When Jovan Booker suits up Sunday for the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Association team’s first World Cup game in Mexico, it will be without his prosthetic right leg.
World Amputee Football Federation rules require that all players compete on crutches, without their everyday prosthetics. The exception being goalies, who only play with one hand.
“The first time I saw the sport, to be honest, I was a little confused,” said Booker, an amputee at 10 months of age who has become an accomplished athlete. He played for Mattituck High School's 2011 Long Island Champion basketball team while wearing his prosthetic. “Once I actually got on the crutches and got past the initial uncomfortable feeling of not using my prosthetic and going out and hopping on one leg and learning how to touch the ball and get it to do certain things, it was just invigorating.
“It’s empowering and sends a message that we don’t have to be scared or keep our legs on,” Booker said. “We can play a sport and get down and get dirty and compete at a high level.”
The U.S. team begins pool play against Liberia on Sunday, Kenya on Monday and Turkey on Tuesday,
Booker will be joined on the field in San Juan de Los Lagos by Long Islanders Robert Rodriguez, 31, of Bay Shore, and Brentwood resident Carlos Ayala, 30. They are coached by Eric Lamberg, a Commack native.
The trio have learned to play on crutches together and the initial learning curve was steep, but playing on the national team is a source of pride for Rodriguez and his teammtes.
“At this level, representing the country, you have to be focused. If you’re driven and dig deep, it’s possible,” Rodriguez said, but like Booker, he was taken aback by the rules at first.
“I make the joke. You’ve heard ‘The first step is the hardest?’ Well, for us, the first hop is the hardest,” Rodriguez said. “My initial reaction was ‘These guys are crazy,’” he said. “It’s a totally different dynamic. But I fell in love with it.”
“We train two to three times a year,” said Lamberg, who holds a doctorate and teaches in the physical therapy department at Stony Brook University. “The goal is to develop regional teams, then have country competitions and a national team.”
Lamberg said he met Booker five years ago through mutual acquaintances and crossed paths with Rodriguez when he participated in a prosthetic study. Ayala works at Rodriguez’s company, Limb Possible, which runs basketball teams and games for amputee athletes.
“It’s become a grassroots effort,” Lamberg said of amputee soccer. “We’ve really seen our team develop. I think this is the best skilled team that the U.S. has put together.”
Under the rules of amputee football, teams consist of six field players plus a goalie. The pitch is 60 meters by 40 meters, the goal is two meters high and five meters wide, there are two 25-minute halves and there is no offside rule.
Booker, Rodriguez and Ayala have grown close since joining the team. They train together at Suffolk Community College and have relied on each other to find the confidence to get onto the field.
“We say iron sharpens iron all the time, so we help each other sharpen our minds and skills,” Booker said. “It feels like we’re doing something special.”