Joe Jackson has been playing wheelchair rugby for 11 years, and has made the USA Wheelchair Rugby training squad over the past three years.
When Joe Jackson sustained a spinal cord injury from playing high school football, he didn’t think he’d be able to compete again.
Then, he discovered Paralympic sport – and made it his mission to share it with others as well.
Jackson, a 2019 USA Wheelchair Rugby Training Squad member, co-founded the Joe Jackson Foundation with his father, Todd, in 2006 to help and inspire people with spinal cord injuries through adaptive sport equipment and active lifestyles.
“People were so generous when I was in the hospital and I wasn't expecting people to donate things and help me out,” Jackson said. “I wanted to give back and help people out. I know there are people who aren't as fortunate and don't have that type of support.”
Unlike sports equipment for able-bodied athletes, adaptive equipment can cost far more – often, thousands of dollars.
“Being active is actually really expensive in a wheelchair,” Jackson said. “Chairs for wheelchair basketball are close to three grand or more…wheelchair rugby chairs are up to five grand or more. There are all these things that you don't really think about.”
The Joe Jackson Foundation has provided three rugby wheelchairs through its individual grant program thus far. As a result, two of the recipients were able to earn opportunities to train with the national development team.
In Jackson’s own wheelchair rugby career, the Chandler, Arizona native plays for the Ability360 Heat team, where he has helped them win three national championships in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and has been named to the USAWR training squads for the past three years in a row.
The 28-year-old was selected to Team USA’s roster for the upcoming Four Nations Invitational, held in Birmingham, Alabama from May 22 to 24, where four of the top rugby teams in the world – Great Britain, Australia, Japan and the United States – will face off one year before the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Jackson initially discovered wheelchair rugby by watching the documentary Murderball, and by meeting three-time Paralympic medalist Scott Hogsett, one of the players featured in the film.
In addition to playing wheelchair rugby, earning his engineering degree from Arizona State University and working with his foundation, Jackson has been involved in adaptive scuba diving. He is a certified scuba diver and serves as a spokesman for Saguaro Scuba.
As a defensive player classified as having a higher level of impairment in comparison to other players, Jackson is responsible for blocking the opposing team’s offense from scoring. He is often one of the loudest players on the court so he can communicate his position and actions to his teammates.
But it took Jackson a while to find his voice.
“Being loud on the court didn't happen right away; I was a shy person so I didn't really like being the leader or barking orders at people. Then [Hogsett] told me that if I wanted to take things to the next level, I was going to have to be heard and be more vocal,” Jackson said. “Apparently they couldn't hear me before, so I started barking as loud as I could on every play. It's been huge. It’s really important to know what your weakest functioning player is doing and where they are – the strongest part of my game has become being vocal on the court.”
Going into the Four Nations Invitational, Jackson hopes the team plays well against its international competitors – but more importantly, he hopes the tournament helps prepare the team for this summer’s Parapan American Games, where the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team will be vying for a Tokyo 2020 slot in Lima, Peru.
Ultimately, Jackson is working towards his goal to represent his country at the Paralympic Games one day.
But for now, he is focusing on one game, one tournament at a time while also empowering spinal cord injury survivors, one chair at a time.
“I look at myself and I think, if I didn't have adaptive equipment, it's hard to be active. You're stuck; it's hard to grow and be competitive,” Jackson said.
“I know it makes a huge impact from my own experience, and I've seen it as well with others. They get their chair and they're just a much happier person. That’s why I try to share it with other people.”