and camaraderie.

"These are everyday people. They're out there on their own," he says. "Before I met them, I felt [as if] I was the only person I knew in Carroll County who existed in a wheelchair."

Mr. Bozzell and Douglas Abbott, a county deputy sheriff, are the only Carroll residents on the team. Other players come from Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City.

The wheelchair club is about more than just basketball. It owns snow and water skis and will help interested members get

instruction in those sports. Mr. Bozzell took up snow skiing and tried water skiing, but found he didn't like the water.

Jim Leatherman, founder and director of BWAC, is a gold medalist on the USA Wheelchair Basketball Team, and serves as a BWAC player and coach. He describes himself as the chief cook and bottle-washer.

"I do all the fund-raising," Mr. Leatherman says. He serves without pay -- BWAC has no paid staff -- but he asks team members to contribute fund-raising ideas and leads on possible sponsorships.

Mr. Bozzell schedules as many BWAC games in Carroll as he can, and he has tried to get coverage from area news media, without much success. Games are free to spectators, but he says attendance has been primarily friends and family. The team drew a slightly better crowd after he advertised on cable television for a game against Richmond that was played at North Carroll High this month.

Mr. Leatherman says California is far ahead of the East Coast in recognizing wheelchair sports.

"Our scores aren't reported on the evening news. The sports guys don't follow us," Mr. Leatherman says. "On the West Coast, there are teams that get 2,000 or 3,000 people to come and watch."

Mr. Bozzell got involved with the Carroll County Therapeutic Recreation Council when he began trying to schedule wheelchair basketball here and discovered that affiliation with the council would help with insurance requirements.

He has coached the council's challenger Little League baseball team for children with disabilities for two years. He also helped to raise the $5,000 needed to qualify for county matching funds to install a tot lot that is accessible to the disabled at the Westminster Community Pond.

Mr. Bozzell has met with the county commissioners on issues relating to the disabled, testified at county budget hearings and advised the county government on making its offices accessible to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

His involvement in sports and related activities is recent. For nine years after the night he had a few beers and ran his car into a telephone pole, he didn't have a good outlet for his energies.

He was young and he did a dumb thing, he says now. He thought he was immortal, as 16-year-olds do.

The accident occurred at the end of his junior year in high school. He returned to school the following October and graduated with the Class of 1980.

Mr. Bozzell studied computer programming at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center, choosing the career because it paid well. Before the accident, he had planned to own a construction business, but the wheelchair ruled out a career in construction, he said.

He had been a systems analyst at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn for about five years when one of the guys at work encouraged him to try out for the BWAC team.

His first response was, "I hate basketball," but he agreed to try it, liked it and has been playing ever since.

The team filled some of what he had been missing.

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