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Wheelchairs Get Workout in Quad Rugby

There was no cheering section for a group of quadriplegics playing a pickup game of wheelchair rugby at the Oceanside Gym recently , just Neil Vesco and a few other supporters.

Onlookers aren’t allowed at the Sunday events, since the gym is officially closed. But one player entrusted with a key opens the doors to novice and experienced players who come from near and far.

“This is the only pickup quad rugby game that I know of in the country,” said Vesco, a partner in Vesco Metal Craft, which designed and built the majority of the wheelchairs in use that day. “Most gyms won’t allow it because the chairs can scratch the floor when guys fall. And players have been known to fly to San Diego just to get in this pickup game.”

It soon became clear what Vesco was talking about. With four men to a team , they call themselves “incomplete quads” , two with partial use of their hands tossed, intercepted or picked up balls from the floor and wheeled toward the ends of the court to score points.

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Those whose hands were lost or immobilized used their arms to manipulate their wheelchairs and block the point makers. The chairs sometimes tipped over from the impact of the blocks. Players, strapped inside, fell to the floor with their toppled chairs.

When that happens, someone from the sidelines rushes out, scoops them up and the game continues.

Fortunately, none of the spills resulted in injury that day. But the men typically shun headgear for fear of being called “helmet head.”

That could explain why the sport of “quad rugby,” which originated in Canada in the late 1970s and grew to become part of the Paralympics, is called “Murderball.” A Sundance Festival award-winning documentary by the same name is due in San Diego theaters this month.

Players and followers of the sport will notice Vesco Metal Craft wheelchairs in the film with their signature yellow polyethylene spoke guards. Had the chairs been props in a Hollywood production, that kind of name-brand exposure would have come at a hefty price.

Thirty-year-old Vesco, and his partners , Tom Vesco, 51, his father, and Paul Richardson, 41 , didn’t pay a nickel for the exposure. They weren’t even aware that the “Murderball” documentary was being made.

“We saw film crews at a couple competitions we attended, but we had no idea what they were doing,” Vesco said. “We thought they were shooting footage for TV.”


Shade Tree Beginnings

A mechanical engineering student in his senior year at San Diego State University, Vesco said he began tinkering with automobile engines as a youngster under the tutelage of his father and grandfather. Welding and fabricating metal were offshoots of his hobby.

Tom Vesco pointed to perfectly beaded seams that held together pieces of aircraft-grade aluminum tubing that formed a nearly completed wheelchair. After producing the chairs in a two-car garage at the Vesco family’s Bonita home for nearly three years, the company soon plans to move to a 5,000-square-foot shop in an Eastlake industrial complex.

“Our customers look at Neil’s welds and they ask if they were machine made,” Tom Vesco said. “They’re that precise.”

Before entering San Diego State, Neil Vesco was a mechanic for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. He abandoned the aim of becoming a race-car engineer after two years on the Indy car circuit.

“I’d watch those guys spend countless hours after each race redesigning and tweaking a part just to try to squeeze a little more speed out of a car, and I decided that wasn’t the life for me,” he said.

He’d never considered going into business making customized wheelchairs until a friend sought his help to complete an order of five for a group of quadriplegic rugby players.

“My friend had just gotten engaged and his fianc & #233;e wanted him to spend more time with her, so he fell behind on the work,” Neil Vesco said. “He asked me to help him because you just don’t promise a quad you’ll do something and not deliver.”

After that, Vesco’s phone began ringing with orders for more of the customized wheelchairs, creating a workload that requires both father and son to put in a seven-day workweek.

“I decided to quit pounding nails and invest my time and energy in the business,” said Tom Vesco, who’d spent 32 years as a framing carpenter making roughly $70,000 a year.

Richardson, Vesco’s other partner, became a quadriplegic at the age of 19 after being injured as a passenger in a car crash. He was one of the Vescos’ first customers.

He’d heard that the Vescos made custom rugby wheelchairs and went to meet them. He said his other alternative was to order a model from Melrose Wheelchairs of New Zealand. Aside from Vesco Metal Craft, Melrose is the only respected maker of rugby wheelchairs in the world, Richardson said.

“I didn’t want to phone an order with complicated specifications to New Zealand and have to pay for a transcontinental delivery,” he said.


Bright Future

“We don’t advertise,” said Tom Vesco. “Word-of-mouth advertising is what speaks loudest among quadriplegics.”

Selling their quad rugby wheelchairs for about $3,500 each, Vesco Metal Craft had revenue of $180,000 in 2004, Tom Vesco said. Richardson bought into the venture by supplying money for materials and supplies and buying the Eastlake shop that will be the three-man company’s new headquarters.

He acquired the property for $506,000 and spent an additional $100,000 making it ready to house the business.

Plans are that Vesco Metal Craft will lease the space at a minimal rate for the first couple of years or so, and then acquire the shop under the company name. Plans also include hiring two more workers and adding regular use wheelchairs and models for playing basketball and tennis.

“It takes my father and me three days to build a customized rugby chair and we expect it will take only one day to produce a customized day chair,” Neil Vesco said.

There is a need for custom regular use wheelchairs, particularly for quadriplegics, Neil Vesco said. Many require special braces and fittings that don’t come on standard, mass-produced wheelchairs, he said.

“Your standard wheelchair comes with footrests,” Neil Vesco said. “But what does a double leg amputee need with footrests? They just get in the way. He or she might need a brace to help their stability.”

The partners expect to be able to sell regular use custom wheelchairs for about $2,000 apiece. The basketball and tennis models are expected to go for $1,500 to $2,000 apiece.

Having completed about 80 percent of the paperwork for Food and Drug Administration approval, which is needed to make regular wheelchairs, the partners project they’ll be able to start taking orders early next year.

Sam Gloor, who became a quadriplegic after breaking his neck in a mountain biking accident in 1993, said he bought a Vesco rugby wheelchair because it was designed to compensate for his lack of balance.

Vesco Metal Craft is “absolutely the leader in craftsmanship,” he said. “And when they go into making everyday wheelchairs, their business is going to explode.”

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