By David Hotle, The JOURNAL
Jayden Stafford?s basketball team is going to nationals next month.
While he said that the team, the Rolling Panthers, lost every game at the regional meet recently, they still qualified for the event coming up on April 12-15 in Louisville, Kentucky.
In fairness, one team they lost to was the No. 1 seeded team in the nation and the other game was lost in overtime by one hoop. Stafford has worked long and hard for the opportunity. Every Saturday the 11-year-old Wellman resident and his mother Shelli make the 90-minute trek to Waterloo for a two-hour practice. He spends much of his free time either in the family barn or at the YMCA of Washington County in Wellman practicing ? particularly dribbling, which Jayden said is particularly difficult for him. And why wouldn?t it be, as he has to dribble the ball and control his wheelchair at the same time.
?When I played with the league, I first saw it and just said that I had to play,? he said. ?It is just fun and it is everything I want to do. You get to meet a lot of new friends and get to meet some people who are in your shoes ? have a disability.?
Jayden was born with a form of spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don?t form properly. He has not been able to walk since birth.
During practice, Jayden said that he marvels at people who can effectively dribble the basketball constantly down the court while rolling their wheelchairs at the same time. It is a skill he hasn?t mastered ? yet.
Shelli Stafford, Jayden?s mother, discussed the games with Jayden. The two took several moments to chuckle with each other about how Jayden has been known to move his chair in many directions until it finally tips over. She said the action is as intense as the bright lights illuminating the court.
?Usually the chairs will run into each other and the chairs will just go over,? Shelli Stafford said. ?It?s pretty aggressive really. Watching it is something else.?
The games are part of SportAbility of Iowa, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 with the mission of providing ongoing sports and recreation to people with physical disabilities, and help promote an active lifestyle. Wheelchair basketball was the first sport introduced into the Paralympics. The rules are the same as traditional basketball with a few modifications to accommodate wheelchairs. SportAbility of Iowa has a wide range of programs for people with disabilities. People wishing to learn more can go to the group?s website at www.sportabilityofiowa.org.
Jayden explained he had played with a recreational league, also sponsored by SportAbility. At the time the president of the league decided to put together a junior team from the kids that came to the group?s camp in June. There are now 10 people on the roster, making it the first team of its kind in Iowa for people 13 years old and under. In September 2017 Jayden got to become part of the team.
Not all the players on the Rolling Panthers are in wheelchairs. All the players do have a physical limitation, but people don?t have to be in a wheelchair to play wheelchair basketball. Shelli Stafford said the organization is open for a wider group of people than people who are in wheelchairs.
Shelli Stafford said that wheelchair basketball is played nationwide and Jayden could conceivably earn a college scholarship playing. That Idea suits Jayden just fine, as he loves playing the game and eventually wants to compete in the paralympics and in the D1 division.
?We?ve seen a difference in him since we started it,? Shelli Stafford said. ?He?s happy. Before he would come home and be bored. Now he wants to go practice. Just seeing other kids like him ? being from such a small school there are no other children in his building in a wheelchair ? every Saturday he gets to go hang out with his buddies who are all the same. He is seeing he is not alone.?
Jayden said he plans to continue playing basketball. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he smiled and didn?t hesitate.
?Wheelchair basketball player,? he said.