By KJ Doughton | March 4, 2006

The first body we see in Murderball belongs to tenacious, muscular Mark Zupan, spokesman for the United States’ 2004 Quad Rugby Team. A red goatee sprouts from his lower lip, and close-cropped muttonchops hide both cheeks. Checkerboard lines of Navy-blue ink tapering off into daggered points cover a buff shoulder. Another elaborate tattoo drapes his opposite ankle like a fancy stocking.

Ejected from the bed of a pickup truck years earlier, Zupan broke his neck, sustained paralysis in both legs, and suffered impairment in both arms. Pissing away any shred of theatrical pretension for his opening “Murderball” scene, Zupan does something basic that’s still quite fascinating to outsiders. He dresses himself. The athlete’s upper extremities might not function 100 percent, but he’s perfectly capable of donning shoes, black running pants, and a tank top.

The task goes smoothly, before Zupan’s fully-clad form zips away in his chair. That’s right. He can also wheel himself around like a seasoned chariot driver. “I think there’s a big misperception about quads not being able to do anything,” suggests Zupan during a telephone interview. “When people think of quads, they think of Christopher Reeve.”

After viewing “Murderball,” however, it’s unlikely that viewers will associate Zupan with the Man of Steel-come-disability activist. They might, however, think of Robocop. Or better yet, one of the speed-craving berserkers from “Death Race 2000.” Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, “Murderball” doesn’t rely on its brutal wheelchair rugby footage for effect – it’s much more than merely a spectator’s-eye chronicle of the sport. Even so, the games featured onscreen, beginning with the 2002 World Championship in Sweden and ending at the Paralympics in Athens, Greece, are something to behold. Huge heavy grade aluminum saucers the size of industrial pizza pans reinforce wheel hubs. Modified, high-strength chair frames support fast moving competitors as they grapple, defend, and attack each other on indoor courts.

Road Warrior-caliber modifications adorn these chairs, which don’t come cheap. Zupan states that most run from $1,800 to $3,000, and estimates that a chair used regularly in Quad Rugby competition lasts a maximum of three years. Meanwhile, the game of Quad Rugby (originating in Canada and known to purists by the tougher moniker Murderball) is welded together from pieces of more familiar sports like football, soccer, hockey, and basketball. Essentially, the game is played out in four eight-minute quarters. The goal is to push the ball across the court, over the opponent’s goal line and into the end zone, often by means of bullying brute force. When an athlete flips onto the hard, polished floors, or crashes backwards in his metal murder-mobile, it’s a moment guaranteed to make the watcher grip his armchair and wince.

Do these guys worry about re-injury? Not a chance. Quad rugby players don’t even wear helmets. “There’s no difference between us playing rugby and a kid competing in some sport years after breaking a bone,” suggests Zupan. “Say you break your hand as a kid. Will you spend life worrying about breaking it again, after it’s healed?”

Murderball athletes, the film makes clear, are as different as the stickers and paint jobs decorating their battered chairs. However, most are linked by a distinctive bond. They’ve broken their necks. They’ve had more rods, plates, and screws attached to vertebrae than a Terminator cyborg. Vertical scars brand the backs of each athlete’s neck. But we also see how much these players are still able to do. “I didn’t want it to look like it’s a struggle to live our lives,” says quad athlete Andy Cohn of the film. “My life is not a struggle.”

Rubin and Shapiro explain how players’ injuries – by brawl, fall, disease, or driving collision – translate into differing degrees of disability. Animated anatomical illustrations break down how a higher neck injury results in less mobility of shoulders, arms and hands. Depending on their impairment, players are assigned rankings from .5 to 3.5. Teams cannot exceed eight points on the court at any one time. Using a pulse-pounding, heavy rock backbeat, fast-motion photography, and tense, Spike Lee-styled zooms, the directors turn all of this complex information into a gripping tutorial. Remember how Martin Scorsese provided the entire mob history and hierarchy in “Goodfellas” with one whirlwind, roller-coaster narration? “Murderball” hits the same breakneck stride. In fact, breakneck couldn’t be more apt, considering its subject matter.

While players must conform to the game’s general rulebook, they can use modified equipment and inventive compensatory tactics to enhance their on-court performances. “The biggest thing is the gloves,” explains Cohn. “Some people will apply glue to the gloves to make them sticky. Some people sew rubber onto the gloves for a better grip. Players can also strap themselves into the chairs using snowboard binders, so if they go down, they stay in the chair.”

Such game-playing details are fascinating. But they don’t hold a candle to the deftly-juggled stew of human stories making up the sturdy spine of “Murderball.” Alongside Zupan, there’s the equally intriguing tale of Joe Soares. Sharing the rocky, stocky build of Michael Rooker or Woody Harrelson, Soares is all chest and forehead. Were Michael Chiklis unavailable to play the Thing for this summer’s upcoming “Fantastic Four,” Soares’ beefy, Alpha Male look would make him a shoe-in for the role. He’s also got the temper of Bobby Knight. Watching this loud-lunged, middle-aged coach screech and scream at players from the sidelines of the 2002 World Championship in Sweden, Robert Duvall’s surf-loving, order-barking Sgt. from “Apocalypse Now” comes to mind.

There’s something askew, however. Once thought of as America’s greatest quad rugby player, Soares is introduced in “Murderball” coaching rival Canadians, not the USA. Why? After years of all-star play, an aging Soares was cut from the 2000 USA team. Enraged by the snub, he traveled north and took on coaching duties for the Canuck squad once considered his arch-rival. Understandably, his ex-teammates were aghast. At one point, he’s referred to as Benedict Arnold. Later, he’s confronted by an American team member who snarls, “How does it feel to betray your country?” The perceived disloyalty stings deeper after Canada wins the championship game during final seconds.

Later in the film, fate intervenes to spin Soares’ future into an unexpected direction. Following a severe, life-threatening heart attack, Soares undergoes a dramatic transformation. His sisters insist that following his recovery, the once-volatile man is “a new Joe, touched by God.” While his uncompromising, competitive spirit is still intact, Soares appears different. He’s calm. He’s collected. He smiles more often. Most impressively of all, he’s a more sensitive advocate for his intellectually gifted son. Do these examples of self-actualization impress long-time nemesis Zupan? Not at all. “The rivalry seen in the movie is real,” Zupan confirms of his rocky relationship with Soares. “I don’t care much for the man.”

One person Zupan cares for a great deal is Chris Igoe, high school friend and drunken driver of the truck that threw the promising young athlete into a roadside ravine – and, consequently, into a wheelchair. Emerging from the wreckage unharmed, Igoe refuses to attend a ten-year high school reunion, perhaps because of what many feel is the ongoing burden of guilt. A mutual friend summarizes it best in the film, stating, “People would be looking at Chris and Mark going, ‘There’s Mark and there’s the guy who put him in the wheelchair.”

“Murderball,” however, became a catalyst for healing. By film’s end, we observe Igoe cheering on his friend in Athens. Since filming concluded, Zupan has maintained regular contact with Igoe. “Chris was reluctant to do the film,” confirms Zupan. “He was concerned that it would make him out to be a villain. My friends and I convinced him to do it. The film has brought us closer.”

Amazingly, “Murderball” unveils a half-dozen additional stories, including the startling rebound of 33 year old Bob Lujano. Afflicted with a deadly blood disease at age nine, Lujano recalls a priest being brought to his bedside to perform last rites. Soon afterward, the youth woke up in a hospital minus his legs and hands. Employed and independent with his self-care needs, Lujano comes across as a sweet, agreeable sort, and he’s featured in the movie’s two most resonant, emotional moments. In one scene, he’s approached by a wide-eyed, tow-headed child at a Camp Fire Q & A. “I’d like to ask you some questions,” the boy asks tentatively, whipping out a pen and notepad. “How do you eat a pizza with your elbows?” With a natural, unforced gentleness, Lujano grabs the boy’s paperwork with his stumps, and exclaims, “I just pick it up like this!” The kid glows, sporting a heart-melting, ear-to-ear grin, any fear or uncertainty dissolving into understanding.

Another magic, transcendent moment in “Murderball” shows Lujano experiencing a recurring dream, in which he’s flying among the clouds, all four limbs intact. While this heroically adaptable man describes his lucid dream-journey as “a liberating feeling that I don’t want to end,” animated drawings of a soaring Lujano fill the screen. It’s a mysterious, devastating foray into the subconscious thoughts of a man who, despite having achieved astounding success in life under seemingly insurmountable losses, still thinks of an existence without disability. Does he lament his loss? Of course. Is he angry at his plight? Not in any obvious way. In fact, when Zupan proclaims that he’s done more since being in his chair than he ever did out of a chair, we sense that his teammates concur. Even so, the human mind is a complex, unexplainable web, and Lujano’s dreams suggest that an ongoing self-therapy is taking place between the cerebral hemispheres of these physically damaged men, allowing them to cope.

“Murderball” illustrates that humor is another potent coping mechanism. Scott Hogsett’s quadriplegia resulted from a brawl-induced fall from an apartment balcony. “As soon as I hit,” he recalls, “my knees touched my ears, with my legs extended straight out behind me. I felt numb from my toes to my jaw.” Nonetheless, he’s anything but sullen. Depicted as a virile ladies’ man, Hogsett’s candid reflections on quad sex make for effective, side-splitting comic relief. In “Murderball”’s funniest moment, he explains to a red-faced female reporter that while he awakened from a coma following his accident, a nurse noticed that he’d popped a “woody.” Thrilled with this promising sign of recovery, she pulled his mother into the room to observe his erection. On regaining his ability to m********e, Hogsett is equally blunt. “I’d rather be able to grab my meat than grab a toothbrush,” he remarks in the film.

Of adaptive equipment, Hogsett speaks with equally earthy flair. “Any time someone creates something new,” he declares, “it seems like you see people trying it out. For instance, there’s the sticky glove. It provides more traction. It’s easier to push on a defensive chair. You can push harder on the wheelchair rims, and can hold onto an offensive player. You become sticky, like a bad booger that someone can’t get rid of.”

On court, adaptive gadgets like the “booger gloves” serve their purpose, but for the nuts and bolts of daily living, Hogsett’s motto is, “The less the better.” Currently, he uses a coat-hanger to thread shirt buttons and zip pants, and might occasionally reach for a hockey stick to access out of-the-way items. But he tries to minimize reliance on these helpful gizmos, because “if I don’t have it, or can’t get to it, I’m screwed.”

As for his lady-killer reputation, Hogsett is no longer a bachelor. “I just got married,” he boasts. In fact, this new soul-mate has accompanied him on the road to film festivals during “Murderball” promotion. “I attended my first film festival at New York’s Lincoln center,” the newlywed continues. “It was an exciting experience. The film received three standing ovations. Then, I announced that my wife was there, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation!”

Standing ovations, it seems, are becoming a routine crowd reaction to “Murderball.” Zupan recalls that following the film’s April screening at Chicago’s 2005 Roger Ebert Film Festival, the hosting film critic told him “it received the longest standing ovation he’d ever seen” at the event.

Beyond all the paparazzi and fanfare, however, there’s a serious side to “Murderball.” Cohn is frustrated that despite its status as the world’s second largest sporting event (eclipsed only by the Olympic Games), there was no American camera crew in attendance at the 2004 Paralympics. “It’s sad” he sighs. “Nearly every country there covers it, but the only American camera I saw belonged to our movie crew.”

In the film’s most notorious moment, a quad rugby athlete expresses his discontent at being confused with “a f*****g retard” after a relative congratulates him on participating in the Special Olympics. “We’re not ripping on the mentally disabled,” Cohn clarifies. “We’re more angry that society doesn’t know the difference (between the Paralympics and the Special Olympics).”

While the film’s un-PC comments, off-color gutter talk, and frank sexual conversations are sure to rattle some, “Murderball”’s refusal to paint its subjects with safe, black and white strokes is what makes the documentary so memorable. Zupan might be an a*****e when he’s heckling opponents in the lobby of a five-star hotel, but he’s also the kindest, most receptive speaker in the world during appearances at rehab centers and youth events. And in Seattle, where he’s promoting “Murderball” at the Seattle International Film Festival, he asks where to find a good record store. “I’m looking for old-school stuff,” he specifies. “Early grunge.”

Ultimately, Zupan and his peers just want to be accepted as human beings. And if it boiled down to one thing, how does he hope “Murderball” will change the public’s perception of quad athletes? “I want to show that I’m no different than you,” he confirms in a firm, assertive tone. “How am I different? I’m just sitting down. People are sometimes scared of that. But f**k, I’m the same.”

Then, a chuckle emanates over the phone. “The only thing different,” he laughs, “is that I’m in a chair. I live in a sea of a***s.”

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