Coach creates a Tampa tempest

Published July 31, 2005

Tampa is a key locale in the wheelchair rugby documentary Murderball thanks to local resident Joe Soares, the abrasive head coach of Team Canada, arch rival of Team USA in the 2004 Paralympics Games in Athens, Greece. Soares, 45, is a former member of the Tampa Generals squad.

Soares' decision to coach the Canadian team after he wasn't selected to play for Team USA sparked bitter feelings among former teammates who considered him a traitor to his country. Murderball focuses on Soares' bitter feud with Team USA star Mark Zupan and his personal life, including a health scare, a Super Bowl XXXVII party for his Canadian players, and a testy relationship with his 10-year-old son, Robbie.

As a result, Soares, whose wheelchair is a result of childhood polio, finds himself an occasional celebrity.

"There have been a lot of interviews, a lot of traveling," he said during a recent telephone interview. "People recognize me a bit more, sometimes at airports or on the planes. Honestly, life goes on."

Soares shrugs off any suggestion that he's the villain of Murderball.

"I haven't gotten one negative response, except for one guy after I signed an autograph who said: "Maybe you should lay off your son a little.' He doesn't realize (the filmmakers) took over 50 hours of film between me and (Robbie) and they could have presented it a hundred different ways."

Soares was part of the Tampa Generals' glory days in the early 1990s, playing as a Class 3.5 athlete on three U.S. Quad Rugby Association national championship tournament teams.

In 1992, the Generals claimed their first USQRA title with a 29-28 victory over San Francisco's Quadzilla team. The next year, the tournament was held in Tampa. In a rematch with Quadzilla, the Generals won 35-34 in double overtime, becoming the first USQRA team with consecutive national titles.

Chances for a three-peat ended in 1994 when the Tennessee Quadcrushers edged the Generals 31-29 at the tournament in Boston. In Denver in 1995 the Generals defeated the Quadcrushers 38-31 for a third USQRA championship. The Generals made the tournament finals for the last time in 1996, losing 48-44 to California's Sharp Shadow team.

The Generals impacted the sport with players such as Soares, player-coach Dave Gould, Dave Ceruti and Bill Renje, who all competed for the 1996 Paralympics team in Atlanta. Gould was later named to the USQRA Hall of Fame and Renje made the 2000 Paralympics team that competed in Sydney, Australia.

Soares planned to rejoin the Generals this season as player-coach, after Team Canada hired a new coach. His application to coach Team USA, noted in the end notes of Murderball, was unsuccessful. Now Soares has changed his mind, and his direction.

"I've decided to pull out (of the Generals)," he said. "I did a clinic in Switzerland and got in a chair for four days in a row. My hand and my neck were giving me warning signs that it's time to give up. My hand was throbbing badly.

"I will be coaching, but not the Tampa Generals. I'm going to be taking a coaching job for another country. It's not official yet, so I can't tell you which country. I haven't physically signed the autograph on the contract yet, but it's coming."

- STEVE PERSALL, Times staff writer