It's just like you'd imagine any midweek lunch hour to be like on campus at the University of Wollongong, even before a pandemic.
Students spread themselves out around benches catching up with each other and casually sipping on their daily dose of caffeine. Off in the distance of the courtyard a band plays, but everyone pretends not to notice. The vibe is relaxed. A young man rolls up and extends a hand of greeting.
The first thing you notice, apart from a cheeky grin and the hint of mischief in his eye, is he has the build of an athlete. Big broad shoulders. Long muscular arms. The perfect build for a basketballer. A far cry from the kid who was a chubby faced rugby union prop as a teenager in Mudgee.
Jarrod Emeny casually positions his wheelchair next to a bench outside a cafe, sipping on his iced coffee and eating a toasted focaccia, ready to chat during a break from his studies for a Bachelor of Business.
"It [the accident] gave me more direction actually," he reveals, reflecting on the night that robbed him of his ability to walk and almost his life.
"Before my accident I didn't know what I was going to do with my life and after I had my crash it was like 'oh, wheelchair basketball that's my thing, I'm gonna do that'."
The accident he refers to happened on July 7, 2018, when a 17-year-old Jarrod jumped into his Hilux utility at his parents' sheep property in Mudgee headed to play in a rugby match in Orange. The last thing he remembers as he drove out of the side road from the property was a wiggle of the vehicle's tailgate. The Hilux rolled into a tree on the side of the road and like Jarrod was a crumpled mess.
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Jarrod had three broken ribs, three broken vertebrae and his T9 vertebrae had dislocated and was sitting above T8. His spinal cord was cut instantly. After spending nine days in ICU, Jarrod spent six weeks in the spinal ward at Royal North Shore Hospital and two months at Royal Rehab.
It was a meeting with an icon of Australian wheelchair basketball years earlier that led Jarrod to instantly know his destiny.
"I knew Grant [Mizens], we'd met him and his wife six years ago now. I always knew he was a Roller Hawk, played wheelchair basketball and thought it was really cool," Jarrod said.
"Funnily enough because of my association with Grant, he had a similar injury when he was 16, and because I knew so much about what he did, it was almost like I had a draft plan of what to do: 'I'm gonna go to uni, I'm gonna play basketball. That's what I'm going to do'.
"As soon as the accident happened I knew I was gonna play. Grant saw me in hospital and we sealed the deal."
The Roller Hawks Jarrod refers to are the famous Wollongong Roller Hawks, the region's National Wheelchair Basketball League club which has won the last three national titles.
After a COVID-enforced hiatus in 2020, the national league will return in 2021 with the opening round between teams representing Wollongong, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney scheduled for May 28-30 at the Shellharbour City Stadium.
It would have been Jarrod's national league debut for the Roller Hawks after moving to Wollongong to start his degree last year, except Basketball Australia has opted to field an Australian under 23 side in the national league and he has been selected to represent his country.
The Roller Hawks will this year celebrate the 20th anniversary of a club with a rich history of producing some of the nation's greatest wheelchair basketballers. Darren Hayes has been there from the very birth of the Roller Hawks in 2001.
Born and bred in Windang, Darren grew up as any other young Wollongong lad with a love of rugby league and surfing. He joined the army in 1989 and expected to be a career soldier.
Darren was serving in Malaysia at the Butterworth base in 1994 when he had an accident in the jungle. It occurred at a waterfall but he remembers nothing of the incident due to the brain injury he sustained.
He was trucked out of the jungle in the back of a Land Rover to the base hospital. From there he was flown to a hospital in Singapore for 10 nights before being flown back to Royal North Shore Hospital where he spent another three months.
"Before I was flown back to Australia my parents were flown over to say their goodbyes but because of the injury I don't remember any of that," Darren said.
Like Jarrod, Darren had fractured his T9 vertebrae and was a paraplegic. As someone who was devoted to exercise and sport before his accident, Darren again took to that as part of his rehabilitation.
He had a gym set up in his parents' garage before he was able to move into his own place and got a bike he could pedal with his arms.
Darren also started to travel to Sydney with another Wollongong local and Roller Hawk stalwart Brendan Dowler to play wheelchair basketball in Sydney.
In 2001 they formed part of the foundations for the formation of the Wollongong Roller Hawks and are still integral parts of the club. They remain so for the love of the sport, but also for what it gives back to them.
"The social aspect to it is huge for us because the majority of what I do outside of that I generally do alone," said 54-year-old Darren, who in contrast is a more reserved and softly spoken character than young Jarrod.
"The core group of us have been together for a very long time. The competition aspect and the winning is great for the self esteem but it's just great doing exercise with your mates."
For Jarrod it also helps quell the youthful exuberance. "We just smash the shit out of each other," Jarrod says with a grin.
"Sport is something I always loved. Growing up with rugby I was a bigger boy and rugby was a way of getting rid of that teenage aggression.
"I think it's continued on to wheelchair basketball. It's my stress reliever from uni and from life. Not only is it keeping me fit and healthy, it's keeping me mentally sane really."
In a time of quiet reflection sitting courtside at a basketball stadium in Shellharbour, Darren gives some heartfelt perspective on what wheelchair basketball has given him.
"When you have your accident so much of your life is taken away," he says.
"I lost my career, many sports that I loved, you can't list the amount of things it takes away from you. Everything becomes more difficult.
I don't know whether it gives you clarity ... but basketball is a team sport you can play, it's given me that competitive outlet and a group of friends."
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