August 23, 2005

Dangerous and Deadly

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“I’ve been waiting for something like this that would show true life … not the ‘woe is me’ gimp movie, like ‘oh, nice to see you picked up a toothbrush today, it’s nice that you pushed yourself out of the house,’ but a real fucking story.”

A hard-hitting documentary about a sport with the same name, Murderball chronicles the trials and travails of a group of world-class athletes whom the rest of society would attempt to classify as anything but. The latest effort from directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro introduces audiences to Murderball, or quad rugby, which combines soccer with dangerous collisions as athletes use custom wheelchairs to navigate around a court and each other. Set against the backdrop of the Paralympics, the ultimate goal of most Murderball teams, the movie focuses on Team USA, which has dominated the sport of years. Trouble brews when Joe Soares, a gold medalist in 1996, is cut from Team USA and instead becomes the coach of Team Canada. Soares trains his new team with one goal in mind: to beat Team USA at the 2004 Athens games. What follows is an exciting, harrowing combination of drama and action as only real life can provide. Daze writer Dara Gordon recently had a chance to speak to Mark Zupan, one of the stars of Murderball …

Dara Gordon: Okay, I know you’ve done a million interviews, so I’ll try to keep this fresh. Mark Zupan: Perrrfect.

DG: What was it like having cameras trail you around all the time? Did you feel that you were ever playing to the camera? Or did you just completely–

MZ: Didn’t even realize the cameras were there. The first time they were filming it was like, “Oh yeah, there are cameras over there.” But what the directors said, which was kinda cool is that “no matter whether the camera was on or off, I was the same person.”

DG: Do you think that was because of you or because that was the environment the directors created?

MZ: Me, because I don’t really give a shit.

DG: Okay, well to go along with that, when your friends watched the film did they agree with how you were depicted?

MZ: Yup, I think they think it’s a great representation of just life. And of how all of us are. I mean, there’s a piece in there that one of my buddies says: “He’s been an asshole before the chair…”

DG: …and to blame it on the chair would be, “an utter hoax.”

MZ: Yeah, “It would be an utter hoax to think the wheelchair was the cause of his grumpiness.”

DG: That’s a great line. What’s the response been like from other people in wheelchairs?

MZ: Awesome. It’s awesome. My coach was hurt maybe 20 years ago or so, or something like that and he said, “I’ve been waiting for something like this that would show true life … not the ‘woe is me’ gimp movie, like ‘oh, nice to see you picked up a toothbrush today, it’s nice that you pushed yourself out of the house,’ but a real fucking story.”

DG: I guess the directors didn’t really play up the sympathy card.

MZ: They didn’t want to. Because there is no real sympathy card. Our life is normal.

DG: I just wanted to ask if there’s a pressure to come off a certain way on behalf of quadriplegics everywhere? Do you feel that you’re being labeled as their posterboy?

MZ: Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that. But I’m still exactly the same person I was four months ago. You’re going to get exactly what you would have gotten then. I’ll tell it how it is. People may not like it, but tough shit.

DG: About the actual accident — you said that you were holding onto a branch for about 13 hours before you were rescued — did you ever let yourself think of letting go?

MZ: No clue. Your body phases shit out like that. I have no idea. I don’t remember any of it.

DG: What was the first thing you remember?

MZ: Well I remember two instances … I remember hitting the water and grabbing onto the branch and looking at my legs, which were on top of each other awkwardly. So I thought, this is weird, but I’ll just get up and go about my business. But I couldn’t move so I pretty much said, “fuck.” I knew I was screwed. And the next thing I remember was that it was raining, it was later, it was light outside and I felt raindrops hitting my forehead so I started yelling for help. I got enough repetition and I built enough strength that the “help” was loud enough and some guy heard me. And that’s all I know.

DG: Just a little bit about the actual sport of quad rugby … Is there a threat of getting reinjured?

MZ: No.

DG: Because I know that in the movie they made it a point that you don’t wear helmets.

MZ: You don’t want to be pigeonholed that, “okay, you’re in a wheelchair, you better wear helmets and kneepads” and all that stuff because that’s the whole stigma. That we’re fragile. I’m not fragile. Am I worried about getting injured? No. You can’t worry if you’re going to get injured, even if it’s breaking a finger or a rib. You think a wide receiver thinks about getting hurt when he goes across the middle? You can’t.

DG: So now you’re recruiting a new crop of players and showing them the sport.

MZ: It’s just a message of, “there’s other shit there.” Put your mind to it, you can do whatever it is you want.

Archived article by Dara Gordon
Sun Contributor