Tackle football has never quite caught on with the physically disabled the way wheelchair basketball has, but Chuck Roedelbronn can hardly be blamed. Back in 1970, Roedelbronn was a pioneer in the sport, awkwardly pursuing running backs and taking on blockers in tackle football games between warring North Bergen (N.J.) neighborhoods. Chuck's participation was unique, perhaps incredible, because he was paralyzed from the waist down by spina bifida.
"The offensive linemen looked at me kind of funny and played me namby-pamby," recalls Roedelbronn, who wore a pair of cumbersome steel leg braces at his defensive line position. "But after the first couple of plays, they realized I could play and started taking clean shots at me."
Spina bifida is a congenital defect in which the spinal cord fails to form properly. To treat the condition, Roedelbronn, 30, has had eight operations, the first when he was 10 days old. He can walk only with the aid of braces and crutches, but that has hardly deterred him.
In a career born of his condition and his obstinacy, Roedelbronn has progressed from neighborhood noseguard to world champion weightlifter. In 15 years of competition in the U.S. Wheelchair Weightlifting Federation, a subdivision of the National Wheelchair Athletic Association, Roedelbronn has dominated his weight divisions, from 125 pounds up to his present 165. He won the gold medal at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul and has taken four world titles.
"I wanted to be a wrestler," says Roedelbronn. "When I was a sophomore in high school, I asked the wrestling coach if I could try out for the team. He told me that I couldn't come out because of the handicap, but he asked me if I wanted to be the damn equipment manager. I was disappointed big time."
The coach, Karl Faeth, suggested he try the weight room instead. "I knew Chuck was special," Faeth says. "He was incredibly strong and had a real good mind."
Disabled lifting involves only the bench press. It differs from able-bodied lifting in that the athlete begins the lift with the bar on a stand, an inch off his chest, rather than on a rack. As a result, the lifter doesn't get a good feel for the weight and must employ more explosive power at the moment of the lift.
Under Faeth's instruction, Roedelbronn began lifting in January 1976, and by June he was bench-pressing 260 pounds. That year, Roedelbronn finished second in the national championships. Two years later he was the national champion in the 125-pound class.
In the dozen years since, Roedelbronn has won 68 of the 76 competitions he has entered, placing second in the remaining eight. He has won 12 more national titles and set 16 national records in six different weight classes. He hasn't lost in the U.S. since 1979 or in the world since 1984. He currently holds the national (485 pounds) and world (462 pounds) records in the 165-pound division, although his 485-pound lift was not officially recognized worldwide because it did not occur at an internationally sanctioned competition.
Rodelbronn fits his training schedule around a full-time job as a stockroom manager. "He trains alone quite a bit and at strange times," Faeth says. "It just shows his mental toughness."
Chuck is the oldest of Charles and Doris Roedelbronn's five athletic children. "We never let Chuck take advantage of his handicap," Charles says.
Their support, however, came at a price. "We'd come home on weekends and find out that Chuck had been playing football down at the park," says Doris. "His braces would be broken, and we'd have to go to New York to get him new ones. The doctors couldn't understand why the new braces were breaking so often. Each time they'd make the new ones heavier and thicker, but that wouldn't stop him."
Roedelbronn still sets lofty goals. He would like to lift 500 pounds—something no 165-pound man, handicapped or able-bodied, has ever done—and win a fifth world title at the 1991 championships, to be held in August in Kingston, R.I.
"There will be a lot of pressure on him," says his father. "The whole family will be watching, and if he doesn't win again, we'll boo."
Paul Fabbri is a sportswriter for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. This is his first story for SI.