Spring 2014

Power Play

With five minutes left in the first half of their game against the Boston Breakers, the Vermont Chargers were having a hard time finding the fire. Team captain Nate Besio '00 was playing in goal and had held the Boston squad scoreless. But his teammates had not yet succeeded in putting their own points on the board. But then Charger veteran Scott Goyette found a hole in the defense and laced a pass across the pitch. Teammate Zeb Carlson motored into position at the left side of the goal and—with a flick of his joystick—angled it past the goalie.

Carlson threw back his head and let out a roar. The crowd joined in. The Chargers went ahead, 1-0.

It was the kind of moment that finds its way onto highlight reels most every day in most every sport. But in this game, there was a key difference: All the players were shooting, passing and defending the ball with motorized wheelchairs.

Four years ago, Besio helped to found the Chargers, a team that gives severely disabled men, women and kids a chance to play competitive sports. Most of the players had spent years watching from the sidelines as brothers, sisters and friends raced across the baseball field, basketball court and soccer pitch. With limited use of their upper bodies, they couldn't even play traditional wheelchair sports, which require strong arms and dexterous grips.

With the advent of "power soccer," they finally got their turn.

"I was pretty much the spectator until I started playing this," said Besio's teammate, Goyette, 45, who grew up in a South Burlington sports family but had been unable to participate due to a birth injury that left him mostly paralyzed on the left side. "We're not just people in chairs. We're athletes out there playing."

The Chargers rank among the best of some 60 power soccer teams playing nationwide. They practice in a Burlington community gym and the University of Vermont, where the recent tournament was held. Some players travel as much as an hour each way to hone their skills—and to step away from loneliness.

Four years ago, Nate Besio '00 helped to found the Vermont Chargers, a team that gives severely disabled men, women, and kids a chance to play competitive sports.

"People with disabilities tend to be isolated from the mainstream," said Besio, a 37-year-old who lives with his wife, Gretchen, not far from Saint Michael's in Colchester. "It's a matter of getting out there."

As a boy growing up in Jericho, Vermont, Besio excelled at most every sport. He swam avidly, played shooting guard in basketball and slugged baseballs in Little League. But at the age of 14, he was playing tag with some pals and dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool. The accident left him paralyzed.

His troubles didn't end there. A year later, he contracted a severe form of meningitis that sent him into a coma and began attacking his tissue. Doctors had to amputate his arms, perform grafts on the skin withering across his face and use cochlear implants to restore his hearing.

Equipped with prosthetic arms, a motorized wheelchair and more than a little grit, Besio persevered, earning a bachelor's degree in psychology from Saint Michael's and an MBA from SUNY Albany. These days, he works as a peer counselor at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, helping people with disabilities search for jobs, solve housing issues and navigate other challenges.

Before power soccer came along, Besio said, he had few outlets for his competitive juices. Now, he can let them flow.

The Chargers carried their 1-0 lead into halftime, but they could not afford to relax. They were in the midst of the third annual Zach Stamatis Memorial Cup, a tournament they host each year in honor of a teammate who died after being struck by a car.

They had lost in the first round but if they kept their lead in this game, they would move on to the semifinals. If they lost, they would land in the cellar of their own house.

Courtside, Charger coaches Sandy Craige and Jesse Cormier huddled the players in a circle. As Besio and his teammates grabbed water and wiped sweat from their foreheads, the coaches urged them not to underestimate their opponents.

"You've got to take risks, don't sit back," said Cormier, who is also head coach of the varsity men's soccer team at UVM. "Take risks; that's when things happen."

Besio is no stranger to that message.

Even for the able-bodied, heading off to college is an experience fraught with anxiety, worrying about keeping up academically, fitting in socially and dealing with their first extended stretch of time away from home.

On top of those concerns, imagine having to take notes with prosthetic fingers, make your way across a snowy campus in a wheelchair and find people who can help you get out of bed each morning and back in at night. When Besio began his college search, he focused on schools in New England or New York that he hoped would be small enough to offer a sense of community.

Many, he found, were less than welcoming to his requests. "The responses were like, ‘Well, we've never done that before. We don't know how we would do that.' " Officials at Saint Michael's told him they also had limited experience—but that wouldn't stand in the way.

"The cool thing about St. Mike's was (college officials saying) 'We've never done this before, but I'm sure we can figure it out.' " Because the Quad dorms were not wheelchair-accessible, the college housed Besio with some juniors in Townhouse 106. There, he found two roommates, Mark Lovejoy '98 and Rich Hanson '98 , who soon became fast friends.

Lovejoy went on to become a school teacher and administrator and stood as the best man at Besio's wedding, as Besio did at his. In an e-mail interview, he recalled Besio's idea for how to join his roommates in playing a video game. "We took a 700 page math book and glued some Velcro to it. We then attached the other side of the Velcro to a single joystick," Lovejoy said. "That was enough for him to beat everyone in Tecmo Super Bowl."

Besio's creativity and verve showed itself in other ways, and the benefits spread to his college friends. "He went to class, was just as social as anyone else on campus and had the same stresses and happiness as any other student at St. Mike's," Lovejoy wrote. "The only difference I can think about is that unlike other students, our nights had to end not when the library or bars closed, but when the battery of his wheelchair died. At that point, he needed a push home. The cold really did a number on the battery, so winters tended to make our evenings end early."

Having had an early injury, Besio knows what sports means to young kids.

"That wasn't much of an obstacle," he continued. "It just meant that we had to host more social gatherings, dinners and study sessions at our house. Oddly, that weak wheelchair battery turned three introverts into extroverts."

Besio enjoyed cheering on the Purple Knights basketball team. He did volunteer work, talking to high school students about his accident and emphasizing the need to play safely. And he logged some serious hours inside Durick Library.

"I was kind of a nerd, so I spent a lot of time at the library," Besio says. But it wasn't just nerdiness; after his accident left him with only limited use of his body, his parents told him he needed to make his way in the world on brainpower.

"One of the things I learned with my accident was that I really had to accomplish stuff with my mind," he says. "So I really focused on academics."

As the Chargers moved into the second half of their match against the Breakers, Besio led his team back onto the floor. As in the stand-up version of the game, power soccer requires precise passing and impeccable timing. Try that with limited movement in your hands and the steel frame of a 300-pound motorized wheelchair serving as your soccer cleats.

Besio wears many hats for the Chargers, says Patrick Standen, founder and president of the Northeast Disabled Athletic Association. He organizes games, makes travel arrangements, spearheads fundraising , and provides players like Kyle Grant, a 17-year-old senior at Vergennes High School and the youngest player on the team, with a fine role model.

"Having had an injury early on, he knows what sports mean to young kids," says Standen. Besio's efforts create an opportunity for disabled players—young and older—to find that exhilaration. "They might have been excluded their entire lives. Now they have entrée into all of that."

Standen provides another Saint Michael's connection; he has taught philosophy at the college for 11 years. (Standen began shortly after Besio had graduated; their paths crossed later.) The Saint Michael's men's and women's hockey teams provide volunteer help for the group's sled hockey program.

Besio points out that the NDAA makes many sports - not only power soccer and sled hockey but also sailing, skiing and others - available to people with disabilities. "I feel like a lot of history, a lot of adaptive sports that we have - power soccer and all - wouldn't have happened without St. Mike's."

Postscript: The Chargers kept charging in their tournament, beating the Boston team and then a Quebec squad in the semifinal round. In the final round against the Chariots, the Massachusetts team that had earlier shut them out, the teams dueled to a 1-1 tie in regulation play. They then moved to a penalty kick shootout, which the Chargers won 3-2. The Stamatis Cup stays in Vermont. To learn more about the Vermont Chargers, contact Besio at nbesio@gmail.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Seven Days, the Vermont news and arts weekly. Good '81 is an executive editor of the newspapers owned by Newspapers of New England in Massachusetts: the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, The Recorder in Greenfield, the Amherst Bulletin and Valley Advocate. He and his wife, Laura Dintino '81, and their children recently moved to Northampton.

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