Photos by Loren Worthington
There are many ways to describe Joe Delagrave: accomplished athlete, world traveler, dedicated teammate. But for all the titles you can bestow on him, the ones Delagrave is most proud of are husband and father.
It’s a Wednesday morning in late April, and Delagrave, 29, is getting ready to go to the park. As I pull up for our meeting, I notice a Chicago Cubs license plate frame displayed on the back of his van. The Wisconsin native isn’t shy about sharing his fandom — the front door opens and there stands his young son, Braxton, wearing a blue jersey with a crisp red “C” on the front.
In a suburb located southeast of Phoenix, Delagrave — a captain of Team USA wheelchair rugby — is spending the day as he usually does when not practicing his professional craft: holding what he calls “Daddy Day Care.” Doing his best to bend at the waist, he wraps his hands around a beige baby carrier and prepares to lift it into a stroller big enough for both of his boys. Meanwhile, Braxton, 2, alternates between watching a Disney movie on television and hopping on his dad’s chair for rides to and from the kitchen. Brayden, at 7 months, makes his best effort to skip past crawling and proceed directly to walking as he tries to pull himself into a standing position using furniture or the occasional pant leg. Amidst all of this, the family’s cocker spaniel, Wrigley, provides an extra dose of high energy, chomping at the bit to go along for the trip.
Once they are out the door, Brayden rests in the carrier closest to Delagrave, and Braxton navigates from the front seat. It’s nearly a half-mile to the park. Delagrave says getting there and back is an exercise in adaptation. Mostly, he pushes the stroller a touch in front of him and transfers his hands to his own wheels to keep pace. But for all the effort that goes into reaching the park, sometimes his patience is tested once they arrive.
It’s tough, Delagrave says, “when you’re going to the park and there are different parents there and your kid is climbing on the monkey bars. They kind of shoot you that look like ‘I don’t know if this is going to be OK’ … But, you just have to be comfortable with it. The biggest thing that I try to do as a dad is just be their dad, and not let my disability affect their upbringing or what they can or can’t do.”
If anything, these father-son activities are simply an extension of Delagrave’s athletic history, which stretches back to his days playing high school football and a bevy of other sports in Wisconsin. Even as close as his family was and still remains, Delagrave says that he and his four siblings often had to forgo family dinners to make it to practice on time or to take part in various extracurricular activities.
“I was always in a sport, whether it was baseball, basketball or football. In the summer, I did swimming or was a lifeguard,” he says. “Everything kind of revolved around physical activity.”
With this sharp focus on staying active throughout his childhood, it makes sense that even his free time would be consumed by outdoor excursions and group get-togethers well into his teens. A year after finishing high school, Delagrave and a couple of friends decided to partake in one of their favorite pastimes: taking a boat out on the Mississippi River.
It was the middle of summer — July 10, 2004 — the water on the river was calm, and there was no reason to suspect that the plan to go kneeboarding would turn out any differently than it had countless times before. But as Delagrave was riding in the bass fishing chair near the bow of the boat, “my buddy accidentally hit the shore in this back little slough of the river,” he says. “I went flying backwards and hit my head on the front of the boat. That’s how I broke my neck.”
Parenting, Discovering Their Rugby Family
Over the course of two years, with the help of extensive rehabilitation, he regained a majority of the physical ability the doctors expected he would for an incomplete C6-7 spinal cord injury. While changing diapers or lifting the kids up off the floor can still be challenging today, he is consistently impressed with how Braxton has picked up on little things that help make daily life easier for everyone.
“When I’m picking him up under his armpits, he will push down with his arms so I can pick him up, where most kids are really flaccid with their arms,” Delagrave says. “I can’t pick up other kids that way, but Braxton kind of knows that’s how I pick him up.”
His wife, April, agrees that as the kids’ awareness of such things has continued to grow, it has helped make their role as parents easier. But having two kids can still be a juggling act at times. “With stuff like changing Brayden’s diaper, you have to corral him in,” she says. “You turn your back for a second to grab the diaper and he is off and running!”
And while most might expect that adding a second child could be an even greater challenge than welcoming a first, April feels that it has strengthened their relationship. “I feel like we see each other more now than we did before Brayden because we were both working and Braxton was in daycare,” she says. “Joe would go straight from work to go work out and he wouldn’t get home until late. Now, I get to see him for about an hour every day before he leaves for the gym.”
Now approaching 10 years post-injury, Delagrave can reflect on the support he feels blessed to have had. He recalls a strong reliance on what he terms “the three F’s” — family, friends and faith — and credits these positive forces with shielding him from a deep depression.
“The cool thing that I had for those first two years when I was in Wisconsin, and in that extended family area, was faith,” he says. “Even though you didn’t see what was really going on, just kind of relying on the plan that God had for me was important.”
Part of that plan involved moving to Minnesota with April in 2006, where they were married a year later, on June 9, 2007. Delagrave and April both grew up in Wisconsin and dated at the end of high school and into college. April remembers attending all of Delagrave’s home games when he played his single year of college football in the small town of Winona, Minn.
The Gopher State was also where he was introduced to the sport that has become his primary job over the past eight years: wheelchair rugby. Within that group, Delagrave also found a second family, a supportive group that was instrumental in fashioning a new and exciting life.
“Once you get into the rugby community,” he says, “you have that support group or cast of guys that you become close with and can rely on.” Still, the move to Minnesota, and then another to Arizona in 2009, required significant adjustment.
“Back home, growing up, and even when I was an adult in Wisconsin, you always had that support group around you,” he says. “We found some really close friends that we consider family in Arizona, that we can rely on, but that aspect of having that tight close-knit extended family kind of goes away.”
Balancing Work, Career, Sports and More
For all of Delagrave’s athletic accomplishments — being named an all-conference player in three sports in Wisconsin, competing at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, being named wheelchair rugby Athlete of the Year — he remains focused on what the future holds for him and his growing family. Through his work for Team USA athletically, he seized the chance to work in another capacity through the International Paralympic Committee’s Athlete Career Program in the fall of 2011.
The ACP, run by the U.S. Olympic Committee, strives to ensure that athletes can “perform better while training and competing” by “alleviating career or job-related concerns.” While they do not provide financial assistance, the program does provide job training services, career building techniques and job placement during an athlete’s training and athletic career. In partnership with the Adecco Group, an HR firm, athletes can get help finding either part-time, full-time or flexible scheduled work to fit their needs and desires, but often the end goal is to help develop new skills and capitalize on those the athlete already has to help make the transition into the traditional working world after their sports career is finished.
When the Delagraves were a family of three, Joe worked during the week handling guest relations at the Arizona Biltmore, a Hilton hotel in central Phoenix. Hilton, with its extensive hotel portfolio, participates in the ACP so that “athletes can secure jobs without leaving their desired training destination.” Since Brayden’s arrival, Delagrave still performs the same job, but only works eight hours Saturdays and 12 on Sundays. “I’m only working on weekends and staying at home with the boys during the week,” he says. “I do concierge work … and help with different odds and ends, questions that guests might have to make their experience a little better.” Since April is employed full-time as a physical therapy assistant, this arrangement works perfectly for the Delagraves.
In addition to his family life, work at The Biltmore and rugby career, Delagrave holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral studies and is currently completing an online-based master’s program in counseling through a local university. Often, he will begin his day with Braxton and Brayden, head to the gym for training at night and return home to complete a discussion board post, online test or term paper for class.
After Brayden was born, Delagrave took six months off from his master’s studies, but intends to finish by 2016, when he plans to compete in his second Paralympic Games, this time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He sees the practical applications of what he is learning in class first-hand. Whether he is trying to motivate teammates during a timeout or interacting with guests and co-workers at the Biltmore, reading someone’s non-verbal cues has become easier.
“The degree definitely falls into the whole leadership category of how to just gauge everyone’s personality differences and how people react to varying circumstances,” he says. “Just as a leader playing a sport, you kind of get to learn a lot of life lessons and a lot of business lessons, and how to manage a team and personalities.”
In addition to his formal captaincy for Team USA, Delagrave and his teammates often visit St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix and talk with people who are newly-injured. While such trips are not entirely formalized, Delagrave sees this pseudo-mentorship role as an opportunity to replicate the kinds of support he was shown after his accident.
Using these experiences as an avenue to a career path after rugby has also crossed his mind. As far as what Delagrave and April envision for him once his playing days are done, they have discussed utilizing his counseling experience to continue helping those with new injuries in the transition process.
“It would be cool to establish a kind of rehab counseling, taking that mentorship down at St. Joe’s and turning it into an actual job,” he says. The experience he has gained through St. Joseph’s, in combination with his masters, will help him achieve that goal down the road, but for now he and April are both focused on family, rugby and providing their sons with the best possible opportunities to grow.
Priority One: Family
Priority number one in the Delagrave household is family, and for Delagrave, how to be a father whose disability does not get in the way involves a learning curve that is challenging, yet fun. “I’ve definitely had insecurities of how I’m going to be able to play catch with my boys once they’re old enough to run farther than I can throw,” he says. “Or, how I’m going to be able to teach them different things, whether it’s in sports or whether it’s other physical activities.”
But, ultimately, he doesn’t want Braxton and Brayden to think of his disability as anything but a normal part of life. That’s why he will make the extra effort to get on the floor to play with them or to take them to the park, all the while creating memories that Braxton and Brayden will carry with them as they grow.
“I’m just trying to be a dad going to the park with his kids,” he says. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to be a good dad, and hopefully strive to have my boys be proud of me.”