As Tim Murray stood behind the boards at a rink in Milwaukee between games at a wheelchair lacrosse tourney, his eyes were drawn to a player from the Houston Apollos team.
Murray, the head coach at Grand Valley State, was coaching the Michigan squad at the Big Cheese Wheelchair Tournament, but there was something about this player wearing No. 91 with an immense amount of skill who seemed familiar.
When the game ended, Murray, wearing a GVSU hat, wandered over to the Houston locker room. As he stood off to the side, the player came over, shook Murray’s hand and said he once played in the MCLA.
“I didn’t know him by name, but the second he said he played for Sam Houston State, I knew who he was,” said Murray of the encounter. “He had the same number for wheelchair lacrosse that he wore at Sam Houston, and I remembered game-planning for him as we prepared for the MCLA tournament game against him. Not to say that the game plan worked; he went for two goals and two assists against us.”
Zachary Fry, a three-time All-American midfielder at Sam Houston, was ecstatic to catch up with a former member of the MCLA brotherhood. Grand Valley State and the Bearkats met in 2011 in the first round of the national tournament with the Lakers taking the victory despite Fry’s effort.
“Tim remembered the game and recalled my play,” Fry said. “He was kind to mention me being a talented player, and from there we caught up on our roots to WC lax.”
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Murray was introduced to wheelchair lacrosse through the Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., back in 2019. When a high school friend passed along a job posting to coach wheelchair lacrosse in hopes of getting the word out, Murray didn’t forward the notice to anyone.
“From the moment I was made aware of the opportunity, I knew it was something that I wanted to take on,” he said.
Grand Valley State is a huge brand in the MCLA. Murray works tirelessly recruiting and coaching up his players. He has a national title to his name and his squads are always in the Top 10 and a postseason threat.
Like many of those who have been touched by our sport, Murray is always looking for the chance to open the door to lacrosse to others who may not have experienced it.
“Lacrosse has provided some of the best experiences and relationships of my life,” said Murray, who played collegiately at Butler when it was an NCAA Division I program. “The chance to grow the wheelchair lacrosse program, and share my love of the sport with people who otherwise might not be exposed to lacrosse, is something that I cherish.”
Murray doesn’t accept the stipend provided to him for coaching his WC squad, putting it toward amenities and registration fees for the players during the various events around the country.
Fry arrived in Milwaukee after a very different journey.
Playing in a box tournament in Colorado in August of 2021, he was hit at an awkward angle and crumpled.
“I don’t recall the medical terminology, but I got hit, immediately went unconscious, regained consciousness quickly and couldn’t move or feel anything,” Fry said. “After an ambulance ride, a call to my wife using SIRI, imaging scans, life flight and surgery, two weeks later I’m at Craig Hospital for Spinal Cord Rehabilitation.”
Fry’s neurologist and surgeon were both unsure whether he would be able to walk again. Obviously, his lacrosse career was over. During the rehabilitation phase, his recreational therapist threw out the idea of wheelchair lacrosse as a way to bring a bit of normalcy back to Fry’s life.
Fry instantly flashed back prior to his injury when he befriended a pair of brothers, Peter and Aaron Berry, who were both adaptive athletes curious about lacrosse. He brought them to the Apollos WC practice.
“I was quickly able to feel the special energy in the gym,” he said. “Sports-chairs buzzing around with what appeared to be completely unorthodox styles of catching and passing. I was in awe.”
Despite a daunting rehab schedule ahead of him, there appeared to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“The thought of competing again in the sport I loved so much ignited an old flame that had been put out,” Fry said.
Fast forward to last June and Fry is back in that same gym he brought his buddies just a couple of years before. Where field and box lacrosse were something that came naturally to him, wheelchair lacrosse brings a host of new challenges.
And each one stirs his motivation to get better. The Apollos practice two hours every Friday, but Fry and some of his teammates are typically there for three hours or more, getting in extra reps.
“It has been an absolute blast and a life changing experience,” Fry said.
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While still restricted from playing box or field lacrosse, Fry is able to walk on his own now. In the vernacular of wheelchair lacrosse, he is known as an “AB” – able-body athlete.
At WC tournaments, there are eight players in the rink on each team – two attackmen, three mids, two defenders and a goalie. Only three ABs can be on the surface at one time.
It creates an interesting conundrum for Murray and other coaches.
“ABs have good stick skills, but struggle with chair skills – speed and movement capabilities – whereas wheelchair athletes have weaker stick skills, but incredible chair skills.
“As a result, players have to evaluate in real time who they are moving the ball to. If it’s an AB, you want to throw it to them. If it’s a wheelchair athlete, more often than not, you want to roll the ball in front of them, so they can maintain speed and pick up the ground ball with some momentum.”
Wheelchair lacrosse is not for the faint of heart. There is body-checking just like any other mode of lacrosse. Wheelchairs tip over with some frequency. When it involves a wheelchair athlete, they can typically get themselves up on their own. When it happens to an AB?
“It’s like a turtle on its shell, and often requires an official to come assist in order for them to get up,” said Murray.
It’s definitely lacrosse: something that transcends a lot of factors.
In particular, MCLA lacrosse creates an instant connection between those who have been blessed to play or coach in our league. That’s why Murray lingered outside of the Apollos’ locker to catch up with Fry.
“I absolutely feel connected to other MCLA players and coaches in other lacrosse pursuits,” Murray said. “I feel like we are all in on the secret truth of the high level of MCLA performance that other people just don’t get.
“I think if you truly love and appreciate the MCLA and the opportunities it provides the student-athletes involved with it, then you inherently are rooting for any of the MCLA alums in their post-collegiate careers.”
As always, the MCLA is about opportunity. The opportunity to build a lacrosse program anywhere in the country and compete for championships. The opportunity to get rewarded for hard work and dedication. An opportunity to play the sport you love on any college campus.
And the opportunity to build bonds that will last a lifetime.