Athletes Power 'Murderball' Documentary

Article excerpt


Mark Zupan is one of the principal reasons why moviegoers who discover the documentary feature "Murderball" will come away with an altered perspective on physical disability.

Mr. Zupan, 30, a native of Cleveland, now resides in Austin, Texas, where he works as a civil engineer. He also suits up as a professional athlete and tries to score as often as possible as a striker for the Texas Stampede, the top-rated team in the United States Quad Rugby Association, whose regular season runs from October to April, encompassing about three dozen teams in several divisions.

"There are more teams in the South," Mr. Zupan observes during a conversation at the Fairmont Hotel. "Guys in wheelchairs do migrate to the South a lot because it's warmer. You don't have to deal with snow...."

Quad rugby seems to have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years. The game is played on basketball courts with a volleyball. Riding in customized, armored wheelchairs designed to absorb frequent collisions, players (four to a team) attempt to advance the ball downcourt to cross the opponent's goal line. The contest is divided into 8-minute quarters.

Mr. Zupan has emerged as the most dynamic embodiment of the sport since "Murderball" surfaced at the Sundance Film Festival in January. By the time of the New York and Los Angeles premieres last month, he had also become a slightly diabolical sex symbol on magazine covers, where his heavily muscled and tattooed torso vied with a lean and penetrating gaze for optimum aggressive-sardonic impact.

"Murderball," now at the Cinema Arts and the Landmark Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, traces two years of competition, in which members of the American national team play close-fought matches against a bitter rival, Team Canada. The movie recalls the injuries and recoveries experienced by key players, but although the bumper-car aspects of the sport are a photogenic sensation, far more footage is devoted to case histories and intimate, off-court human interest.

Mark Zupan was injured in a freak auto accident when he was an 18-year-old college freshman and varsity soccer player. He spent a long night clinging to life in a canal before he was discovered and rushed to a hospital. Classified as an incomplete quadriplegic, he cannot walk but retains a good deal of upper body strength and flexibility. In the sport, he qualifies for a 3.0 rating; players with minimal impairment are classified as 3.5. No squad can field players whose combined ratings exceed 8.0 at any given time.

Mr. Zupan believes the Washington area probably merits some additional missionary work in order to field a team of its own. He sensed plenty of potential during a visit to Walter Reed Hospital last year, before the movie was even available as an incentive. …