Verity ‘Vez’ Smith has been playing rugby for nearly 30 years.
Up until recently, he was out on the pitch with his teammates competing in both rugby union and league.
But, 18 months ago, a nasty tackle left him with severe damage to his spine and unable to play again.
Smith was competing in women’s rugby while he was in the process of transitioning to male, and was severely injured by another female player.
For Smith, continuing to play in wheelchair rugby league was not an easy decision to make.
“It took me six months to actually get in contact with them [the team] because I was fighting my disability,” said Smith.
“I didn’t want to accept what happened.”
There was also the consideration of Smith being transgender, something that the wheelchair rugby community has accepted without hesitation.
“I actually sent an email to the club and said, look, can I play and because I’m trans, and they said, yes, just come along, and that’s not a problem.
“My best friend’s wife took me and as soon as I walked into the room, they brought the wheelchairs out and I just burst into tears, and turned my back and I tried to leave.
“My friend grabbed me and pushed me back in the room, and refused to let me out until I got involved, and then she joined in with me.”
Despite his initial doubts, he has found a new community within the sport.
Smith continues to face health challenges and missed some matches and training due to having his leg rebuilt last October.
He is, however, learning with every opportunity he has to play, specifically about how to move in the chair and the strategies of the game.
“It’s been interesting because you’re not on the grass anymore. You’re not with the same team members; you’re learning all over again. So forget everything that you’ve learnt.
“It’s so much different in a chair. If you go to offload a ball or step into a gap, you’ll spin around in a wheelchair if you do the same sort of actions [as on the pitch].
“It’s a small ball and getting used to the wheelchair as well, and the team laughing that I fight the wheelchair. They’re threatening to put unicorns and pink on it if I don’t get used to it.”
Smith explained that although the transition into wheelchair rugby has been difficult, it has given him a new lease of life and something to focus on.
“It’s given me a bit of hope that I can carry on playing. I mean, I’m nearly 40 now so I should be thinking about retiring. But as my grandma said, I was always going to find another way to play and it’s really good.”
In addition to the sport allowing him to continue to compete, he has found it to be welcoming and inclusive.
There are people from all walks of life who play and the community aspect is essential for everyone.
“You can play if you’ve got a disability, able-bodied people can play, there’s people from the LGBT community and there’s people from the trans community.
“There’s so many different stories within the team of how it’s led them to actually be there and what’s happened in their lives as well.”
Smith continued to explain that having everyone come together and staying involved with sport has been special.
“It’s a community, and it might not be my team and it might not be the people that I know, but it’s a family.”
Competing with the Leeds Rhinos, Smith has only played six matches so far but is looking forward to more when the sport restarts after the pandemic.
He explained that since the sport is played indoors and many of the members who play are vulnerable to the virus, it could be a long time yet until they are allowed back on the court.
Smith was also looking forward to starting a new sport, sledge hockey with the Manchester Mayhem, and hopes that it won’t be long until that restarts as well.
“I’m hoping that will start soon, so I can find new ways to break myself,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s just about trying to push through and I’m really struggling with my disability. It does upset me and I do have down days, it takes my friends to be able to pull me back out of that.
“I just need to realize that I can still do things, it’s just doing it in a different way.”
While he continues to learn new ways to stay involved with sport, Smith emphasized that rugby is a place for anyone to find a family.
“I think it’s just letting people know that it’s out there and that you can play whether you’re able-bodied or if you have a disability.”
Smith encourages anyone to give it a go, even if the chairs look terrifying at first as they did for him.
“Just remembering how to be part of a team, you’ll meet new people, you can learn new skills.
“As I say, rugby is like Marmite, you’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it. But once you’re in it, you’re in it for life.
“For 80 minutes while you’re out there, it’s great to forget about what’s going on around you. You can forget about your pain for a little bit and it’s just you and everybody else out on there on that pitch with that ball.
“And all that matters is that ball going over the line.”