Cliff Chunn - 2.0 - 2007
Jersey Number: 35 and 13
Hall of Fame Induction: 2007
Teams: Tennessee Quadcrushers 1994-1998, Lakeshore Demolition 1998-2003, TNT (Tennessee) 2004-2005
The skinny kid from Tennessee didn’t have hand or wrist function, but he compensated with trunk, heart, and work ethic to become one of the all time greats. The list of opponents that Cliff knocked down would be a long one, as would the list of his apologies to those same players.
In 1993, the US National team witnessed a 14 year old Cliff Chunn at the World Wheelchair games playing tennis. After seeing his pushing skills on the tennis court most realized that he had a future in Rugby. An emerging Tennessee Quadcrusher team already had their sites on him, and after convincing Cliff’s mom to let him play, he would join them for the 93–94 season. That season would become historic for the Quadcrushers as they won their only National Championship. As a rookie 2.0 player, Cliff came off the bench to give class 3.0 teammate Wayne Romero a breather in the 3rd period of the Championship game when Tennessee snapped Tampa Generals 93 game win streak. That was the first of many Championship games to come for young Cliff.
Chunn’s cyclonic push made him the most elusive player in the game. His value as a 2.0 player was illustrated every match up as his defensive assignments were always the opponents’ number one player. His disability at a young age took all his wrist and hand function, but he was able to compensate with his trunk function. He used his years of experience in a chair, and his trunk function to maneuver past most defenses.
In 1996, he was invited to his first tryout camp for the US National team that would be competing in the Paralympic games in Atlanta. In the first year of the Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby competition, countries could only take 8 players instead of 12 player teams. At the tender age of 17, with less than 3 years experience, and only 8 spots on a team that had gone undefeated in International play, Chunn would have his work cut out for him. Despite the odds against him, Chunn emerged from a deep pool of athletes to earn a spot. Some thought his selection was premature, because he lacked experience. However the selectors knew they had a key ingredient to add to veteran leaders.
The youngest player at those first games didn’t disappoint as he churned up goals, and headlines on the way to USA’s first Paralympic Gold Medal. Cliff stunned the International teams that hadn’t seen him play. A Swedish class 3.0 came from behind to catch Cliff from a breakaway goal, or so he thought. Despite good chair position, Cliff was able to hop away from the pick to score the goal. The Swedish player could only shake his head in disbelief.
In the late 90’s, Chunn’s name appeared on almost every all tournament team for Best of Class or MVP. In 1997, he led the Quadcrushers to their last USQRA Championship game. His Herculean effort kept his team in the game against heavily favored Sharp Shadow. Showing his heart and tenacity he played on in the final despite a fall which drew blood. His tournament effort earned him MVP honors as well as the sportsmanship award, becoming the first player to win both awards at a National championship. It would be his last final with Tennessee.
Cliff was always a gentleman on and off court, despite being a star in the game; he always made a point to thank drivers, volunteers, and officials. He often left players on the floor in his wake, and would leave them with an apology.
After the 1998 season, Cliff enrolled to Sanford College in Birmingham, Alabama, home of the Lakeshore Demolition. Cliff would have made any team stronger, and he helped Lakeshore advance to their first Championship game. They would lose to Shadow by 3 in the final; however Cliff netted his second National Tournament MVP; the first to achieve that feat with two different teams. Wayne Romero, who was a teammate of Cliff’s in Tennessee and later at Lakeshore, said of Cliff “That he’s the player everyone wanted to build their team around.” Later that year the USA National team did just that, going on to win their 2nd World Championship in Toronto. Cliff spearheaded the US attack, becoming the youngest player to win a World Championship at the age of 19.
The following year Cliff would lead Lakeshore to their first of many Championships. He continued his string of MVP’s which wouldn’t end until the 2001 Nationals. In 2000 Cliff led Team USA in minutes, and to an eventual 1 point win in the Gold Medal game in front of a sold out crowd at the Sydney Paralympics. Terry Vinyard who coached Cliff on the 96 Gold Medal USA team, coached against him in the final for Australia said he was the difference in both games they played against the US team. “He beat everybody to loose balls, it didn’t matter who caused it, he was there to scoop it up into his forearms. He was truly the heart of that team.
Cliff would go on to play in another World Championship earning a Silver medal in Sweden in 2002. In 2003, his last year with Lakeshore Demolition he was once again MVP at USQRA Nationals.
In 2004, Cliff moved back to his home state of Tennessee where he ended his illustrious career. Cliff became the only player selected to three USA Paralympic Rugby teams when he made the 04 team that won Bronze in Athens, Greece. Cliff was selected captain of that team. Kevin Orr coached him during his Lakeshore years, and on the 2004 Paralympic Rugby team described Chunn’s career. “Cliff was always looking for more, to make him better. He is very humble and wanted to improve every practice. He expected the best out of everyone, but especially himself. Cliff would challenge me to be a better coach. He had the heart and competitive drive that set him apart from everyone else. He wanted to win more than anything and would put his body through multiple tests to do so."
Eddie Crouch, a longtime player on US National teams as well as National Championship teams with Tennessee and Lakeshore praised Chunn’s defense. “Absolutely the BEST defensive player ever”, “A big game player, the higher the stakes the more his game elevated”, “Great court sense, uncanny ability to always be in the right place at the right time”.
Although a shoulder injury in 2005 cut Cliff’s career short, his legacy will be long remembered both Nationally and Internationally. He is the first player to medal in three consecutive Paralympic games (1996, 2000, 2004) in Wheelchair Rugby. Cliff will always be remembered as the player everyone wanted to play with, and the player that every coach wanted on their side. Opponent’s on the other hand always dreaded playing against him.
To read Cliffs HOF induction speech click here