MBA student referees wheelchair rugby

MBA student Josh Kearns ’16 spends much of his downtime indulging his passion for speed, excitement and physical fitness.  He referees wheelchair rugby, a team sport for tetraplegia/quadriplegia athletes. The sport is played indoors on a basketball court and combines elements of rugby, basketball and handball. Using specially-designed wheelchairs, players compete in teams of four to carry a volley ball across the opposing team’s goal line. Physical contact between wheelchairs is part of the game.

“It’s a lot of fun — very rough and tumble, fast-paced, competitive and high-impact,” said Kearns, who has been refereeing wheelchair rugby for nearly six years. “You have to be physically fit and ready to run two to four miles each game. It’s quite mentally taxing, too, because you have to be constantly aware of what every player is doing and try to figure out how a particular play is going to develop.”

Kearns, who earned his international certification with the International Wheelchair Rugby Foundation while officiating at the 2015 Parapan Am games in Toronto in August, hopes to officiate at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.  “It has taken five years of dedication and hard work, doing well on rigorous written tests as well as performance tests on the court, to get where I am today,” he said. “Being able to referee internationally is a dream come true.”   Practiced in more than 25 countries, wheelchair rugby is played by 42 teams nationwide. It was developed in Winnipeg, Canada in 1976 and is a summer Paralympic sport governed by the U.S. Quad Rugby Association.

Kearns earned his bachelor’s degree in international business at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and works full time as division credit manager at Gilman Electrical Supply in Newport.

Why do you enjoy refereeing rugby?
It’s a great way for me to give back and help others. I love the community. There’s truly a sense of family among the players, refs and support staff. Everyone looks out for each other. I’ve seen guys hit a player out of his chair, but as soon he’s back up they make sure he’s okay. It’s all part of the game — everyone laughs and has a good time.
I am compensated for my travel and get a small stipend for each game, but no wheelchair rugby referee does it for the money. We do it because we love the sport.

How often do you referee and where are the games held?
I typically referee one or two weekends a month from October through April, at school gymnasiums mostly across the U.S. My games have taken place in New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey and Kentucky. There are two referees per game. It can be very challenging for us — I’ve been in high-tension situations where players are screaming at me, asking why I made a particular call.

Who plays wheelchair rugby?
Players are men and women from all over the country ranging in age from 16–58. Most are medically classified as quadriplegic. Many have spinal cord injuries and some have polio or multiple sclerosis or are amputees.

How long are the games?
Wheelchair rugby games consist of four eight-minute quarters. If a game is tied, three-minute overtime periods are played. Most weekends I’ll have seven games; during a three-day tour I could have as many as 14.

How did you become involved in the sport?
My sister, a physical therapist who coached the Pittsburgh wheelchair rugby team known as the Steel Wheelers, introduced me to the Tampa Generals. I started doing support work for the team, and the following season I met Terry Vineyard who has helped shape the sport as both a coach and referee. He began teaching me the sport and eventually became my mentor.