The people making a difference: the powerchair football coach leading his team to victory

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Chris Hammans’ son Lewis was football-mad. He got it from his father. The two were close. “He was my best mate,” says Hammans, a 52-year-old pharmaceutical production manager from Haywards Heath.

Lewis was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes muscles to weaken over time, at the age of four. “He didn’t have the mobility other children in his nursery had,” says Hammans.

Both supported Brighton & Hove Albion FC – Hammans took Lewis to games from an early age. In 2008, Hammans spotted an advert for powerchair football, run by Albion in the Community, the club’s official charity. They attended an introductory session and for Lewis, it was love at first sight.

Powerchair football is played in teams of four, and games are 40 minutes long. All use modified electric wheelchairs, with bumpers on the front that players use to punt the football around the pitch. Initially, the games were recreational, but “a core of players wanted to take it a bit further”, says Hammans, and so Brighton & Hove Albion Powerchair FC was born.

I genuinely love the game – it’s a great sport. And I think Lewis would have wanted me to carry on

Chris Hammans

Any serious team needs a coach, and Hammans was the obvious choice. “I was the only carer who had a keen interest in football,” he says. The team entered the national championship in 2011, and under Hammans they worked their way into the Premiership, and were invited to compete in the Champions League in Denmark in 2016. “We did lots of video analysis,” says Hammans, “and modelled our game on the best teams’ play.”

From 2011 to 2019, Hammans and the team would travel regularly to Nottingham Trent University, to compete in the Powerchair League. The team would stay in a hotel and eat together on the Friday and Saturday nights, then Lewis and Hammans would drive home on Sunday, dissecting the game all the way back. “It was about the social side,” says Hammans. “Carers and players got on really well.”

But it was also about the game. Lewis could be a hothead. “When he was getting too fiery I’d have to substitute him,” Hammans laughs. “That was not popular with him. He didn’t get special treatment from me, that’s for sure.”

Chris Hammans with his special water filter hose
Chris Hammans with his special water filter hose. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Lewis played powerchair football until he died in October 2019. He suffered seven heart attacks over one weekend. Doctors revived him each time and admitted him to intensive care. It was during the football season. “He said,” remembers Hammans, “‘We need to play next Saturday. I don’t mind sitting on the bench. But we have to get to Nottingham.’ I said, ‘We aren’t going anywhere, Lewis’.”

Lewis died the following Tuesday. He was 20 years old. “It was very unexpected,” says Hammans. “I thought he’d have another 10 years. And you always have your fingers crossed that they might find something – that glimmer of hope.”

The team didn’t play again until February 2020. “That first game without Lewis was tough,’’ says Hammans. “My wife came to Nottingham with me, for support.” Why go on coaching the team after his son’s death? “I genuinely love the game,” he says. “It’s a great sport. And I think Lewis would have wanted me to carry on.”

Related: The people making a difference: the woman who created a community for fellow adoptees

Lee Finch, the team mechanic and father of Seb, one of the club’s original players, says: “Chris is an incredible man who, despite the most unthinkable personal loss, has held the powerchair team together with sheer grit and perseverance. He’s one of a kind and deserves all the praise and plaudits.”

But sometimes it can be painful. “Driving home is hard, especially when we’ve had a good weekend,” says Hammans. “Because Lewis was always buzzing. He would chat all the way home about how he scored this goal and did that. So that is hard. But I still look forward to the weekends. Get up there on Friday, go out, have a good time. It’s fun. And what else would I be doing, apart from washing the car?”

And it’s this car that Hammans thinks of when asked what he’d like for his treat. It has a special connection to Lewis: Hammans bought his Audi A3 with money from an insurance claim, after the family was involved in an accident years earlier. The money was earmarked for Lewis, but he died before the claim was settled. “My wife said, ‘Lewis would want you to have a car,’” says Hammans.

Every weekend, Hammans washes the car, and had been longing for a special crystal water filter, to provide deionised water that dries without leaving water marks. Team Guardian Angel is happy to oblige, and Hammans calls me, thrilled, the day his filter and hose arrives. “The car is my pride and joy,” he admits, slightly guiltily. And now, courtesy of some ultra-pure water, his baby will shine.

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at guardian.angel@theguardian.com