You’ve never seen a movie like Murderball. It’s a documentary about wheelchair rugby and the maniacs who play it. Decked out in chairs that would look at home beyond Thunderdome, they careen around basketball courts smashing into each other in a fast paced and exciting game unlike anything able bodied people play.
Mark Zupan plays for the Texas Stampeded and is one of the stars of the US Paralympic Quadriplegic Rugby team. Injured in an accident that left him hanging onto a branch in a ditch for 14 hours, Zupan fought back to become an accomplished athlete and badass guy.
I had a chance to sit down with Zupan recently and find out more about the film and quad rugby, as well as what life in the chair is like. For more background on the rules of quad rugby, check out my interview with Zupan’s nemesis, Joe Soares, right here (seriously – Joe explains some stuff that comes up here).
Murderball opens this Friday. It’s a really gripping documentary that isn’t some kind of sappy feel bad for the cripples film – it’s rousing and funny and profane.
Q: When were you first approached about the film?
Zupan: 2002. [Co-director] Dana [Shapiro] was doing an article for Maxim, so he read an article that was done in the Phoenix New Times. He was looking for something that was non-fiction and something different. He read an article that was talking about quadriplegic rugby, and thought “What the hell’s quadriplegic rugby, I thought every quadriplegic is Christopher Reeve.” Biggest misconception to date. I get in arguments left and right. This morning, talking to radio I was told, “You’re not a quadriplegic.” How the hell do you know what I am and what I am not?
So he started approaching people who were on the US team and we started talking. He said, “I’m going to write an article for Maxim, I’m coming over to Sweden.” He and Jeff Mandell, they co-produced it. They always wanted to make the film, they just didn’t know how to. That’s where Henry Alex Rubin came in. He shot second unit on Copland, Girl Interrupted, he’s done a couple of documentaries himself. He was brought in and I believe they brought two cameras to Sweden and started shooting. They didn’t know if the subject matter was enough for a film, but they found out we were interesting.
Q: What did you think when you first heard they wanted to do a film about you?
Zupan: It was cool. I mean, we’ve heard it before. People have said they were going to make a film and it usually doesn’t get done. As time went by you saw how passionate these guys were. They were doing it on their own dime, own credit cards and grants and what have you.
Once they became my friends it got a lot easier. You forgot the cameras were there. You just had no idea. It just assimilated – OK, Henry is here, who cares? But I think that was all in the trust they gained. If nothing else comes from this movie I have made two really, really good friends. When I come to New York I can stay whenever. That’s cool. The majority of the time I’ve been in New York I will stay at Dana’s house. He and his girlfriend. Gina will set up the bed. So it turned out to be really cool.
Q: Has wheelchair rugby made you lots of friends like that?
Zupan: Definitely. I’ve met so many people through rugby, through the chair, who I wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to meet before. I can pick up the phone in New Zealand and call people. “Oh yeah, you’re in town, alright. Come over, we’ll get dinner, you’ve got a place to stay.” That’s how your friends are. It’s definitely afforded me many opportunities.
Q: What did your family think about you playing rugby?
Zupan: They dig it. My brother thinks it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. It’s a true fit. It fits me. The competitive aspect, the drive, the contact. I played college soccer, high school football, it’s a real fit.
My mom at first was like, “That’s cool, just be careful.” That’s what’s so cool about my parents. I wouldn’t be in this situation if I didn’t have the support from them.
Q: When did you see your first quad rugby game?
Zupan: I’m trying to think… The first time I was exposed to it was a month after I got hurt. My rec therapist said, “We’re going to do something a little different.” We’d go sailing, we’d do other recreational things, but this time he wanted to play rugby.
Rugby? This could be kind of cool. How does it work? Hit somebody as hard as you can as much as you can, whenever you want? I think I might dig this.
But the first real game I was fortunate enough to play in was probably 96, when I moved to Atlanta. I had another therapist, her boyfriend at the time used to play. I got to play my first game, I was in a chair that belonged to one of my buddies, hit my head four, five or six times. I came back to school and asked my buddy the same question like 13 times. He was like, “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I probably had a slight concussion or something. I fell in love with it after that.
Q: Would you say that wheelchair rugby is any more dangerous than playing soccer? Soccer players don’t wear helmets, but some people have said maybe quad rugby players should.
Zupan: Why would I need to wear a helmet? I guess the big thing is that people think that if you’re in a chair you’re fragile. “Oh, you don’t want to get hurt!” If I walk across a street, I might get hit by a bus. Am I going to sit there in a plastic bubble? Do people who play wheelchair basketball wear helmets? No. What’s the difference? Just because it’s full contact? They fall down more than we do.
I guess that falls into a misconception – that guys in chairs are not durable. Guess what, my neck now is probably stronger than before the injury. Instead of a disc between the two bones I have a fused C6/C7.
Just don’t lead with your head and you’ll be fine.
Q: We were talking to Joe about the classifications. What are you classified as?
Zupan: A 3. He told you that it’s increments of .5, blah blah blah. I’m a 3 because I’ve got a shitty hand and a decent hand.
Q: So if both hands were decent you would be 3.5
Zupan: If both hands were good I probably couldn’t play, because I have some trunk muscles. If you look at Joe’s hands, Joe’s hands are pretty fucking good. We won’t get into that, though.
Q: How is your relationship with Joe?
Zupan: It’s not like he and I are going out for dinner and drinks. We don’t talk on the phone, he’s not coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s been like that ever since I started playing. He’s not somebody I would hang out with. We’re cordial – why be an ass? He knows I don’t like him. Everyone knows I don’t like him! I think that’s pretty evident. No holds barred here.
Q: Will you guys ever face off on the field again?
Zupan: Is he going to play again? I’m not too worried about it. I played him last year and I was like, “Joe, what are you trying to do?” I would look over and he would be pushing next to me and I was like, “And your point? I’m still going to make you look dumb.”
Q: He mentioned you had a Reebok sponsorship?
Zupan: I don’t have a Reebok sponsorship. I’m doing a print ad, an I Am What I Am print ad. He’s just a little misinformed. It’s a one time deal, it was cool. It was fun, don’t get me wrong. This exposure is going to be good for the sport, it’s going to be good for wheelchair sports, it’s going to be good for people in chairs. It says, “Look here it is, this is part of me, I’m no different than anybody else. Take it, leave it, fuck off.”
Q: What is the future of the sport? Will wheelchair rugby be on ESPN? It’s much more kick ass than cheerleading, and they show that.
Zupan: ESPN just did a thing called Timeless, last Saturday, which featured my Texas Stampede team. If we can get this in the X-Games, I think it’s a good fit.
I think the exposure this film is going to give to the sport and to disability sport will change how people will view it. It wasn’t on TV in 2004 because the networks were scared. “Why do we want to watch a bunch of people in wheelchairs do this?” Hey, I think it’s pretty cool. I may be a little biased, but the people who see the film want to see more of the sport.
HBO Real Sports did a thing. I think people are starting to get it, and people are having the balls to take a risk on people in chairs. Not that there’s a risk.
Q: So you have to battle a lot of misconceptions.
Zupan: Every day. It happened today. I went to the gym this morning and I dropped a glove. A lady comes over and says, “Oh let me get that for you!” If I can’t pick a glove off the floor what the hell am I doing in a gym? I mean, come on! I was like, “No, I think I can take care of that one, but I appreciate it though.” They just don’t know.
Q: But if you do need help –
Zupan: If I need help I’m going to ask for help, which isn’t going to be very often. But if I can’t get up a curb, I’ll say, “Hey, can you help me up this curb?” But yeah, that’s the thing. Guys in chairs will usually ask for help, so if somebody just comes up and starts pushing, get the fuck away from me. It drives me up a wall. If you’re doing it to be nice to a lady, you get the door – that’s fine, that’s cordial, that’s polite. But don’t just come up and start pushing me if I don’t need it. If I need it I will ask for help. People don’t understand that. But once they do… You’ll get a reaction. “No, leave me alone! I don’t need the help!” “Whoa, whoa, that was kind of rude.” “Well, did I ask you to push me? No. I don’t come up to you and just start…” But that’s life, what can you do? Voice what you need to voice and go about your day.
Q: Can you talk about the recruiting process? What’s the response usually like?
Zupan: Kind of like Keith’s. We’re kind of like ambulance chasers – “Alright, new gimp in room 2!” You go and start recruiting right away. If you can get people hooked, I think you can change their life.
Keith’s response was exactly like my response. “Whoa, this is pretty cool!” You can hit something and be totally safe with it? Cool. But it’s fun to see their reactions.
Q: Do you find that you get resistance from the families of new players?
Zupan: Not necessarily. Sometimes at first. My parents were cool just for the fact that I was doing stuff like this all along. But you’ll get some people’s parents like, “Well, Billy, you may not want to go hit and get hit.” But at the end of the game: “Go on, Billy! Hit him! Come on!” So it’s funny. You’re not really familiar with it at first, but once they get familiar and they understand that it’s competitive and it’s going to get rough, they dig it. It’s fun to see that transformation.
Q: If quadriplegics see this film and want to find out about rugby in their area, where can they go?
Zupan: www.quadrugby.com. It’s a website that has every contact in the country where the teams are. Rules, pictures, history. Full education there. That goes for Able Bodies. PTs, equipment guys, nurses, whatever. You get to travel and go to the Paralympics.