Kansas City defeats Los Angeles for wheelchair football title
Before the NFL’s Super Bowl kicks off this weekend, Move United’s USA Wheelchair Football League hosted its own title game and started the football party.
And the Salute To Service USA Wheelchair Football League championship featured quite the defensive battle – with the Kansas City Chiefs taking it with the game’s lone score.
Kansas City quarterback Matt Bollig hit wide receiver Riley Blee with a 12-yard touchdown pass with 9 minutes and 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the Chiefs thwarted two game-tying scoring drives late to hold on for a 7-0 championship game victory over the Los Angeles Rams at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz.
“Riley has been one of our biggest receivers, you know, throughout the years of this league. I didn’t look to him all the time. I had to come back to him, and it was like my third read,” says Bollig, who sustained a level T10 spinal-cord injury in a 2012 weightlifting accident in college in Ottawa, Kan. “He’d kind of have been getting stopped most of the game and had got a really good defender in Matt Scott on him. And we just had the same idea. He wasn’t going to beat him across the field, so he hit the brakes and turned back around and was ready for the pass. I was hoping he’d do it, and as soon as he did, I let it rip.”
Not only did the Chiefs win their first USA Wheelchair Football League title, but they also defeated the Rams for the second time this season and avenged a loss in last year’s inaugural championship game in Los Angeles.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Runnells loved the tight, defensive battle. The 34-year-old, who sustained a broken right patella during an advanced leader course field training accident at Fort Benning in Georgia in 2016, says the whole experience was fun.
“To me, the lower-scoring games are always the hardest and most competitive. It’s fun. It’s fun to me,” says Runnells, a Junction City, Kan., resident. “I get to be more aggressive and more competitive and more, like, into the game instead of just, you know. I mean, sure it’s fun playing the game, being able to just score and score and score on a team that just can’t stop you. But it’s a whole different mentality that you got to step into, an aggressive point you got to step into yourself when you need to push yourself to score, you need to push yourself to beat the other team instead of just walking all over them.”
Seven veterans competed in this year’s game – Alex Nguyen (Marine Corps), Matthew Scholten (Army), John Teegarden (Army) and Runnells from the Chiefs and Jhoonar Barrera (Army), Bart Salgado (Marine Corps) and Jose Miranda (Navy) from the Rams.
This year, the teams played in the parking lot of the Arizona Cardinals’ practice facility, less than a week before the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles meet in Sunday’s Super Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Like regular football, games have 15-minute quarters and players wear helmets and jerseys like their NFL counterparts. But they wheel around in sports wheelchairs and still make moves to throw and hand off the football, catch passes and deliver bone-crushing hits. Ball carriers or receivers are ruled down when they are touched between the shoulder and the hip. The field is also different, with it being smaller (76-yard playing surface with 8-yard end zones that’s 22 yards wide, compared to a 120-yard playing surface with 10-yard end zones that’s 53 1/3 yards wide in the NFL).
Some current and former NFL stars, including New Orleans Saints defensive end Cam Jordan, attended the championship. The 33-year-old eight-time Pro Bowler Jordan led the Saints (7-10) with 8.5 sacks, while also recording 66 tackles and two forced fumbles, this season.
He kicked things off by performing the opening coin toss and later awarded a veteran in attendance two tickets to Sunday’s Super Bowl. He’d never watched wheelchair football before but loved what he saw – especially from the defensive side.
“The way that they have to maneuver throughout the whole thing has been astounding in itself,” Jordan says. “But to see guys go after it, to see these collisions happen, it’s not on turf or grass, it’s on pavement. These boys are like next level.”
Jordan also has a handful of military connections. He was nominated for the NFL’s Salute To Service Award, sponsored by the United States Automobile Association, in 2019. In addition, Jordan’s grandfather served in the Army and later as the first Black highway patrolman in Phoenix, while his uncle served in the Navy.
“When I think about just the years they gave, the blood, sweat and tears that they probably put in into their work, knowing the blood, sweat and tears I put in just to football, I can’t imagine the next level, where you’re serving your country and being away from your family, for, you know, tours at a time,” Jordan says. “It is what it is, but it gives you that sense of pride and appreciation not only for our country, but for my own bloodline.”