As he took off his t-shirt and reached for the jersey he’d wear for practice, you couldn’t help but notice the half-done mural Ray Hennagir has tattooed across his entire back.
It showed two helmeted soldiers on patrol who suddenly have been engulfed in a massive explosion that certainly would have maimed them.
This truly was art imitating life.
One June 16, 2007, Hennagir was a 21-year-old Marine combat engineer from New Jersey who was supporting a platoon of grunts on a nighttime foot patrol in Zaidon, Iraq, southeast of Fallujah.
As he and another engineer from Florida were returning on a path they were traversing for the fourth time, they found an IED. As they waited for a demolition crew to get rid of that roadside explosive, they found another.
“And then I found the third one,” Hennagir said quietly. “I was on top of it when it went off and I took the brunt of the blast.”
Hurled through the air, he landed in a bloody crumple and faded in and out of consciousness. During a semi-lucid moment, he tried to move but could not. He did manage to lift his head and when he momentarily looked toward his legs, he saw the carnage.
He was taken by helicopter to a field hospital in Balad and then flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. When he came to on the flight there were tubes down his throat and he was unable to speak. But he mouthed a question to the attending nurse.
He asked if he had legs.
“No,” she said.
One leg was lost in the blast, the other had been amputated and he’d lost four fingers on his left hand. The other Marine had some severe burns and shrapnel damage.
Donna English — an aunt who, with her husband, had raised him as their own from age 9 after he’d endured a rough start in life that included an orphanage, a string of foster homes and the emotional problems that can come with it — immediately flew from New Jersey to Landstuhl.
On heavy pain medication, Hennagir awoke, saw his aunt and whispered, ‘Hey, Mom, I’m immortal.’ ”
But immortality came with a price tag that included some three years of treatment at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., some three dozen surgeries and numerous skin grafts.
It was during that recovery that he was introduced to wheelchair basketball and that’s what eventually got him to Dayton three years ago.
And while you may think the best chance for a local basketball team to make a splash in the national postseason tournaments that are just ahead would be the University of Dayton women’s team or the Wright State men, the best bet would be on Ray and the Miami Valley Raptors.
They are the No. 3-rated Division II wheelchair basketball team in the nation and have been rated among the top three all season.
At the National Wheelchair Basketball Association tournament in Louisville last April, they lost to the eventual national champions from Dallas-Fort Worth on a last-minute shot.
“This is our year,” Zach Blair, the Raptors’ star player said after practice at the Miami Valley Hospital gym the other night. “We want to bring a championship to Dayton, Ohio. We want to be the team that wins a title for this city.”
And the Raptors certainly would represent the entire Miami Valley.
Their players range in age from 16-year-old Alex Hilgeford, a freshman at Carroll High School who lives in Riverside, to 53-year-old Keith Cable, a defense contractor at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Cable lives in Cedarville. Other players live in Fairborn, Urbana, Gratis, Wilberforce, South Charleston, Arcanum and Columbus.
Lindsey McGlinch, one of the team’s best shooters, is a school nurse for Mad River Local Schools. Rick Carpenter, who with teammate Greg Johnson is an avid 4x4 rider, works at Mendelsons.
Cullen Bower, who works in data management at Wright-Patt, is an accomplished vocalist.
He sings with the Bach Society of Dayton, has performed with the Dayton Philharmonic and the Wright State Glee Club and has been in several theater productions, including WSU’s “The Pirates of Penzance.” He’ll also be in the upcoming “Anything Goes” that’s being put on by the Ohio Performing Arts Institute in Springfield.
Hilgeford plays golf for Carroll. And Coach Larry Miller, who played wheelchair ball from 1992 until an injury sidelined him this season, is a retired carpenter.
Some of the older team members initially played at Wright State when the school was known as one of the first and best wheelchair-accessible institutions in the country and its accompanying hoops team was just as widely recognized.
McGlinch is a University of Dayton grad. Some Raptors now are studying at the International College of Broadcasting on Smithville Road. And Michael “Mac” Collins is at Columbus State and soon plans to enroll in the innovative Groove U in Dublin.
They’ve all ended up in the wheelchair — or at least with leg disabilities that qualify them to play on the team — because of a variety of reasons.
Justin “Nate” Knowles, like Hennagir, was a Marine hurt in an IED blast.
Several of the players were injured in car crashes.
Greg Johnson was 13 when his West Virginia family was hit by a teenage drunk driver. His dad and that other driver were killed.
McGlinch was 10 when she was in a crash on U.S. 127 near Van Wert that paralyzed her and killed her 7-year-old sister Rachel.
Two players, Bower and Zoe Voris, were born with spina bifida and Hilgeford was 7 when his right leg was amputated because of popliteal pterygium syndrome, a genetic disease that included severe webbing behind his knee.
Collins was about to do his second tour overseas when Army doctors discovered a cancerous tumor that would claim his right leg in 2013.
Yet, for all the divergent circumstances, the Raptors share one thing. It’s summed up in another of Hennagir’s many tats.
This one, on his left arm, simply says:
“Disability is a state of mind.”
She rarely misses
McGlinch grew up in Greenville and when she finally returned to school following the horrific crash, she still had a keen interest in sports.
In middle school she worked as a student manager for the basketball team, and once in high school she was an assistant for the girls team.
“I was so young when the crash happened that I didn’t dwell on it,” she said. “I tried to move forward.”
And she’s never stopped.
After getting a degree in dietetics at UD, she got an associate degree in nursing at Kettering College, worked for a year as a school nurse at Northridge and then went to the University of Texas Arlington, where she completed her four-year nursing degree and played basketball for the school’s acclaimed Lady Movin’ Mavs wheelchair team.
Now, besides the Raptors, she — as does teammate Voris — plays on a women’s team out of Chicago that tours the country.
On both teams she’s known as a dead-eye shooter and she showed some of that in the Raptors’ double-header against the Cincinnati Royals last Sunday at the Payne Recreation Center in Moraine.
She scored 14 points coming off the bench in two games and her feel for the ball especially showed when she went through her free-throw routine.
Sitting in her chair, she dribbled three times, flicked the ball forward with backspin, grabbed it back, rolled ahead and fired.
She rarely misses.
“I like the competitiveness of basketball and the camaraderie that comes with it,” she said. “Our team does a lot of things together off the court, too. And wheelchair basketball has allowed me to travel all over the country.
“Really, it hits all parts of my life — mental, physical and social.”
Gift from NFL
Nate Knowles — who lives with Hennagir near Fairborn while he goes to ICB and serves as the burly, long-armed center for the Raptors — eventually plans to return to Delaware where his fiance and five young children live.
Here he has two dogs, mother and daughter pit bulls named Baby and Foxy.
Baby was a gift from NFL veteran safety Oliver Celestin, who was playing with the Arizona Cardinals in 2008 when Knowles was recovering at Walter Reed.
“That season the Cardinals played in the Super Bowl and they visited the hospital,” Knowles said. “He came to PT and was amazed at my size. We started talking and he told me he’d give me one of the puppies his dog had just had. Two weeks later I picked Baby up at the airport.
“He (Celestin) said he was just moved by my story.”
After graduating from Canal Winchester High, Knowles joined the Marine Corps and eventually was deployed to Afghanistan, where he said his job was “clearing IEDs”
On patrol on June 25, 2008, he said he already had found seven IEDs that day when he stepped on No. 8:
“I heard the explosion and looked back and that’s when I heard my name ‘Knooowles!’ At that point I was about 30 or 40 feet in the air. I landed flat on my back next to another IED. I was conscious and still had my metal detector on, so I hooked it back up to search what was around me.
“I tried to stand up and couldn’t and that’s when I realized both my feet were broken. The one ankle was completely shattered.”
He said the first medic who got to him took one look and “freaked out.
“He kept going, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’
“And my cover man is like, ‘C’mon Doc! What you doing? He’s dying!’ ”
Finally, a second doctor from a half-mile away was brought in to administer morphine, secure the tourniquets and get him flown out.
Knowles would end up losing his left leg.
Once back at Walter Reed, a Marine Corps liaison told him about wheelchair basketball, but he said he balked:
“I was like, ‘Wheelchair basketball? That makes no sense. I’m not going.’
“He told me I had to go and when I did I met Ray and all the guys and I had so much fun I was like, ‘Whoa, this is pretty good.’ ”
‘Still have my melon’
On his way back home from Tennessee in 1989, Larry Miller was in an auto accident in Kentucky and suffered a complete spinal cord injury that left him wheelchair bound.
“When I first got hurt, I suddenly lost 60 percent of my body,” he said. “I couldn’t get up and move and I was like, ‘My life is over.’
“One thing that really opened my eyes happened in rehab. There was this gentleman sitting there really cleanly dressed. I figured he was somebody’s father. But then he sat at the table next to me and the therapist started to talk to him. Turns out, he didn’t know his name, where he was, what year it was or who the president was. Nothing.
“He had a traumatic brain injury and was a compete blank slate.
“And that hit me. I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t use my legs, but I still have my melon and I still have use of both arms.’ That helped with my depression, knowing no matter how bad you are, someone down the line has it worse.”
Miller soon was at Wright State playing for its now-defunct team. During that time, he got to know Cable, Johnson and Carpenter and today the four of them form the veteran nucleus of the Raptors.
“We do a lot of educational stuff too,” Miller said. “We’ve put on exhibitions at Clark State and Sinclair. We’ll do a grade school and play the staff — spot then 30 to 50 points — and then put it to them as the kids all cheer.
“We want to show that just because we have a disability, it doesn’t mean life is over. We can get out there and do other stuff. We don’t sit there and go ‘Oh, poor me!’ ”
‘Guy looks cocky’
Zach Blair and Zoe Voris aren’t just two of the best players on the Raptors team, they’re a couple.
He’s 27. She’s 19. They met two years ago at a tournament in Michigan.
“I spotted him on a different court and thought, ‘That guy looks cocky. I’ll steer clear of him,’ ” she said with a smile.
“But as I was talking about him he came up and said, ‘Hey, I really like the way you play.’
“I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I just brushed him off. But the next tournament he came up again and we started talking and he was interesting.”
Blair laughed: “We played against her and she did some work against us. I thought, ‘She’s pretty cute and, man, she can really ball.’ We talked and after that it turned into something more serious.”
Although Blair was in a serious auto accident in California when he was a Marine, one that required 24 surgeries and left one leg several inches shorter than the other, he, like Voris, can walk.
National Wheelchair Basketball Association rules allow someone with a 10-percent or more disability to compete in a wheelchair.
“The chair is a good equalizer,” Blair said. “Even though I can walk and someone else has a complete spinal cord injury, they can push just as fast as me and can be just as competitive.”
Blair missed Sunday’s doubleheader with Cincinnati. He was visiting Texas Arlington, which is considering adding him to its basketball program next season.
Cincinnati did have its top player, Jake Counts, who, as a 13-year-old kid in Covington, Kentucky, tried to hop onto a moving train and ended up losing both legs.
He went on to play wheelchair basketball for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and then played professionally in Italy.
He scored 30 points in Sunday’s physical first game, 38 in the next and led the Royals to the first two victories they’ve ever had against the Raptors.
Knowles led Dayton with 26 points in the two games.
After he got hurt, Hennagir returned home to years of private, painful recovery interspersed with a few moments of public celebration.
They threw a parade for him back in Deptford, N.J. He was pushed in a wheelchair through the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City by another injured vet and was sent to Disney World by the NYC Fire Department.
And while he and his wife split up, he took over custody of his younger brother, Sean, who also had a tough life, especially after his mother died from a drug overdose.
“My little brother started doing music, so I used my GI Bill to get to broadcasting school here,” he said. “I want to learn how to record so I can help him do his stuff at the house.
“The way I look at it you’re only given one life. You can’t just sit there and waste it. You can’t just quit.
“I guess you could say the Marine Corps gave me that gumption. We were always taught to adapt at every front.”
All the Raptors seem to have embraced that thought, but none more so than Knowles that night he found himself in a tattoo parlor with an insistent woman.
“I had gone out drinking with some lady friends and one of them wanted me to get her name on my body,” he laughed. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure…sure…whatever.’
“But then we get to the tattoo place and it hit me. I’m like, ‘Oh God! I don’t want this chick’s name on my body!’
“And I’m there going: ‘Aaaah…Aaaah…Ummm.’
“The first thing that popped in my head was my nephew, so I got his name — Andrew Moses Brooks — tattooed on the top of my arm. Man, that was a close! I came to my senses just in time.”
He might have lost his leg.
He hadn’t lost his mind.