True Grit

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His column will appear every Wednesday.

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Brandon Dale is a basketball-dribbling war story, an amputee who survived a roadside bomb in Iraq and today is a scoring machine in a wheelchair.

Seven years ago, the lower part of his left leg got blown off as he drove a humvee on a dusty road in Tal Afar. Today, he’s the go-to player on the San Antonio Parasport Spurs, fondly known as the Spurs Wheelchair Team, 11-3 and ranked No. 6 in Division III of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA).

Dale, 29, was the catalyst behind the Parasport Spurs undefeated run (5-0) through a tournament in Dallas last month. He scored a tournament-high 22 points against the Oklahoma State University wheelchair basketball team and is preparing for a tournament in North Carolina this weekend.

“He’s a very fast player and has a lot of chair skills,” says Willie Jackson, the Parasport Spurs captain and coach. “Whenever we get in trouble, we get the ball in his hands.”

A retired Army sergeant, Dale joined the Parasport Spurs five years ago. He arrived with athleticism and considerable pickup game experience as an able-bodied man. But he never played ball in high school in Shreveport, La., and had little knowledge of wheelchair hoops.

“He came to us brand new,” Jackson says. “The minute we got him into a custom-made chair, we gave him a few lessons and told him what to work on. He spent extra time in the gym to develop those skills.”

Three years later, Dale was selected to play in the NWBA All-Star game. A conflict prevented him from competing but he’ll be selected again this year (each coach picks at least one player for the game) and plans to participate. “He’s an overachiever,” Jackson says.

It’s a miracle Dale can play at all. Before his vehicle ran over a landmine, he escaped more than one close encounter with death. While recovering from his amputation, Dale used memories of narrow escapes to lift him from depression.

There was the time during his first tour of Iraq that he was supposed to go on leave. Private First Class Brandon Dale was all set to depart only to learn a lesson about rank and seniority. A higher ranking soldier replaced him on the leave list and helicoptered out.

The move angered Dale until he learned the helicopter had crashed, killing everyone aboard. “You count your blessings,” he says, “and become grateful for what you have.”

It wasn’t easy. Not with his disfigurement. Not with the haunting memories and the tormenting questions. Why me? Will any woman ever be attracted to me again?

On his second tour of Iraq, Dale’s unit was assigned to protect Tal Afar from terrorists. On his return from a reconnaissance mission one evening, he drove over a landmine. A sergeant in the passenger seat grabbed his neck. Dale stopped to render aid. Only when he felt searing pain did he look down in the dark. Shrapnel had blown through the gas pedal and struck him below the left knee. A second piece of shrapnel fractured the tibia and fibula in his right leg.

“I felt one of my legs but the other was gone,” he says. “I didn’t know where the other part went. I thought I was going to bleed out and die. I said my last wishes.”

No other soldier in the humvee -- including the sergeant struck in the neck -- suffered serious injury. A helicopter transported Dale to a regional hospital. After a few days, he was flown to a hospital in Germany and later to Brooke Army Medical Center.

During rehabilitation, he sank into depression. Then he remembered the friend who had gone on a mission in his place and was injured. He remembered the soldier who bumped him off the leave list and was killed. He looked around and saw double amputees, paralytics, soldiers missing arms and legs. He found perspective in bodies broken worse than his. “Some guys have brain injuries,” Dale says, “and you never recover from that.”

Two years after the roadside bomb, Dale saw his first wheelchair basketball game. An interest sparked. “It took about two months for me to get used to the chair,” he says, “and shooting from a sitting position.”

He toughened his hands and increased his upper body strength. He learned the rules. He worked on his game. Today, Dale leads the Parasport Spurs in scoring, averaging 10 points a game.

“Brandon plays the three spot,” Jackson says. “He can follow instructions. He’s a very smart player.”

Back home in Shreveport, Dale was a pickup player. In San Antonio, he’s a pivotal player, a soon-to-be All-Star on one of the top teams in the NWBA. He’s enjoying military retirement and is enrolled at Northwest Vista College, the first step toward earning a degree in computer science.

He’s got game, ambition and a smile that stretches the length of a basketball court. The Parasport Spurs lost two key players from last season but are playing great ball. Dale’s got a body that remains disfigured but that no longer bothers him.

“I just feel good,” he says, “about everything.”

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