Durham County

Valor Games 2017: Competition transforms disabled veteran’s life

Four U.S. Army buddies were out on a Saturday night tempting fate, trying to soak in any last pleasures of civilian life that they possibly could during their final weekend stateside, before being deployed to Afghanistan come the working week.

It was on that night, Aug. 20, 2011, right outside Fayetteville, that one of the four, the driver, took a curve too fast and lost control as the car swerved into a ditch and hit a tree. Marcus Alston-Leggett, then 21, was ejected from the backseat of the vehicle, breaking his neck.

Of the four soldiers, only Alston-Leggett suffered a major injury.

The crash transformed Alston-Leggett’s world. It left him wheelchair-bound as a C7 quadriplegic.

He never spoke to the other three soldiers again.

Alston-Leggett grew up playing competitive sports. After the crash, he remained in a years-long depression until he found a way to once again compete. On Tuesday, he competed at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Dean Smith Center as part of the Valor Games Southeast, a three-day adaptive sports competition hosted by Bridge II Sports designed for disabled veterans and members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Alston-Leggett, now 27, moved with his family from Hillside, New Jersey, to Fayetteville when he was in eighth grade. Throughout middle school and during his time at Seventy-First High School he played AAU basketball — always as a point guard.

“Yeah, I was pretty decent,” he said.

At the conclusion of his high school years, Alston-Leggett had already had a baby daughter — Brooklyn, now 8 — and had another one on the way— Harmony, now 7. So, Alston-Leggett went to work.

He held a series of unsatisfying jobs before joining the Army in May 2009 and packing-up for basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

He was proud of being a solider.

“It’s a brotherhood, man. That adrenaline, you can’t really match it,” Alston-Leggett said. “Just a brotherhood. The camaraderie. Just the sense this, just this sense of like, yeah, you can’t, yeah, you can’t really compare nothing to that.”

Alston-Leggett said he had dedicated his life to being the best soldier he could possibly be and was trained as a construction engineer, eventually based close to home at Fort Bragg.

Before the car wreck, if anybody had asked Alston-Leggett what he’d be doing in 20 years, he would have told them that he planned “on doing more than 20 years” in the army.

Prior to that fateful Saturday night, Alston-Leggett had been in the army for some 3½ years.

EMTs arrived at the crash site and he was airlifted to Duke University Hospital where he was treated for three months before being transferred to a spinal cord rehabilitation center in Atlanta where he stayed six months.

Alston-Leggett is paralyzed below his waist.

Johns Hopkins Medical Library describes C7 Quadriplegia as encompassing quadriplegics “with shoulder, elbow, wrist, and some hand function” and states that with rehabilitation C7 quadriplegics have the potential of maybe being “able to propel a wheelchair outside, transfer self, and drive a car with special adaptions; may be able to help with bowel and bladder programs.”

“Once I got out of the hospital I pretty much went through a minor depression phase,” he said.

Alston-Leggett then admitted that the depression had lasted at least two years.

“It was a long...,” Alston-Leggett paused, “... it was a dark time in my life.”

He didn’t try to contact the three soldiers who’d also been in the crash. “No, never spoke to them again. No,” Alston-Leggett said.

He said, that the other three men “probably” tried to contact him. But “I was just in a bad place, at that time. I really didn’t want to be bothered. Plus, I was filled with so many drugs, I don’t even know who showed up to talk to me,” Alston-Leggett said.

Alston-Leggett was introduced to adaptive sports through Bridge II Sports in Durham about three years ago.

“Pretty much from there, I did the Valor Games and have been addicted to adaptive sports ever since,” he said. “Honestly, man, it changed my life incredibly. It actually brought me out of depression. And of course, dealing with a spinal cord injury after being a soldier, it definitely was a huge transition ... Especially after being so competitive my whole life, I just knew that being in a wheelchair I can’t do any type of sports at all, let alone compete. When I got introduced to Bridge II Sports it just changed my life.”

Alston-Leggett plays wheelchair basketball, wheelchair volleyball and sitting volleyball. Sitting volleyball is his favorite.

“There are definitely some very competitive games of play,” he said. “It just brings a lot out of you. So does basketball. But, just personally, I’m better at sitting basketball.”

But, his team was knocked out in an early Tuesday round at Valor Games Southeast.

A victorious player on Tuesday, Charles Turrentine Jr., engaged in some trash talk before saying the games “are a great opportunity to meet other guys,” and adding, “We the champs, here!”

The athletes were enjoying themselves. After all, what are sports without a little trash talk.

Jules Harris impressed his fellow athletes by reading a poem he had written, “Sit at the poker table as the world / patiently awaits your move; you bluff them/ You devise a deceitful dishonesty strategy / and they have not a clue they’ve / been / trumped!!” he read.”

Brenda Trussler had been on the All-Navy women’s basketball team before suffering a brain injury, she said.

Of the Valor Games, Trussler said, “When you get a chance to do something like this, you should be happy and never complain about sh--.”

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks

Valor Games Southeast

The Valor Games Southeast continue Wednesday and Thursday, May 24-25.

Times and locations include:

▪  Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium and K-Ville at Duke University’s West Campus

▪  Thursday, 8:15 a.m. to noon at Lake Crabtree County Park, Morrisville