Aug. 30, 1987, is a day Steve Paxton shouldn’t be capable of remembering. Instead, it is one he will never forget. On that day, Paxton was cruising along a deserted country road near his hometown of Urbana, Ohio. He had recently turned 16 and was enjoying the newfound freedom of driving. Like most new drivers, he had a tendency to drive more quickly than the legal limit.
Unlike most new drivers, though, his predilection for speed nearly killed him.
MU hired Paxton, 32, in February to be its first wheelchair basketball coach. He said he hopes to have a team organized by the fall, but realizes that the lack of awareness about the program might be a barrier.
“The biggest thing right now is that I have to be visible,” he said. “I was just in Philadelphia at the national varsity and junior wheelchair basketball tournaments.
Few know of wheelchair basketball opportunities
“I was talking about Missouri and getting the word out. There are only a handful of collegiate programs and letting (athletes) know that we are one of them is important.”
It is a medical marvel that Paxton is able to function after his accident nearly 17 years ago.
His car drifted into a ditch and before he knew what had happened, his car was rolling. After being tossed from his car, he severed a power line, barreled through a tree and landed in a gravel driveway 100 feet from his demolished car.
Paxton had broken several ribs, fractured his skull, bruised all of his internal organs and broke two vertebrae in his neck.
Despite the shock of the power line, the collision with the tree, the inevitable toll of gravity and the beating his body endured, Paxton never lost consciousness.
The accident paralyzed him from the waist down and keeps him in a wheelchair.
“I got depressed about it (being in a wheelchair) from time to time, but soon realized that I couldn’t allow it to define me,” Paxton said. “I define me.”
MU will play other schools from the Big 12 Conference as well as Illinois, Texas-Arlington and Wisconsin-Whitewater.
New team won't be apart of athletic department
The program won’t be a part of the athletic department. Instead, it will be a part of MU’s Recreation Services.
“This isn’t just an exhibition program,” said Dan Shipp, associate director of Recreation Services and Facilities for MU. “It is designed to be competitive just like our football and basketball teams. Steve was brought in to establish a level of prominence.”
Paxton said he plans on working closely with the athletic department and said he hopes the relationship can be mutually beneficial.
“Any support we can get from within the university is extremely important and we want that close relationship,” Paxton said. “Hopefully they will get involved with our program; whether it is something like Coach (Quin) Snyder coming to our basketball camp, we hope to have some support.”
Shipp said the program will make MU more attractive to prospective students with disabilities.
“It is an opportunity for others in the disabled community to see that this is a sanctioned bona fide opportunity offered by the University of Missouri,” he said. “They suddenly now will view the University of Missouri as a place where if you have a physical disability, there are opportunities to be an accepted and included group.”
Paxton graduated with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and political science from Wright State University in 1994. He received a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Urbana University in 1997.
Paxton started coaching wheelchair basketball at Wright State while he worked on his master’s degree in student affairs/administration. Paxton said the lack of resources is the most difficult aspect of establishing a program at MU.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do when you don’t have groundwork in place,” he said. “I’m building that from the ground up. It’s a lot easier if you have a program in place and you can just build on that.”
Diane Dahlmann, director of Recreation Services and Facilities for MU, said Paxton’s presence will help the inaugural program thrive.
“Coach Paxton has a good personality,” she said. “He is an engaging individual. He is sincere and an authentic person. We feel fortunate to have someone of his caliber who has a great mind not only for the sport but also for the athletic business that is a required component.”
The team has a budget of about $170,000. The money will be used for scholarships, buying equipment, travel expenses, and Paxton’s salary.
Players still absent from Paxton's team
Paxton doesn’t have any players on the team. He said that is because of the relatively small amount of students in manual wheelchairs at MU.
This deficiency puzzles Paxton.
“Where do they all go?” he said. “It is unreal to me that at the school in the state, there aren’t very many kids in manual chairs. How can that be? It’s not that the accessibility is that bad. This is a quality school as far as academics go, so it can’t be that, so where are they?”
Paxton said he had a great support system of family and friends who helped him ease the transition into a wheelchair. Ultimately, he said that is the reason he decided to give coaching a try.
“It is all about giving back,” he said. “When I started playing, I was still very much a fresh injury. I just didn’t know things about life in a chair and I stumbled into the greatest group of individuals who helped me learn about what it’s like to be a person with a disability and living everyday life.”
He said he hopes to impart that ideal to his players.
“Basketball is a great tool to teach kids that they can do anything they want to do,” he said. “OK, you’re in a chair, but you’re still you; you still have your mind and have everything you need to be a productive member of a society.”