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Zupan on Impact

'Murderball' and the making of a celebrity

By Shawn Badgley, Fri., July 22, 2005

Le Meridien Hotel in Beverly Hills, June 27
Le Meridien Hotel in Beverly Hills, June 27
Photo By Shawn Badgley

Mark Zupan feels he has no choice but to somehow force his member into Frank Deford's ear. Perhaps this compulsion will recede with time – no one knows better than Zupan that it heals all wounds – but for now, one of the world's greatest sportswriters had better watch (or listen?) out for one of the world's greatest rugby players. Even if one of the world's greatest rugby players is in a wheelchair, and even if he's currently slumped in a booth at a hotel bar in Los Angeles, sipping on something called a Wilderberry Martini, exhausted.

"The quote fucked it," Zupan tells some of the friends, filmmakers, and fellow subjects who have joined up with him here to promote the documentary Murderball. "'It's so good to see these kids, as handicapped as they are, doing what they do,' or whatever the fuck he said. It's like, okay, let me stick my dick in your ear then."

"That was my favorite line of the whole thing," says Alex Klenert, a publicist with ThinkFilm, Murderball's distributor. They are discussing an HBO Real Sports segment. "You're totally misquoting him. This is what he said: Bryant Gumbel said, 'Well, these guys don't really wanna be an inspiration, right?' And Frank Deford said, 'Yeah, they really don't want to be an inspiration, but it's hard not to be inspired by what they do.'"

"No, you're fucking wrong," Zupan snaps. "That's not the quote at all."

"Then what was the question? What was the quote?"

"I just fucking told you."

"Say it again."

Chris Igoe, the man who drove the pickup truck that 12 years ago threw Zupan out of its bed and into a Flordia canal with enough force to break his neck in two places, speaks up. "'I don't know if we should admire them' or whatever. Deford said, 'Well, they really should be because of their severe disabilities.'"

"No," Zupan shakes his head slowly. "Bullshit. He dropped the fuckin' –"

"I might not have the verbiage right," Igoe says.

"Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah," Klenert says. "I do remember him saying something like that."

Zupan is stubborn. This is the fourth time today he has brought up Deford's perceived slight – to the third different audience – and he's yielding little. "Bullshit. He said, 'I don't know if we should admire them for that, or as handicapped as they are that they do so well.' Something like that. He dropped the fuckin' H-bomb."

"He did," Igoe affirms. "Yeah. They totally marginalized –"

"He dropped the fuckin' H-bomb."

Igoe laughs. "Everything was beautiful, and at the end, 'Hey, they're doing pretty good for a bunch of retards.' Thanks for your pity. Thanks. He didn't use the word Murderball once. He used it once in the beginning, and that was it."

Henry Alex Rubin, the film's co-director and cinematographer, has just arrived from New York. He looks up from his drink and smiles. "Let's not dis on Frank Deford."

ThinkFilm President Jeff Sackman talks shop with his star in the lobby of the Crest Majestic theatre during <i>Murderball</i>'s L.A. premiere.
ThinkFilm President Jeff Sackman talks shop with his "star" in the lobby of the Crest Majestic theatre during Murderball's L.A. premiere.
Photo By Shawn Badgley

"Why not? He fucked it up."

"He wrote Everybody's All-American –"

"I don't give two fucks what he wrote."

" – which I've never read or seen."

"The movie's pretty good," Klenert offers.

"I don't give two fucks who he fucked," Zupan says. "He fucked up."

"'I don't give two fucks who he fucked'?" Igoe asks.

"I don't either," Rubin says. "I was pissed off, too. I'll tell you why I'm pissed off. They took our footage – this beautiful footage that I personally labored over and shot myself – and they blew it up and made it look like garbage. They blew it up. Everything was zoomed in. Made our movie look terrible."

The booth is quiet. Klenert addresses Zupan.

"You know what I was just thinking? I was listening to KROQ, and I wanna try to get you on Dr. Drew's show."

Zupan considers Klenert for less than a second. "The big thing that would make everyone's world just go fucking wee right now," he replies, "is if Mandel can pull the fucking Playboy Mansion."

Mandel is one of Murderball's producers, Jeff, a thirtysomething moonlighting lawyer, who a half-hour earlier retired to his room for some much-needed rest. No one needs rest as much as Zupan does. He has not been home for two weeks. He's an elite athlete averaging three hours of sleep a night. This one will be no different, as Rubin and Igoe will later coax him from a lobby restroom stall, where he will have sat in private however briefly and nodded off wondering what the hell is happening. "His thing," Rubin calls it. It's just after 1am on a Tuesday morning, and 18 hours from now, the film that is making him famous will hit Hollywood for the first time.


By the time that Roger Ebert screened it at his seventh annual Overlooked Film Festival in April, Murderball had played 17 other festivals. In fact, by the time of its world premiere, on January 21, Mark Zupan had already been stopped by fans at the Salt Lake City International Airport. In a Park City grocery store. On the street. Sundance had screened the film for its volunteers three days earlier, and, like every audience since, they were responding with tremendous affection, respect, and curiosity. They weren't alone. "I wish I could buy the world a ticket," wrote Steve Persall in the St. Petersburg Times.

"It is the only time I've ever been in a movie theatre," says commercial and music-video producer Brian Carmody of his first time seeing Murderball, "that I thought crowd-surfing might be a distinct possibility."

"This was new," Zupan will tell the critic Stephen Farber and his Reel Talk attendees at the Landmark Westside Pavilion Theatre in L.A. five months later. It's a Monday-night sneak preview and Q&A in advance of the Tuesday premiere. "This was my life, our lives, on the big screen. You wanna talk about strange? Weird? Wow. Yeah. They were like, 'We don't want to take up your time, but we love this.' It's like, no, take time. This is new. I want to hear this. This is new."

Zupan has heard more than he could have ever thought possible, and things are only getting newer. He has emerged as the critical darling and fan favorite's fresh, focused face, its unofficial spokesperson, which, as it turns out, complements his capacity as U.S. quad rugby's official one. He goes where the movie goes. Where he goes, the sport goes, and he's going everywhere. Sports Illustrated. ESPN. Entertainment Weekly. NPR. Total Request Live. An MTV.com blog. (MTV Films picked up the film earlier this year as a promotional partner; ThinkFilm selected it over ESPN, because, according to President and CEO Jeff Sackman, "it was skewing sports already. ... The main thing with MTV is that their audience is an audience that we can't typically reach. That's when you can actually have a big impact.")

Girlfriend Jess Wampler (l) and Zupan at the home they share in far North Austin
Girlfriend Jess Wampler (l) and Zupan at the home they share in far North Austin
Photo By Mary Sledd

Zupan has now chatted with Charlie Rose, become friends with Winona Ryder when she interviewed him for Interview, worn thousand-dollar jeans in The New York Times Magazine Style section, seen Regis and Kelly sit Live! in chairs instead of stools, and joined Lucy Liu, Allen Iverson, and John Leguizamo in a Reebok ad campaign. If you're reading this on its publication date, look for him on Leno tonight.

Jessica Kimiabakhsh, an mPRm publicist based on the West Coast – there are at least four of her profession shepherding the entourage around the city – probably said it best while discussing media "breaks" with Zupan after Reel Talk: "I have a big pile of you on my desk," she tells him.

More recently, during what was essentially a two-day layover at the far North Austin home he shares with his girlfiend, Jess Wampler, before another leg of the grueling press tour that would take him to Boston (again) and New York (again) – Zupan was checking his e-mail while packing. There were 1,383 messages – a few from Al Jourgensen (Ministry figures prominently in Murderball's soundtrack, alongside the likes of Sam Prekop, Ween, the Moldy Peaches, and original music by Jamie Saft); the actor Judy Greer (they met in L.A.; in case you're wondering, "she's cool as shit"); Steve-O (in June, Zupan and his cast- and U.S. teammates Andy Cohn and Scott Hogsett taped a Jackass special that included the liberal use of cattle prods); and one from his high school soccer coach (whose name Zupan at first fails to recognize) – "and they just keep coming."

Zupan keeps going. Wampler misses him, as does the Austin-based C Faulkner firm, where he works as a civil engineer. But they are all coping and coming to grips with this crazy little thing called celebrity. Later in the afternoon at Austin-Bergstrom, Wampler looks incredibly sad as she kisses his forehead; he almost falls asleep resting his head on the luggage in his lap; and a family – Gus, Aphra, and young Skye Delgado – asks him for an autograph. "I've been reading about the guy since Sundance," Gus says. "The movie looks awesome." Skye smiles. Says Aphra: "We saw him in Entertainment Weekly. We saw him over there, and I said, 'Is that him?' I just think it's so cool."

"It's lonely," laughs Wampler, a tall, pretty 28-year-old. The couple has been together for almost five years. "Lonely. I don't mind him being gone. My problem is when something happens, and I want his opinion and want to talk to him and I can't get his attention just for two seconds. That's the hard part. Even when I went to New York [for the June 22 premiere there], which was really my only trip with him, you know, he sent his publicist down to meet me in the lobby.

"He's just Mark to me, you know? He's just Mark. Not that he's not something special. He is very charming. But he's pretty charmed out by the time he comes home."

Zupan is charming. His grin is wide, and his blue eyes shine with it. As severe as he seems – the shaved head, the goatee, the tattoos, the centaurlike physical presence – he's also soft-spoken and sensitive, courteous, classy, and funny. He's a man of few words – "the biggest asshole on the phone that you will ever meet in your life," says Igoe, his best friend and makeshift manager – but he's articulate when he wants to be, and, above all, honest. He is quick to anger only when he feels misinterpreted or underestimated, irritable when you try to tell him something he already knows or ask him to tell you something you should.

I met Zupan for the first time in March at South by Southwest, when Murderball played the Paramount to a standing ovation. His parents were in from Connecticut, his coach was in from the Austin suburbs, and his co-workers and close friends came around, too. It was quite a night. A companion observed that several people appeared as if they could "hump the screen" in excitement. Afterward, two guys in their early 20s, whose excitement suggested that they very well might have, approached Zupan outside of La Zona Rosa.

"Just saw your movie, man. This is my buddy, David. I'm Sasha. I've been talking about the movie all night already. I don't want to come off the wrong way, but it inspired me to become paraplegic."

Zupan, of course, is quadriplegic – there are fundamental impairment differences between the two classifications, including, as it were, those involving sexual function (it's a favorable distinction for the majority of quads) – but he took Sasha in stride. Frank Deford's impending misery will love no company.

"I heard that at Sundance," he nodded. "People were like, dude, I wanna go slip on some fucking black ice and break my neck so I can play rugby. No, we appreciate it. I appreciate it. Just to get the word out and break down barriers."

David chimed in. "I would say that it would just, like, fuckin' inspire the fact that, whatever, people feel you're fuckin' soft, like, goddamnit, if you're just in normal relations with people, and if you're fuckin' nice to someone, they think they got something on you. Much less if you're in a fuckin' wheelchair."

"That's where it gets fun," Zupan said. "You go out, and people are like, 'Oh, yeah, you can't do that.' Then you kick their ass in pool, and they're like, 'My ass just got kicked by a guy in a wheelchair!' Yeah, you know what? Let's go to the gym. I'll probably out-lift you, too."

Talk turned to favorite bars, notable fights outside of said bars, and the relative inferiority of wheelchair basketball before David and Sasha wandered off to find drink tickets. One would have to employ high math to calculate the value of the word of mouth that lay ahead. Thankfully, it's not Zupan's job to figure that sort of thing out. Such encounters occur in every city he visits, and even engineers have their limits.

"I met Mark at Sundance," says ThinkFilm's Sackman. "I've seen him in Austin, I've seen him in Vegas, I've seen him in Toronto a couple of times. I've seen him in Los Angeles. So, you know, I've spent some time. [Co-director] Dana Adam Shapiro had talked at some Q&A about the perfect subject for a documentary film: a person who's no different when the camera's on than when the camera's off. I find hanging out with Mark delightful, because there's zero pretentiousness. There's none. I mean, he's got an awareness that there's something uniquely interesting about him. But what's inspiring about Mark is his normalcy. He's a 30-year-old guy who's kinda cool."

Still, the first glimpse for many – in the film's ads, in glossy three-page photo spreads, on the cover of the soundtrack CD – has been of what Sackman calls "this skinhead-looking guy that nobody knows," and there has been talk at ThinkFilm that perhaps Zupan is too imposing, too intimidatingly jock, to get arthouse audiences and multiplexers alike to the box office. Murderball's opening weekend in New York and L.A. grossed just under $60,000 on eight screens, which isn't bad by any means, but isn't exactly what Sackman had in mind. Or maybe Mandel, the producer, wasn't joking a week earlier when he worried that everyone had already seen the film on the festival circuit.

"We were a little disappointed, but I think one has to put it into context," Sackman says by phone from Toronto. "We set up expectations so high based on the feedback that we, who are in the middle of that feedback, are being bombarded with on a daily basis. ... We opened on too many screens, actually, in Manhattan, but it's fine. We predicted a long time ago that this film would do better in its fifth week than its first. What we recognize now is that there has to be some patience. This is a film that people have to discover."

On the court, Zupan is a blur of polished athleticism. Although he relies on strength more than speed, he is awfully fast. He's graceful and very good.
On the court, Zupan is a blur of polished athleticism. Although he relies on strength more than speed, he is awfully fast. He's graceful and very good.


Sackman heads the company that put out such films as Spellbound, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Primer, and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. He discovered Murderball in 2004 when a colleague showed him a three-minute promo reel assembled by Mandel, Rubin, and Shapiro. The trio needed finishing funds for the project they started in 2002, when Shapiro, at the time a senior editor at Spin, saw Susy Buchanan's Phoenix New Times piece on quad rugby and pitched Maxim on an article that would for all intents and purposes launch the film.

"We wanted to make a movie," he says, "and this was a way to facilitate the first shoot." Subsequent financiers, including Hugh Hefner's foundation, had gotten them this far on a budget in the "low six figures." Now, they were trying to get to Athens to capture what they hoped would be a climactic medal matchup between the U.S. and Canada in the Paralympics.

"We took a chance on those three minutes," Sackman says. "It's one of those rare cases that the filmmakers delivered more than they promised. It was an amazing experience. It was the first film that we ever financed. We normally buy finished films that we see at festivals or whatever. That's been the m.o.

"It's funny, 'cause people will go, 'Wow, you guys did a great job marketing the film,' but, in fact, all we can do, for the most part, is present the film. The media has to take to what's being presented. Somebody sent an e-mail yesterday: On Rotten Tomatoes, we have a 100-percent rating. I've never heard of that."

That's because it doesn't happen very often. Aside from Josh Rothkopf's cooler than lukewarm review in Time Out New York that compares it to candy (it has apparently yet to surface on RottenTomatoes.com) and various Internet Movie Database message-board diatribes that range from likening it to a hypothetical movie about midget-tossing to mocking the sport itself, Murderball is the most well-received film in the history of cinema. I'm only half-joking. But Rothkopf's take isn't entirely off-base: With its dizzying, artful camerawork (much of it done by the able-bodied Rubin from a wheelchair) and lovingly supervised soundtrack, its expertly rendered blend of intensity, sentimentality, spontaneity, and mundaneity – like sports, like life – it's almost too perfect. There is even a scene with veterans injured in the war in Iraq. But it's hard to fault a few guys who threaded together with editor Geoffrey Richman an effective documentary from their 400 hours of footage.

Arguably its most effective thread is that of Keith Cavill, the product of what Shapiro himself calls "a sort of creepy casting call" at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey. The 22-year-old, who had recently been injured in a Motocross accident, allowed the filmmakers to follow him as he adapted to the realities of quadriplegia. Eventually, he is introduced to wheelchair rugby, courtesy of – you guessed it – Zupan, and begins training toward it. During the New York City premiere festivities, he was presented with a competition-ready chair – enforced with metal work and protected by polycarbon, they weigh considerably more than an everyday one – after a woman on the East Coast donated $3,000 to his cause.

"Quad rugby was this great MacGuffin that got you into the room and created this structure and was very visual," explains Shapiro, noting that there is only about nine minutes of actual sports footage in the 86-minute finished product. "But, at the end of the day, you know, the story is hard to tell about what it's like to break your neck. All these guys, Scott, Andy, Mark, would talk about those first two years, but we weren't filming this movie 10 years ago."

Cavill, like many of the principals in Murderball, is photogenic, self-effacing, and bizarrely prepared to become an instant star. In L.A., he is treated like one, receiving as much female attention as his erstwhile mentor, Zupan, while mingling easily with the rapper Lil John's posse, which is in town for the BET Awards. Like Zupan and Igoe, he is approached as if he were an actor by people who have seen the film, while Shapiro, Rubin, and Mandel are asked often about the screenplay.

"I take that as a compliment, because we did everything we could to make this film not feel like a documentary," says Shapiro, who saw Houghton Mifflin publish his debut novel, The Every Boy, earlier this month. "It was shot, edited, scored, and even plotted – cut – to be more like a feature film."

The renowned creative force behind ThinkFilm, American distribution chief Mark Urman, agrees.

"That comes from people not having seen anything like it, a documentary with such showmanship," he says at the W Hotel-hosted party after Murderball's L.A. premiere. "The only rule is that you can't do something false. The beautiful thing about documentaries is that anything goes. The only thing you don't have is make-up and costumes. It's still about strengthening the narrative, only it's a narrative involving real people who are doing real things. ... It's interesting to note that this movie could have been terrible. It's not the editing as much as it is where and when you put the camera, about knowing when to tell us what about which characters. It could be Scarlett O'Hara, or it could be Mark Zupan." Or, it could be Joe Soares, who Mark Zupan thinks is a "cocksucker."

What we are told about Soares: He is an arrogant, type-A traitor whose personal life is deprioritized as he coaches the Candadian national team to three clashes (the 2002 World Championships in Gothenburg, the Paralympic qualifiers in Vancouver, and the Paralympic Games in Athens) with the Americans, who cut him as a player in the late Nineties. He is shown as self-absorbed, camera-conscious, and obsessed with his legacy. The relationship with his young son Robert is strained. In a story filled with moments sad and funny, one of the saddest and funniest is when his wife, Patti, toasts him during an anniversary dinner.

"To team Canada," he toasts back. "Hopefully to the gold, baby. The golden rainbow." Off-screen, of course, he insists he was acting, while Rubin says that Soares told him how much he regrets the comment. It wouldn't matter to audiences, anyway, whose adoration of Zupan has been matched only by their regarding Soares as a complete asshole. Some even cheer when a postscript informs them that he was fired as the Canadian coach.

"I didn't have any idea about how I was going to be portrayed," says Igoe, speaking as the guy who put his pal in a wheelchair at 18. "Because of that, I was very, very, very reluctant to be involved in any of it. I obviously assume the worst, because I'm obviously very protective of what could have happened. This is something that's extremely intimate, one of the worst things in my life. But I didn't know who Joe was at this point. I didn't know that they had this other –"

"Villainous –" Zupan interrupts.

"– antagonist, or someone else who could be the antagonist in this thing, so, when that was explained to me, I felt much better about being in it."

Joe Soares (l) and Bob Lujano (center) look on as Zupan rolls down the Hollywood red carpet.
Joe Soares (l) and Bob Lujano (center) look on as Zupan rolls down the Hollywood red carpet.
Photo By Shawn Badgley

The 45-year-old Soares, who was ravaged by polio as a child in Portugal, is keen to all of this. He understands his role in the film and that the film is better for it. That the film will "break the stereotype and open more doors.

"I just go with the flow, dude. It's not like I'm jumping up and down 'cause I'm doing a photo shoot. The reason I went along with this from day one is that I was asked. I never jumped up and said, 'I want to be a part of this publicity,' and even the movie, the whole thing. They came to me and said, 'We think your story is really interesting' and so on, you know? I'm glad I'm involved in it, but I think a lot more people would enjoy this a lot more than I have. I've been doing wheelchair sports for 27 years. I've been interviewed many, many times. I'm not saying it gets old – it doesn't get old – but, to me, it's just kind of life."

In L.A., people enjoy the pleasure of Soares' company. He displays few of the more unattractive traits illuminated in Murderball. He can be smug and superior, but he can also be affable and engaging. The front casters on his wheelchair flash red and blue when they roll. He's proud of his career, as he should be, but he does talk about it a lot. After all, as Shapiro said at South by Southwest, "Joe sort of thought that a camera crew should be following him around since birth, basically, so, when we showed up, it was almost like, 'Well, it's about time.'"


A camera started following Zupan around six years after he found his calling, which came three years after the beginning of his freshman season as a scholarship soccer player at Florida Atlantic University. On Oct. 14, 1993, he and his team got drunk after a win. Igoe was at Dirty Moe's, too, and his pickup was in the parking lot. Zupan stumbled outside and fell asleep in its bed. When Igoe fell asleep at the bar, was escorted out, and sped off on I-95 for home, he had no idea his best friend was in the back. He still didn't when he spun out into a fence-post.

Zupan woke up with his head barely above water and cried upon the realization that his legs weren't working. Fire ants bit away at his fingers, which were clinging to a branch. A guy on his lunch break saw him 14 hours later and called 911.

"I don't remember any more of it," Zupan says. "I wish I did. But your body blocks it out for a reason. If there was a confrontation with an animal on land, an alligator, I don't know. All I know is, I'm alive."

He was also paralyzed and understandably pissed off, but it "took him just walking into the hospital room" to forgive Igoe, he says. "Wasn't his fucking fault."

It took Igoe, a vice-president at a securities firm in Florida, far longer to do so himself.

"After everything [filming the Paralympics] in Athens, later that night, they had this afterparty kinda deal on the Mediterranean at this really cool club, and everybody's out of their mind, whatever," he remembers. "While Mark's still sober, he pulled me aside and goes, 'This is the best thing's that ever happened to me.' And it's just such a profound statement that even then it's difficult to accept. At some point, either you accept it or you don't, and with everything's that happened now, I firmly believe that he means it, and I accept it, and that's it."

That is where most of the candor and emotion ends. Zupan and Igoe prefer to make fun and interrupt each other with mostly good-natured insults, get drunk, cause trouble, and discuss women, a combination of which they accomplish quite handily in L.A., as well as a month later in Austin during a weekend celebrating Igoe's 30th birthday. Last Friday, they were kicked out of Trudy's North Star by 10:30pm.

The next morning, Igoe participates in a quad rugby practice for the first time. Zupan's team – the two-time defending National Champion Texas Stampede, one of thirtysome clubs nationwide – is drilling in Canyon Vista Middle School's gymnasium. Igoe is here for a couple of reasons: He needs the detox workout and he's fact-gathering for Quadfather.net.

The site, which went live in late June – "the Jackass guys are going to plug it on Howard Stern, so it has to be ready," he had mentioned in L.A. – simultaneously supports quad rugby players as a networking base and capitalizes on the phenomenon that is Murderball. Message boards. Speaking-tour queries. Fundraising. A possible insurance arm. T-shirts, stickers, calendars. That kind of thing. Igoe thinks it will "a) help people who have been through this experience, but also b) open it up to other people who just are a) interested b) want to see what's out there. ... The sky's basically the limit with what we can do, but I think it would be beneficial for everybody."

It's hard to tell what Zupan thinks of Quadfather.net. Rather, it's easy to see he's more concerned with quad rugby. National-team tryouts are in October – 2006 finds the World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, and, according to coach James "Gumbie" Gumbert, who also coaches the Stampede and presides over the United States Quad Rugby Association, his 2004 Player of the Year "hasn't made anything yet" – and he's lost out on significant training time while promoting his movie. He hates when you call it that, his movie, just as he would if you'd refer to the team the same way, but there is no doubting either: It's his movie; any team he's playing on is his.

Murderball, as quad rugby was once called – "you can't really market 'murderball' to corporate sponsors," Zupan explains in the film, a statement that MTV and Reebok execs must have taken as a dare – was created in Canada and brought to the U.S. by Brad Mikkelsen. It is played on an indoor court by four-man teams that must advance a volleyball past an end line for one point by passing, dribbling, and avoiding (or overcoming) violent collision. Zupan calls it a "full-contact combination of hockey, football, basketball, and soccer." Players are assigned a value based on their range of use and mobility, and a team's on-court total cannot exceed eight. Zupan is a 3.0, the second-highest assignation. He is a relentless blur of polished athleticism. Although he relies on strength more than speed, he is awfully fast. He's graceful and very good.

During a drill called the "Hills of Austin" (but today renamed "Hills of Igoe" in honor of the Stampede's guest), wherein the team must push up and down the massive ramp that is the facility's foyer, the able-bodied Igoe enthusiastically struggles to five laps, which is good enough, since Gumbert tells the team it isn't done until Igoe is. Zupan – admittedly more accustomed to not only the exercise but also to the rugby chair – completes 14, whirring around turnbacks without a hint of heavy breathing. On the court, he can pass the ball well with either hand. He can hit and take hits. It's all in the shoulders, he says. A major shoulder injury, he admits, a career-threatening one, could be as "devastating" to him as the one he suffered to his spinal cord. The shoulders are the most important.


On Zupan's shoulders now is something almost as big as rugby: a most unlikely summer blockbuster.

"I mean, you just gotta keep livin', and what comes about comes about," he answers when asked what the hell is happening. "Justification, validation, whatever, as long as I can pay my mortgage. You gotta think, we were sitting there six months ago saying, 'Hey, could it get any better than this?' I mean, it's just a movie, but it's a movie involving my fucking life! The whole celebrity thing, if it does happen, I don't know. You build on what's happened and what could still be happening."

About an hour after Murderball hits Hollywood – a good number of the cast and crew watch the closing credits from the back of the theatre, then roll and walk down front amid a five-minute rumble of applause that includes cries of "Zupan!" – I am talking to Bob Lujano. He played on the 2004 Paralympic team and stars for the Birmingham Demolition, which lost in a close National Championship game this year to the Stampede. He's considering not coming out for the national tryouts in October, as he's played for more than 10 years and can't summon some of the skills he once could.

I joke that maybe Zupan will be too worn out from all of this to compete, and that Lujano might take his spot.

"Zoop? Oh, no," he says, as wide-eyed as anybody else. "There's no replacing Mark. Mark is just one of a kind." end story


Murderball opens in Austin on Friday, July 22. For a review and show times, see Film Listings. For more information on quad rugby, see www.quadrugby.com, www.fearthesteer.com, and www.quadfather.net.

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