A little after the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, the world got a look at the unlikely face of a little-known sport that seemed as oddly violent as it did proudly awesome. A scrappy-looking bald guy with a long goatee, who looked like he who could sucker punch a poodle, was speeding around a court, slamming into people at full speed…in his wheelchair.
He was Mark Zupan, and the sport was wheelchair rugby, or "Murderball" as it was known during the making of the Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicled it. With its debut in 2005, Murderball put the sport on America’s radar and changed perceptions of quadriplegics and paralyzed people everywhere.
Now, with the London Paralympic Games set to start August 29, wheelchair rugby, also called quad or quadriplegic rugby, is due to come under the spotlight once again. The favored U.S. team will try to repeat its gold medal performance from Beijing in 2008.
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The current U.S. national team is made up of new faces, and that begs a question: Since the 2005 premiere of Murderball the film, where are the principal characters now?
The face and former captain of USA quad rugby, Zupan experienced a rush of national and international attention after the release of the film. He went on a string of cable TV shows in the years immediately following his appearance at the 2006 Academy Awards. He got re-tattooed on Miami Ink and teamed up with the Jackass and Nitro Circus crews for stunts on MTV. Now, Zupan plays for his local Austin, Texas, quad rugby squad, the Texas Stampede (“Fear the steer!”), but failed to make the final roster of the 12-man national team. He has returned to full-time work as an engineer and is the co-owner of two bars in Denver, along with keeping up a heavy schedule as a speaker. Zupan still travels the nation using his experience as a wheelchair athlete to teach and inspire people with his story.
The sweating, shouting, red face of both wheelchair rugby and overzealous competitive drive in general, Joe Soares was the definition of the villain in the Murderball documentary. A former star USA player and coach who defected to go coach one of America’s greatest rivals in the sport—Canada—Joe appeared as a dickish, smack-talking wheelchair-bound Napoleon, so driven to win that he alienated his wife and kid to focus on the team. After a split with the Canadian team, Joe joined the staff of a new squad: The German national team. Though it’s not top ranked, and did not make the Paralympic roster, under Soares' tutelage the German squad could be a factor in the 2014 Wheelchair Rugby World Championships.
The straight-talking and laid-back Hogsett has remained an active member of the U.S. national wheelchair rugby team since the film, and will be seen again in London when the wheels hit the hard wood (he’s now a team captain). The Tempe, Arizona, resident now plays for the Phoenix Heat, has a wife and young son, and has become a mentor for younger players in the sport.
The brash and lanky player with the bleached hair and California cool in Murderball, Cohn has continued to be an active player in the sport of wheelchair rugby, remaining on the national team. After winning gold in Beijing, he has made the squad again for London, where he said he expects nothing less than another top podium finish.
“Everybody on the team—our expectations would be gold or nothing,” Cohn tells TakePart. “That’s what we’ve been training for.”
Cohn said one of the film's impacts was an explosion in popularity of the sport, which both broadened participation and made the competition for spots on national teams more intense—an ironic factor that played a part in keeping Zupan off the roster. These days, Cohn lives in San Diego, where he mentors young athletes with disabilities and plays for the local Sharp Edge Quad Rugby team, affiliated with a local hospital and rehab program. He has a wife and young son, Jaylen.
Cavill provided a different perspective to the gung-ho brawlers smashing around the court in the film—a young man new to his injury looking at wheelchair rugby as a redemptive way to continue an active life. Cavill, who never played at wheelchair rugby’s elite levels, recently got married and lives in New Jersey.
Coach James Gumbert
The assistant coach of the U.S. national team at the time of the documentary, Gumbert has moved up to become head coach of Team USA, which reveals another twist in the Murderball plot: Team USA’s former head coach is now (like Soares before him) coach of archrival Team Canada. The two squads will butt heads in London.
Gumbert echoed Cohn’s comments about the sport's rising levels of skill and popularity—due in no small part to the success of the film. “Now everyone’s kind of playing from an even standpoint,” Gumbert says to TakePart. “For us, we have to do the little things better than we ever have.”
Gumbert is based in Austin, Texas, where he also coaches Zupan’s home squad. Since the film, he has gotten married and fathered twin boys.
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Ben Murray has been a frontline correspondent for Stars and Stripes and a producer on The Deadliest Catch. A normally calm person, Ben gets all kinds of fired up by abuse of power and ignorance in high places. To keep from igniting, he writes about these topics and more and does his best to keep the profanity out of it. But every once in a while... earmuffs, kids.