In the first of an occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.
Years after he suffered an illness that damaged his motor nerves and realized he would never walk again, Steve Hirsch still dreamed about playing soccer. In the dream he’d experience the thrill, the action, the excitement he had known for some 35 years playing the sport, first as a child and then on his varsity team at college and later as an adult.
But when he awoke, reality would abruptly intrude, and Hirsch, an associate professor of classics and adjunct professor of history, would return to his wheelchair, knowing he had regained some of the abilities he had lost, but would never get everything back.
Sixteen years ago Hirsch was a healthy 46-year-old. He went to the Tufts European Center in Talloires, France, as he had for many summers to teach a course on ancient France and to work on an archaeological dig. He and his students were busy on a dig near Vienne when he was hit with what he describes as a “blitzkrieg” case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the sheathing around the motor nerves.
“In 24 hours, I went from carrying heavy buckets of dirt on the dig to being completely paralyzed, except for my mouth and eyes,” Hirsch says. He spent 13 months in a series of hospitals in France and the United States and gradually regained movement as some nerves regenerated, and he still has limited hand and leg function. “I hoped I would be back on my feet,” he says, “but that never happened.”
Two months after leaving the hospital he was back teaching at Tufts. “I’m lucky I can do what I do from a chair,” he says. Tufts has helped make things work by giving him an office and classrooms on a wheelchair-accessible floor in Eaton Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus, but he has not been back to his department offices on the upper floor of that building in 16 years; there are no elevators.
And all the while, he kept dreaming of playing soccer. Then, two years ago, he attended a disabilities fair sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. He discovered many sports that people who use wheelchairs can participate in: skating, sailing, skiing and yes, his beloved soccer. Soon he was playing the sport again in a motorized wheelchair. The first time was pure happiness. “It felt instantly familiar,” he says. “I loved it. It had the adrenal rush and I knew what to do in the game because it was what I had done.”
The sport—called power soccer—requires skill not only to maneuver the wheelchair, but to move with speed and strength. The game is played on a basketball court with four-player teams. A plastic or metal guard, somewhat similar to a train’s front grille, is attached to the front of the chair. Players use this guard to attack, defend, dribble and propel the ball.
The state of the art for power soccer, explains Hirsch, is the spin kick, when you quickly spin the chair from one side to the other, whacking the ball hard, the equivalent of bending it like Beckham.
It’s a non-contact sport, or at least it’s supposed to be. “But there’s a certain amount of crashing into each other,” Hirsch says, and every now and then the game has to be stopped and a chair repaired.
“It’s a little like bumper cars. It’s challenging because there’s not a lot of space for eight chairs on the court,” he says. “But soccer is about seeing lines and space and creating small pockets in which to do something. All of that is familiar from the game I used to play, so it comes automatically now.”
It’s a fast-paced game. Hirsch not only plays, he coaches as well. “It sometimes puts me in an awkward situation,” he says with a laugh. “I play on one team and coach another, and sometimes the two teams play each other.”
A Patient Guide
The world of power soccer is not yet large, at least in New England. Hirsch coaches the Boston Brakers, the first such team in the city. They are based at the Tobin Community Center in Roxbury. Hirsch’s coaching strategy is simple: everyone gets to play.
“We are people who had something happen to us,” Steve Hirsch says, “and we still find meaning and joy in life.”
Hirsch is modest about his coaching, but others aren’t. Jim Wice, the director of disability services at Wellesley College and a member of the team, says Hirsch is an excellent coach and has turned his group into a team of competitive players.
“I’m sure his teaching skills at Tufts go a long way in giving him the tools to coach us,” says Wice. “Since we’re all at different physical levels, have different wheelchair and equipment capabilities and varying understanding of the sport, Steve has been especially patient in guiding us.”
Hirsch also plays for the Sudbury Sharp Shooters, where, he jokes, he is about 50 years older than his teenage teammates. Among their competitors are a team in Worcester, one at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, one in New Hampshire and one in Vermont.
In early May, with the help of Athletics Director Bill Gehling, Tufts hosted a power wheelchair soccer tournament in Cousens Gym. The Brakers, along with the Sharp Shooters and MARs, the Worcester team, played for a fast-paced four hours.
The teams have spirit and hard work on their side, but they lack resources to pay for transportation and equipment. There are other rewards, though. The head of the basketball program at the Tobin Community Center asked the Brakers to talk to the kids in the program.
“We talked about what play is like and why we enjoy it, and I emphasized how hard we play, despite the different level of disability and ability of each player,” Hirsch says. But the team taught its audience something more. “We are people who had something happen to us,” Hirsch told the youngsters, “and we still find meaning and joy in life.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.