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Buffalo Bills Wheelchair Football featured in upcoming PBS special documentary 'Concrete Gridiron'

Three people in sports wheelchairs face each other. Two are in blue Buffalo Bills jerseys facing Matt Daniels in a white jersey, who is throwing a football. They are outside in a parking lot with trees behind them.
Jeffrey Hayward
Courtesy Matt Daniels
Matt Daniels (#40) plays football with other members of the Buffalo Bills wheelchair football team.

Sports has always been a big part of Matt Daniels’ life.

A talented athlete in high school, he played football, wrestled, and strongly considered playing football at the collegiate level.

He says none of the sports he played growing up compared to the energy he felt on the field last season — when the Buffalo Bills Wheelchair Football Team played their first home game at Buffalo RiverWorks.

“To be out there with my Buffalo Bills wheelchair football team and hear the crowd [say] 'Let's go Buffalo,' and there was without a doubt over 400 people there cheering. That was the biggest rush I've ever had in sports ever in my life," Daniels said.

Matt Daniels, in a blue jersey, is clutching a football as a member of the opposing team seems to touch him as his wheelchair tips on one wheel.
Courtesy Matt Daniels
Matt Daniels and other members of the Buffalo Bills Wheelchair Football team face off in a game at Riverworks.

After high school, Daniels decided to serve his country and served in the 101st Airborne Division of the Army from 2006 to 2010. After being injured during his service, he started a new journey as a service-disabled veteran. One of his friends introduced him to sled hockey — and he was hooked.

"It has made my journey a lot easier," Daniel said. "I shared similar difficulties with people. And I realized over time that a lot of these people, they didn't feel sorry for themselves. They just kept moving on just like a regular, just a regular person, with no difficulties, no disabilities."

Daniels then joined wheelchair lacrosse as well. Beyond his love of athletics, it gave him a community of people who understand his experience. Daniels shared that he didn't have as much of a connection with the disability community growing up.

Matt Daniels, wearing a white hockey uniform, propels himself on a sled hockey sled.
Courtesy Matt Daniels
Matt Daniels competing in sled hockey.

"I get a chance to bond with people who I never normally did, I guess you could say," Daniels said. "I didn't have a group of friends that had disabilities or whatnot, nothing against that. But I mean, I wasn't a part of a group like that."

And he's been able to connect with others who are passionate about making sure everyone can access sports.

"It opened up my eyes in general, and it's nice to be a part of this community. And be able to share my story with these people. And hopefully, in the long haul, be able to, you know, encourage youth, especially now looking up to stuff like this for youth to be able to notice these sports and what's available to them," Daniels said. "And to not be afraid to take that journey and take that step forward to be a part of something like this."

While sled hockey and wheelchair lacrosse have been around for a while, wheelchair football is one of the newest adaptive leagues in the country. According to Move United, the league was formed in 2020, and over 575 athletes have participated so far. Daniels and his friends are one of 11 teams in the country to be part of this new league and to pave the way for other disabled football players.

"At one point in time in history, somebody had to be the first to start it, to open up the doors for others. And being a part of the first-ever Buffalo wheelchair football team, it's amazing, I'm proud to be a part of it," Daniels said.

Adaptive sports break down a lot of divisions that exist in other sports. Daniels says the adaptive sports community is diverse —
it doesn’t matter the disability, age, or gender, everyone comes together to share their passion.

“It's very refreshing though too because everything else goes out the window, and you just focus on sports. And the last thing you're concentrating on is anything about that person, their background, or the type of person they are, it's, you guys are there for the same purpose,” Daniels said.

Daniels hopes this team not only opens the door for disabled athletes, but also hopes the sport changes the narrative around disability and equity in the sports community.

"People just need to realize that we are just like you, we manage with what we have, and we don't make excuses and sports are sports, it doesn't matter. It's a competition doesn't matter the physical aspect of it, if we have to use our upper body, and you guys get a chance to use your leg," Daniels said.

Matt Daniels, in a blue jersey and a sports wheelchair, extends his arms to catch a football.
Jeffrey Hayward
Courtesy Matt Daniels
Matt Daniels catches a football during a wheelchair football game at Riverworks.

"It should be a huge community in general of sports and not separated, if people ever look at it like that. It's sports and sports as a whole is how it should be looked at," Daniels added.

One way Daniels and his team are sharing their story is through the documentary "Concrete Gridiron," which airs Monday on your local PBS station, WNED, at 9 p.m.

“Our documentary is not about winning,” Daniels said. "We didn't win one game the whole time. It was our first season. And of course, it was upsetting, I'm very competitive. But I tried to take a look at all the positives that happened during the season, and one of them was building friendships and building a bond, which helped us walk into our second season, and get to know each other a little bit better. And just it progressively just got better and better. So the documentary I think was a huge blessing.”

Concrete Gridiron captures a budding team in a city that loves this sport, the community and energy around adaptive sports, and everything that comes with building a new league. One of the things you’ll notice in the documentary is there isn’t even yet a set place for athletes to play.

“There's nowhere specifically to play it. And right now, we're just going with the flow and see what happens in the future. Because the sport is so new. We don't know where it's going to be in the next five to 10 years," Daniels said.

As for Daniels, he says the documentary is a huge boost in bringing adaptive sports into the mainstream. This documentary —
this team — is just the start.

“I'm just getting started. There's still more I want to do,” Daniels added.

You can stream Concrete Gridiron now at PBS.org or WNED.org for Western New Yorkers, through the PBS Streaming App, or watch at 9 p.m. Monday on Channel 17.

Greater Buffalo Adaptive Sports is the local host organization for adaptive sports. In addition to wheelchair football, they also offer sled hockey, wheelchair lacrosse, adaptive curling, and adaptive tennis. Many of their programs are supported by donations.To learn more, join a sport or donate, visit greaterbuffaloadaptivesports.org.

You can also check out wheelchair football as a spectator this fall, when Buffalo will be one of four host sites for USA Wheelchair Football tournaments, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.