Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson, left, practices with fellow U.S. wheelchair rugby player Alex Pabon.

When Joe Jackson finally makes his way onto a court in Japan, he will be representing Maricopa on quite the international stage.

The 31-year-old local is a member of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team, which has been waiting for quite some time now to compete for a gold medal at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. The competition obviously got canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but as of this writing in mid-June, Jackson still expects to put on his nation’s colors and go against the best in the world.

The United States qualified for the Olympics way back in August of 2019 during a tournament in Peru. To get there, they had to defeat their fierce rival Canada, and the team pulled through to become one of only eight nations to make it in rugby. But just making it to the games hasn’t been the goal. That’s a regular occurrence for this team.

The U.S. hasn’t won a gold medal in rugby since 2008, and this team will be aiming for redemption after the 2016 squad lost in the finals to Australia 59-58 in double overtime.

“We want it bad,” Jackson said. “We’re just watching film while enjoying the moment. Any time you go out and play, there’s going to be a little bit of nervousness. But that goes away once you start playing.”

The Paralympics are scheduled to start on Aug. 24. When the 12 members of the U.S. team do start playing again, it will be a major step in the journeys of all 12 players out there, with each one being different. There were plenty of challenges for each of them, sure, but also triumph. Jackson’s story is no different.

Finding his place

Jackson was only 16 when he was playing for the powerhouse Hamilton High School football team in Chandler. Like most years, Hamilton was making a deep playoff run, and the team was practicing ahead of the state semifinal game. Jackson isn’t sure how it happened, but he went in for a tackle and in a helmet-to-helmet collision broke his C-6 vertebra.

He remembers lying in the hospital, having been told he was paralyzed from the waist down. But he said he never let himself get too down on his life.

“I was just happy to be alive,” Jackson said. “Some people don’t necessarily make it out. I just wanted to play sports again and hang out with my friends. I was 16. It could have been a brain injury, but I had my whole life ahead of me.”

Jackson talks about this positive attitude as if there wasn’t even an option of feeling down on his luck. To him, there was no choice but to move forward. It’s a sentiment he hears often when — before COVID — he would visit people with spinal cord injuries at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix to share his story and give them a little bit of encouragement. Along with his father, he started the Joe Jackson Foundation, which helps enable them to continue living actively.

Attention almost immediately turned to what Jackson was going to do next. It took a couple years before he was inspired by a documentary called “Murderball” about the United States-Canada rivalry in wheelchair rugby. In that film, Jackson saw people just like him who were fulfilling their athletic aspirations while forming a sense of community. He wanted in.

With the help of teammates and coaches like Scott Hogsett and Clint Hoback, he was brought into a world that he hasn’t left since.

“Once I jumped in this chair and saw you could move quicker and faster, I was hooked,” he said. “I played sports all my life, so I didn’t want to stop just because I had an injury.”

The first step in Jackson’s journey was a rec league in Arizona that eventually got him playing time in what is now called the United States Wheelchair Rugby Association. There were plenty of players who were just there to have something to do recreationally, while others saw a path to glory in the sport. But no matter the motive for playing, the common thread is finding a community.

“Being on a team and coming together to have a common goal that’s bigger than yourself, it was great,” Jackson said. “We’ve all been through something traumatic, and we bond through that.”

The road to Tokyo

As Jackson himself says, wheelchair rugby isn’t like regular rugby at all. There is little point in describing it with words, so it should be watched to be understood. He estimates it took him six years until he was actually good at it, to the point where he was getting regular playing time instead of riding the bench.

Players have to be invited to try out for the national team, and in 2015 Jackson finally got his first call. The tryout was going well, but during one play he fell awkwardly and tore a muscle. He returned in 2016, which was a big opportunity since the team was about to go to Rio de Janeiro for the Paralympics. He finished the tryouts this time, but missed the cut.

Finally in 2017, everything seemed to click. Jackson said he felt the full trust of everyone he played with, and he got some big minutes. He remembers a tournament in February of that year where he started every game against the best in the country. Apparently, the powers that be at the national team had finally seen enough, and he got his spot.

“It felt like I was finally being noticed for the hard work people don’t see,” he said. “I got that validation, but I knew I still had to work. There are 16 of us and only 12 get to play in tournaments.”

That still wasn’t the finish line for Jackson. He remembers being a little intimidated when he first joined the team for practice but soon realized that he already new most of them and that everybody was there for a reason. His confidence quickly grew.

Jackson has since competed in seven tournaments with the national team and was ready to go to Tokyo. Then, something happened.

The national team was playing in a tournament in England when COVID-19 started ravaging its way through Europe. Like most people at that time, Jackson had a sense of denial about whether there would be long-term impacts stemming from the disease’s spread. About a month later, the team was in a camp when it became obvious that the pandemic was more serious than anyone thought. Everyone was sent home, and the Paralympics were delayed for a year.

There is of course no way of simulating a physical sport like rugby when you’re self-isolating at home. Jackson had some equipment at home to stay in shape and eventually drove two hours a day for three months to work with a personal trainer. When his gym, Ability360, finally opened up again, he got some resemblance of his usual workout, but it still didn’t replicate game action.

“You could push all you want, but stopping and going is so different from constantly going,” he said. “It’s pretty much like playing strategic chess at a high pace.”

The national team held its first training camp in January, about 10 months after they had last been together. For many, it was the first time playing with other people during that time. Jackson said they spent almost the entire camp just getting back to where they had been physically and mentally when everything got shut down.

Now, the team is preparing to leave for Japan on Aug. 17, with the Paralympics starting on Aug. 24. There will be no warm-up tournaments or sanctioned matchups with other teams. Once they get there, it will just be about the thrill of competing, with everyone there to take their best shot.

That spirit has been the story of Jackson’s life, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

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