Disabilities Don’t Stop A Shark

August 30th, 2015
by Laggin' Len

billiards1When the founding member of The Silver Spokes 8-Ball Classic was asked what his first thought was after recently winning a national tournament in Las Vegas, he said he thanked God, then broke down and cried. This was the reaction of Randy Florez following the victory he and his partner, Gary Corcoran, captured.

Randy and Gary, along with Homer Townsend and Grant Berthiaume, are the four members of The Black Bull’s Silver Spokes Billiards Team. What makes this team unique is the members are all physically challenged. Some have even competed in the Special Olympics. Due to accidents while in their early 20’s, they are all in wheelchairs.

Randy, the driving force behind the group, was injured in a construction accident. Married and the proud father of a young son, leading an active life, he grew despondent. He went to bars and drank heavily. Then he was divorced. Randy hated the world and himself.

The one night at a local bar, a friend suggested they play a game of pool. Randy accepted and found he enjoyed it. He started playing more and more. It helped him escape his self-pity. His parents, whom he credits for helping him deal with his impairments, bought him a pool table. There were minimal limitations, so he stayed at it 10-12 hours a day.

Eventually, he started playing in tournaments at the bars he frequented and he began winning. Then four years ago, he decided to enter a major tournament. Arriving at the hotel where the players were accommodated, he found it was not accessible to the physically challenged. Some had traveled there from all over the U.S.

At this juncture, Randy decided to start his own tournament, The Silver Spoke 8-Ball Classic. It would be a major billiards tournament in which all players had to play from wheelchairs. The first year, 17 players showed up. By the third year, the full field of 32 players was reached.

In this interim, Randy became acquainted with Gary, Homer, and Grant. He invited them to play in The Silver Spokes Tournament. Gary took two firsts and a second. Grant came in third all three times he’s played. These four players developed close friendships and competitive comradery. They all shared a passion for the game.

Just recently, The National Pocket Billiards Association held The McDermott U.S. Team Open Championship in Las Vegas. When Randy found out there wasn’t a wheelchair division, Randy asked if he could start one. His contact laughed, then said, “Why not?”

This was just the opportunity Randy was waiting for. Over a six-week period, he made the necessary contacts and arrangements. The tournament had 13 two-man teams and was held at The Imperial Palace. Playing an average of 11-12 hours a day, Homer and his partner finished fifth. Gary and Richard Lubin finished third. (Players were allowed to play on two teams. Richard is also the other player to win a Silver Spokes Championship.) Partners Randy and Gary achieved the highest honor of all — The Championship.

All four of The Silver Spokes players said there were some absolutely fantastic pool players there, both able-bodied and physically challenged. The second place team included David Branstetter, a quadriplegic who had no use of his biceps. He used a racquetball racquet taped to his cue stick. Someone had to rack the balls for him. They said he was unbelievable! David also played in the Men’s Individual Championship.

As Gary pointed out, while billiards doesn’t have many restrictions for someone in a wheelchair, there are some difficult shots because of the angle at which the player has to hold the cue stick. But he also added that, with practice, a physically challenged person can still play an accomplished game of pool!

The Silver Spokes players all call the Phoenix area “home.” Their base for playing pool is Ric’s Black Bull Lounge and Restaurant. According to Randy, and a sentiment echoed by the others, Ric Christmas, Sr., owner of the lounge, has been a major catalyst for their success. Randy said most restaurants and bars that have pool tables don’t cater to the physically challenged. On a wild chance, Randy started talking to Ric about the problems the physically challenged have because the pool tables are too close together. Also, many of the places Randy went did not have accessibility to the restrooms. Without hesitation, Ric redesigned his establishment completely. He then put in ramps and spaces for handicapped parking. This group has developed a close friendship because of this.

Another individual they give credit to is Rick Spillman, who owns The Billiards Store. He’s donated time and thousands of dollars in equipment for prizes to help them achieve their goals.

What has their success in billiards meant to them? Randy said that through billiards he’s regained a great measure of self-respect, courage, and determination. He says that the friendships he’s made through playing pool are for a lifetime.

Randy, Gary, Homer, and Grant all agree it is difficult overcoming some of the obstacles, both mentally and physically, disabled face. But as Randy says, “Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.”

More On Wheelchair Pool

On April 9th in Phoenix several players met at Ric’s Black Bull Lounge and Restaurant for some league competition. I was fortunate to have been invited and be a part of what turned out to be a really great time. In fact, before the actual league played, the players in wheelchairs intermix freely with other players, both men and women, with no one giving anybody any flak.

One impression that came across to me is that pool is a game that can be enjoyed by many people. There are several ways to accommodate several types of disabilities. While everyone with a disability could not manage a game, the fact remains that a great many could and quite successfully too.

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