Off the field, Mark Zupan still carries the ball

Published July 28, 2005

Mark Zupan is what he is: a world class athlete with a rock star personality. He's not very different from other jocks, actors and musicians also appearing in Reebok's "I Am What I Am" ad campaign.

What sets Zupan apart is the wheelchair, his most reliable source of mobility since a spinal cord injury paralyzed him nearly 12 years ago. The chair is also his tennis racket, his electric guitar: the primary tool he uses playing wheelchair rugby to show the world who he is and, by example, who we all can be.

Zupan, 30, shows who he is in the superb documentary Murderball, opening Friday at select theaters nationwide. The subject is wheelchair rugby, but the themes explored in Murderball - loyalty, perseverance, independence - resonate with anyone who has a heartbeat. Zupan is the hub around which everything spins.

Seven months ago, Zupan was a civil engineer in Austin, Texas, with an interesting sideline as an award-winning wheelchair athlete playing quad rugby for Team USA in the 2004 Paralympics. The team's drive to a bronze medal in Athens, Greece, is central to the film's story.

Seven months ago, Murderball debuted to almost unanimous acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won two prizes. Zupan became the face of quad rugby, especially when MTV Films signed on as a distributor. His irreverent, occasionally profane attitude, his tattoos and grunge rocker beard, make him a perfect fit for the MTV audience. A blog at www.mtv.com and guest appearances on numerous television shows promoting the movie made Zupan - dare we say it - a celebrity.

"I keep hearing that "celebrity' thing, and I don't know what it means," said Zupan during a recent telephone call from New York, where the Today show and Live With Regis & Kelly were only part of his schedule. "I mean, it's cool. But the best part is being able to tell people to go see the film."

Sometimes that includes interviewers who should have paid more attention to Murderball.

"It's just the ignorance of some people," he said. "I got one question: So, do you guys do the game in electric wheelchairs or something like that?' It's like, (expletive), have you seen anything in the movie? What did you decide to go watch?

"One guy says (on the phone): "I just saw a movie and you were in it.' Oh, really? What was it about? "Two guys hike to the top of Mount Everest.' I'm, like, whoa, you've got the wrong guy. Open your (expletive) eyes.

"Or else, they're trying to get me to say (stuff) they want to hear, like the answers I'm giving are made up, like I have a script and (stuff). I'm, like, dude.

"I think some reporters can tell I'm starting to get hostile because, it's, like, (expletive), listen to me. I'm not making this (stuff) up. I'm not saying, oh, what will look best in print? (Stuff) like that gets to me."

Zupan doesn't suffer anything quietly. Just watch his relationship with former teammate Joe Soares, a Tampa resident, in Murderball. There's nothing dainty about their exchanges, filled with intimidating taunts. Soares didn't make the Team USA roster in 2004 and went north of the border to coach Team Canada. "Benedict Arnold" is one of the kinder terms used by Zupan and his teammates to describe Soares. The animosity runs throughout Murderball.

As fate and publicity would have it, Zupan and Soares often find themselves paired for interviews and public appearances. Not much has changed since Athens.

"No," Zupan said flatly, when asked if the rift has healed. "We were in L.A. for the premiere, doing an L.A. Times article. (Soares) says: "I don't carry grudges anymore.'

"I'm, like, dude, I don't carry grudges; I just don't like you."

I told Zupan that I'd be speaking with Soares, and wondered if any messages could be passed along.

"He knows," said Zupan. "You don't need to stir up more (stuff). He's not a big worry in my life."

Contacted at his Tampa home, Soares confirmed that he and Zupan still aren't pals.

"I called him up when he got the deal from Reebok to congratulate him, and he never called back," said Soares. "Let's put it this way: We know we have to coexist, and we do it. If you hear all the interviews, he's still laying out the smack talk. That's his prerogative. But I refuse to bad-mouth him."

Zupan isn't entirely inflexible with people. One of Murderball's most affecting passages is his solid reunion (after years of off-and-on contact) with Christopher Igoe, the friend whose driving caused the South Florida accident that made Zupan a quadriplegic.

"I forgave him the instant he came into the hospital (after the accident)," said Zupan, who played soccer for Florida Atlantic University at the time. "But the film brought us a heck of a lot closer. It's not like we were totally estranged at that point; we had been at other times. But we were never this close. The movie definitely brought us together as close as we are today."

Murderball also brings able-bodied viewers closer to the lives of quadriplegics, who are too often pitied and avoided. These rugby players are a rowdy bunch, not shy about using their physical conditions as seduction tools and practical jokes.

"It's going to pretty much shock you and show you things you're not expecting," said Zupan. "For able-bodied people, it just shows them, look, don't treat people in chairs any different. It's not like we have leprosy or something where you're going to die if you talk to us. It breaks down every misconception that people have, answering questions that you won't ask."

Sometimes, Zupan's answers can make listeners gasp, but it's his way of making everyone comfortable with the life he's managing so well. Like when I asked if the Reebok deal included any extra perks.

"No, it's just a one-time print deal," he said. "I don't get free shoes for life or anything.

"And what's free shoes for life, like, two pairs?"

That's who Mark Zupan is.