I’ve met many amazing athletes over the years. But there have been few of them, even at the professional level, who have inspired me the way that Eric Westover and his teammates have.

Westover is the goalkeeper of the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team. Like most soccer fans, I knew little about the sport of amputee soccer or the players themselves until I met him recently.

“As a sport, amputee soccer started in the early 1980’s,” Westover explained. “On the U.S. National Team, we have guys from all over the country. Some have been on the team for 15 to 20 years. Some lost their limbs from cancer and some from traumatic injuries.” He notes that they have a player that is currently 46 years old, while the youngest is a 16-year-old player from Boston who later this week will play his first match with the U.S. squad.

Westover, like all goalies in amputee soccer, has lost one of his upper extremities. “All field players must be a lower-extremity amputee, and all goalkeepers have to be upper-extremity amputees. A player who has lost both an arm and a leg can choose to be either a goalie or field player.”

Amputee soccer
The U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team in action

What is amazing is that the players are not allowed to play with prosthetic limbs, so Westover tries to prevent opponents from scoring using only his one good arm. Field players are not allowed to advance the ball with their crutch or the bad leg, and goalkeepers cannot use their bad arm.

Instead of their daily prostheses, these athletes depend on crutches on the field. “We use forearm crutches, which are mostly like the ones used by injured athletes and regular patients. But they endure a tremendous amount of stress, and we’ve even had situations where a crutch has snapped. Companies are looking into composite materials to design crutches for increased durability and enhanced performance. Some players will pay up to $1000 for them.”

It makes sense, then, that among the major injuries that these players suffer are overuse shoulder injuries, since they are essentially using their arms as weight-bearing limbs. But they suffer acute injuries just like regular soccer players. “Surprisingly there’s a ton of contact. You are allowed to slide tackle, although we focus more on getting in proper position,” Westover noted.

Other differences from regular soccer include a smaller field (80 by 40 yards) and a smaller goal (15 by 6 feet). There are no offside penalties, and instead of throw-ins, there are kick-ins. And while domestic matches can involve 4 or 5 players per side, international rules stipulate that matches are 7 on 7.

The U.S. team hopes to play in the World Cup later this year, to be held in Russia. Details for the tournament are still being clarified, but the most likely scenario involves a 12-nation tournament. The World Amputee Football Federation has not determined the mechanism for selecting the 12 nations, so the U.S. team is trying to play as many friendly matches against other national teams to enhance their resume.

One of those friendlies will be played Saturday. On April 14, the U.S. team travels to Mazatlan to take on the newly formed Mexican national team in that team’s first official match. Playing in a converted professional baseball stadium to utilize natural grass, the Americans will face not only determined opponents, but also a sold-out stadium of over 5000 fans, all of whom will be cheering for the Mexican side.

The U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team also plans to host a clinic in Charleston on July 14, which will be open to all participants. They will then play an exhibition at the halftime of that night’s Charleston Battery match, and Westover hopes that they will compete against an able-bodied team. “We’ve played able-bodied teams many times. They often take us lightly until we take the lead. We’re just as rough and tumble and just as aggressive,” Westover says.

Regardless of outcome, he notes that their opponents, and soccer fans in general, usually gain respect and inspiration from the amputee players. “People are surprised because they don’t know how amputee soccer will be. We usually blow their preconceived notions away. It’s just like regular soccer, and that’s how we play it. The guys were athletes before we lost our limbs, and we’re still athletes now.”

If you have any doubts, watch them play and let them inspire you.

Note: A modified version of this post appears in my sports medicine column in the April 12, 2012 issue of The Post and Courier.