New book recalls the champion ‘Jersey Wheelers’
"Wheels of Courage" is an inspiring new book by David Davis that reveals the inspiring story of the world's first wheelchair athletes: U.S. soldiers, sailors, and Marines who were paralyzed on the battlefield during World War II.
They organized the first-ever wheelchair basketball teams within V.A. hospitals after the war, which quickly spread across the nation and changed the perception and treatment of disabled people. One of these is the story of the champion Jersey Wheelers. Author David Davis, whom I interviewed, told me their story.
"The Jersey Wheelers formed in 1948. The team consisted of veterans from Central & Northern Jersey and they practiced in Paterson. The core of the team were WW II veterans who'd been discharged from VA hospitals in the NY area, including Halloran hospital (Staten Island) and St. Alban’s Naval hospital (Long Island)."
"Their core players included: Jack Gerhardt (cover of Newsweek), Ray Werner from Westwood, Al Slootsky, Felix Radleigh, and Pete Youakim. (Pete’s brother Al, who was non-disabled, helped manage and coach the team)."
"The Wheelers were one of the pioneering 'hometown' teams to form outside the VA hospitals. They raised money by playing exhibitions against local college teams (they borrowed wheelchairs for the occasion). They also helped spread the sport to Florida after they flew to Miami to demonstrate the sport in Miami."
"In 1954, the Wheelers won the 1954 National Wheelchair Basketball Association tournament, held at the Columbus Avenue Armory in NYC. They defeated the Brooklyn Whirlaways, 39-38, after Henry Preckajlo [US Army veteran who was actually a double amputee] sunk a last-second free throw."
What an incredible moment that must have been!
To this day, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) annually gives out the Jack Gerhardt Award to the top wheelchair athlete in the US (the equivalent of the Heisman Award in college football).
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Steve Trevelise. Any opinions expressed are Steve's own. Steve Trevelise is on New Jersey 101.5 Monday to Thursday from 7 to 11 p.m.. Follow him on Twitter @realstevetrev.
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