By Sye Bennefield
As the athletes went down the line, both greeting and congratulating each other, Army Head Coach Rod Williams, simply watched.
Chicago played host to the Department of Defense (DoD) Warrior Games on June 30 – July 8. It was the first time the Warrior Games was hosted outside of a military base or Olympic venue.
Williams was there along with approximately 265 wounded service members and their families. He’s no stranger to competing, he’s been competing against himself from the very beginning.
At just nine months old, Williams contracted polio. From then, to when he was a senior at San Jose State University, his sole means of transportation was crutches and braces.
“My mom, bless her soul…They told her that if I lived I would be [confined] to a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” said Williams. “They wanted her to give me up to the Shriners.”
Williams mother said no.
Instead she focused on making Williams strong. She enrolled him into public school and let him live as normal a life as possible. That meant being an adolescent boy and growing up in the 60’s in California.
It wasn’t until that senior year of college that Williams started using a wheelchair, and through a group of friends, was invited to play wheelchair basketball. But Williams, having never been near other disabled individuals, declined.
Eventually Williams came around and accepted the proposal, his passion growing each and every time he rolled on to that court. “From the first time, I got on to the floor I loved it,” said Williams.
Williams kept on rolling. Eventually finding himself competing at the Paralympic Games in Canada. “In 1976, I was selected for the Paralympic team for track and field, no basketball,” said Williams. “I held three World Records in the 100m, 200m and 400m.”
But Williams quit.
“I was a little bit discouraged by the organization of the whole [Paralympic Games],” recalled Williams. “It seemed like we were just there to please the able-bodied people.”
Twelve years later and Williams stance against the Paralympic Games softened. He was called upon again to compete for his country, only this time it would be the sport that he was introduced to by his old group of friends at San Jose State University.
So, Williams focus again shifted towards basketball. After making it through the first initial try-out that featured over 80 participants, Williams came out ranked number one. From there he proceeded to the official 12-man roster, never looking back.
“I was surprised when I heard my name called, that I made the team,” said Williams. “It’s an experience that’ll never forget.”
And that experience in 1988 not only saw Williams and his teammates win gold, but the U.S. women’s team won as well. A feat that hadn’t been accomplished again until last year’s Paralympic games in Spain.
And that’s what keeps Williams in the game, this time as a coach. He watched his team in Friday night’s gold medal match. As the last shot bounced off the rim and the final buzzer rang throughout the United Center, celebration ensued.
William’s Team Army defeated Team Navy 56-55, in a heated affair.
Not only did these games provide the opportunity to grow and succeed for each and every one of his players, but they also provided something much more simplistic. They give those who served and continue to serve our country, the opportunity to simply compete.
Over that span of 29 years the sport of wheelchair basketball has seen an exponential growth. With the introduction of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) in 1949 and the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation in 1993, the game is constantly reaching new heights, very much like the Warrior Games accomplished here in Chicago.
These games provided the stage for our wounded and ill service members to showcase their dedication, resiliency and talents, leaving them with memories and friendships that could last a lifetime.
But Coach Rod Williams simply wishes for something more straightforward.
“I would like for them to be able to go and call upon this positive experience and adapt that to their own situation,” said Williams. “No matter what life does to you, if you keep fighting you can overcome those obstacles.”