Martin DeLange is so enthusiastic about the fun and camaraderie of "gang ball," he's inviting others to join the "gang."
Gang ball is essentially wheelchair rugby, said the 55-year-old Lynden resident, who regularly participates in the games at Bloedel-Donovan Park.
"Gang ball is a Whatcom County deal, created by Patrick Madsen from Blaine more than 10 years ago," said DeLange, who said his own participation was greatly enhanced with the gift of a sports chair from the Lions Clubs' ongoing wheelchair project.
"But we don't limit the games to quadriplegics and other people in wheelchairs," he said. "Anyone can play if they're willing to use a wheelchair. We've never had anyone play and not say they've had fun."
The games are part of programs conducted by the Northwest Spinal Cord Injury Network, said the group's recently elected president, James Smith of Everson.
"Gang ball is a variation of quad rugby," said Smith, who began playing about four years ago but had to stop because of complications created by blood thinners he is required to take.
"I had never been an athlete, but I enjoyed playing gang ball. I've also been dealing with shoulder problems, but I'm back in physical therapy and my pains are going away. Now I'm considering playing again, not just for the health benefits but for the camaraderie."
DeLange calls the gang ball "bumper cars with wheelchairs." He says if you've ever participated in bumper car madness at Disneyland and liked it, you'll also like gang ball, which is played with a minimum of three people per team but no maximum, in order to get everyone who shows up involved.
Like outdoor rugby, the object is to propel the ball any way a player can across a goal line within cones on the sides of the goal area. Balls such as soccer balls or volleyballs are used; basketballs are too large and heavy. The ball is served like a volleyball is.
"I really encourage people to try gang ball," said Smith. "The biggest thing people living in wheelchairs suffer from, other than health problems, is situational depression. I was going through a typical depression, about two years after my accident, when I found gang ball. I really have to give credit to Patrick Madsen for that. Now I run everything by him. He's my mentor."
Smith was paralyzed from the waist down six years ago in a forklift accident while working on construction of the Burlington Library. DeLange was paralyzed from a point in his chest - though he has developed more arm movement than many quadriplegics - after he fell through a roof while working seven years ago.
Both express their devotion as family men. Smith, who hails from Lacey, and his wife, Josie, have three children. DeLange and his wife, Doreen, have lived in Whatcom County for 30 years and are the parents of four grown sons, all of whom participated in local athletics.
Smith and DeLange represent the spectrum of athletic interest shown by participants in gang ball. Smith was not an athlete at North Thurston High, but he loved weight training. DeLange, who is 6-foot-4, played high school basketball in Riverdale, Calif., before pursuing work in farming and construction. Neither ever played rugby.
DeLange, whose sons are Martin Jr., Jake, John and Adam, was a fan of their many, many games at Lynden High School and from the time they began sports in elementary school. With his infectious smile, DeLange made many friends who were destined to help him when he was injured.
Even though DeLange was paralyzed during 2008 Lynden graduate Adam DeLange's sophomore year, he was later able to see Adam play on state Class 2A championship teams in basketball and football. Martin Jr. was a three-year varsity basketball starter and played on two trophy-winning teams at state in the 1990s. Martin Sr. also enjoyed seeing Martin Jr. play on an NWAACC basketball champion for Highline Community College and then for two seasons at Central Washington University.
DeLange enjoys seeing his sons and wife try gang ball as an able-bodied athlete.
"They all say they've had fun," said DeLange.
DeLange had become well known in Lynden by the time of his accident.
"I can't say enough about the community support I've had," said DeLange, who has been touched by help he has received from Lynden High's students in modifying his wheelchair. "It's been tremendous support, just unbelievable. If ever there's a town you're going to have a serious injury in, you want it to be Lynden."
He still volunteers many hours in his wheelchair with both senior citizens and elementary school students. "I've been blessed through all of this," he said. "I've found I have talents I didn't know I had. It makes me feel useful - like I'm earning my disability check."
He calls the dozens of people he works with his "older buddies" and "little buddies."
Such discoveries of his hidden potential have led DeLange to encourage men and women in wheelchairs to enjoy the fun of gang ball, regardless of their athletic background.
"It took me 2 1/2 years to convince myself I could push myself around in a manual chair," said DeLange, who will eagerly mentor anyone with doubts about being able to play.
"Come on down and join the fun," he said.