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NFL helping launch of wheelchair football league at NFL draft

The competitive drive never has left Brad Lang, who hopes to be playing football in the fall.

In the first Wheelchair Football League, which is being launched by Disabled Sports USA.

On Saturday, Lang, a Marine veteran who lost both legs in an explosion while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2011, will announce a draft pick for the Carolina Panthers. He was selected by the NFL to represent the new league that plans to play in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Kansas City, Missouri.

He is excited about that opportunity, even with the NFL draft being conducted digitally.

"It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Lang said. "Something I never would have had the dream to have the opportunity to do."

Then, Lang will continue preparation for the wheelchair version of America's most popular sport. It's important -- make that essential -- to participate, he explained.

"I think the best way to describe that is to share my first experience with disabled sports," Lang said. "After I was injured, I came back to Bethesda Naval [Hospital], and in late November, I was approached by a sports rep who asked would I like to go skiing? I'm thinking that I can't even walk, how am I going to ski? I grew up in Michigan and was an able-bodied skier too.

"I went out to a ski spectacular and tried it for the first time and instantly fell in love with it. It was 10 times more enjoyable than able-bodied skiing ever was. It really was the only thing I have found that was better on the other side of the injury."

"It's similar with football and all the disabled sports I have been able to participate in," Lang continued. "It makes you feel like you are on par with everybody else and how you used to be."

Lang, a Purple Heart recipient, particularly likes the idea of competing in a sport based on teamwork. Games will be played on hard surfaces, both indoors and outside, with seven players a side on a field 60 yards long and 22 yards wide.

"There's the camaraderie that is bred into all military personnel, and the teamwork it takes to complete every mission," said Lang, who played youth and high school football. "It is something I am always looking for."

Disabled Sports USA has programs across 50 sports and soon will be expanding beyond that. Those sports range from athletics to archery, from mountain biking to bocce. Football is being launched with the aid of funding from the NFL and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

DSUSA also plays a role in developing athletes for the Paralympics.

"We have an official role as a multisport organization," said Glenn Merry, DSUSA's executive director. "In real terms, we are the community-based athlete development pipeline; 81% of USA (disabled) athletes came through one of our chapter programs. And 71% of Summer Paralympics athletes have come through our summer programs.

"We are not the finishing school, but the open end of the funnel that teaches them the basics of the sport."

Many of the basics of football must be streamlined for the wheelchair game. With no kickoffs or punts, the ball will be thrown in the air rather than kicked. A one-hand touch on the body above the waist is considered a tackle. Each roster will be balanced through a weighting system based on a player's disability. On conversions, a run is worth one point, a pass is worth two.

All participants must remain fully seated during play.

"To keep it even for everybody, that's needed," Lang said. "If people are allowed to utilize their legs to stand up, it would put some players at an advantage.

"Wheelchair control will be a big aspect of the game. It will take a lot of work and stamina. We are going to get a knack for it the more we play it."