Rough as the game he plays

Proud, profane wheelchair athlete Mark Zupan has a message for Americans.

Published February 8, 2007

He is a movie star and an author, a public speaker and a civil engineer. He is a former collegiate soccer player, a current world-class rugby player, an alumnus of Georgia Tech University. Once, when he was bored, he strapped himself to a set of rockets and attempted to fly over a lake.

Yet, if the numbers are any indication, there is a good chance you have never heard of Mark Zupan. You have never watched his movie. And you most certainly have never seen him play his sport in person. Two years after the acclaimed documentary Murderball rocketed up critics' top-10 lists and propelled Zupan into the national spotlight, the 31-year-old quadriplegic rugby player finds himself in a peculiar position.

Though his 15 minutes of fame tick on - he is recognized in public, he tours the country giving speeches, he recently performed the aforementioned lake jump in the movie Jackass 2 - he also views himself as an example of the very societal limitations the movie attempted to destroy.

"People are scared of cripples," Zupan said last month as he wheeled through a community center in Temple Terrace, where his Austin, Texas-based club team was participating in a tournament.

"They stare at you like you have a disease. Like it's cancer or some (thing)."

You can tell a lot about a man by the way he uses his curse words, and Zupan uses them like swords. His four-letter adjectives and nouns accentuate his opinions in a biting manner. They are not empty. They serve a purpose. At their root is emotion, and at times it is difficult to tell whether it is bitterness or realism or some combination of the two.

In many ways, he is an embodiment of his sport. Quad rugby earned the moniker "Murderball" for a reason - it is equal parts basketball, lacrosse and bumper cars, with two teams of wheelchair athletes attempting to advance a volleyball across opposing end lines - and Zupan is a perfect poster boy.

He is raw and unbridled, burning with a passion that was only exacerbated in 1993 when, after a hard night of drinking, he was thrown from the back of a friend's pickup truck and spent the night clinging to a tree branch in a canal.

So when directors Henry Alex-Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro began chronicling quad rugby at the 2002 World Championships, the foul-mouthed yet profound star of Team USA was an obvious choice to frame the story around.

The film hit theaters in 2005 and immediately garnered praise for the way it smashed stereotypes surrounding the disabled, and Zupan was its living, breathing sledgehammer.

Can a quadriplegic drive? Live alone? Have sex?

(Yes, yes and, most definitely, yes).

"Nobody expected it to get as big as it did," Zupan said.

The movie was a critical smash, nominated for a Best Documentary Academy Award and the subject of lengthy profiles in newspapers across the country. Zupan was a regular on the talk-show circuit and continues to reap the benefits of his role in the movie.

Ask him about the experience and he is left searching for the proper word.

"Surreal, odd, strange," he says. "Pick an adjective and stick it in there."

Yet Zupan is convinced it could have been bigger. Though he spends time touring the country giving motivational speeches - and in October had a book (Gimp: When Life Deals You a Crappy Hand, You Can Fold - or You Can Play) published by Harper Collins - he also has a 40-hour-a-week job as a civil engineer in Austin, where he trains with his club rugby team.

Despite its critical acclaim, Murderball wasn't a box office hit, appearing on a fraction of the screens showing 2004's hit documentaries Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me.

When asked why, Zupan launches into his diatribe on Americans' fear of cripples.

"It's gotten better since the movie, but it has a long way to go," he said. "Now, would I want to be like this in the 1940s or '50s ... ?"

There is a curiosity factor when it comes to quad rugby and the athletes who play it.

When people first hear about the sport, they want to know the stories: about Zupan, who was injured in the car accident; about Scott Hogsett, who was injured when he was tossed off a deck and then beaten by a drunken friend into oblivion; or Dave Willsie, who broke his neck in a hockey game.

But strip away the obvious element of human drama that occurs whenever a group of guys in wheelchairs do anything together, and you find that at the heart of this seemingly absurd combination of lacrosse, rugby and bumper cars is pure, simple sport.

There are rivalries. There are strategies. There are even drug scandals (Allan Chartrand, a member of the Canadian team, was once suspended four years for testing positive for the same steroid Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson used at the 1988 Olympics).

Like basketball and hockey, different regions of the world feature different styles of play. The European game, Canadian head coach Benoit Labrecque said, features more passing. The American game is more individual.

Labrecque, who succeeded Tampa resident Joe Soares as coach of the Canadian national team, said he first encountered quad rugby at a rehab center in Quebec where he met his girlfriend.

"The first time I saw it," he said, "I was addicted."

But that doesn't mean you will find Labrecque, who is able-bodied, participating.

"It's too hard," he said, laughing.

Even, at times, for the sport's best.

- - -

On a Sunday afternoon in Temple Terrace, Zupan sits outside and huffily packs his equipment for the plane ride home. The championship game of the 15th annual Coloplast International Quad Rugby Tournament is being held inside, but Zupan's Texas team was relegated to a third-place finish.

Unlike members of the Canadian national team, who receive yearly stipends (between $40,000 and $45,000 a year, Labrecque estimates) and equipment (a quad rugby chair costs about $3,000), members of the American team, Zupan said, are mostly on their own. They are responsible for attracting sponsors, raising money and supporting themselves.

But for now, all of that is secondary. "We played like (crap)," Zupan says.

He wheels himself onto the bus' wheelchair lift and helps his teammates pack equipment.

For now, it is just the athlete and his sport. Which, every now and then, ends in defeat.

David Murphy can be reached at (352) 848-1407 or dmurphy@sptimes.com