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Award-winning documentary captures the excitement of the game and its players


Murderball is rugby with a twist: The athletes are all wheelchair-bound quadriplegics.

The documentary film Murderball follows the United States' Quad Rugby team in their quest to take gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. Throughout the ride, emotions run the gamut from despair to elation, and the desire to win trumps all. But the film is less about the fast-paced, full-contact sport than it is about shattering stereotypes. It dramatizes the lives of athletes who happen to be paralyzed, with varying degrees of functionality in their arms and legs.

Mark Zupan anchors Team USA, as well as the documentary. Covered with tattoos and sporting a goatee, the gifted athlete wields an intense stare that could melt wheelchair metal. He's also personable and articulate, and agreeably recounts the details of the freak accident that left him quadriplegic. While a teenager, he passed out in the back of his best friend's pickup truck after a night of drinking and was ejected from the vehicle during the ride home. He landed in a canal and remained there for more than 13 hours until a local businessman found him and alerted police.

Zupan's teammates include Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett and Bobby Lujano. A car accident caused the spinal cord injury that put Cohn in the chair when he was about 16 years old. The details are a bit sketchy, but Hogsett became a paraplegic after being thrown off a balcony during a fight when he was 19 years old. Lujano suffers from a rare blood disease, and his arms and legs are amputated below the elbow and knee. One remarkable scene in the movie shows him typing on a keyboard with the stubs of his arms. Lujano's biography on the Murderball Web site says his motto is, "No arms, no legs, no problem!"

The only member of Team Canada (Team USA's main rival) to enjoy significant camera time is Joe Soares. Crippled by polio as a child, he grew up to become an all-star player for Team USA. After being cut from Team USA's 2000 Paralympic team after a long successful career, he retaliated by taking over as head coach of Team Canada. Some of his former teammates, including Zupan, consider his move an act of treason. The resulting tension keeps the film taut.

Murderball took the documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year along with a Special Jury Prize for editing. The movie succeeds because it focuses on the men, not their disabilities. In the movie's opening scenes, the Team USA squad is presented as smart-assed, foul-mouthed and hyper-aggressive group of quad rugby players. The guys don't just come across as real people, they impress you as world-class athletes. These men are handsome babe magnets with attractive girlfriends. And, yes, they can have sex and enjoy it.

The language, like the men themselves, softens by the time the final credits roll. The film brings about the transformation by documenting the athletes' lives on and off the court, and allowing the viewer to share their highs and lows, their victories and frustrations.

The Team USA members exude confidence and charm, and the film skillfully contrasts their assurance with that of recently injured quadriplegics. In one scene, Zuban visits a rehabilitation center and shows off his customized quad rugby chair. It glitters with power and steel. One shy young man in particular lights up, and during a question and answer session, he begins by stating his conviction that he will one day walk again. Earlier in the movie, it was stated that the first two years after being injured are often the most physically and emotionally difficult, thus lending a subtle poignancy to the scene.

Jeff Sparks, a Boise man who just returned from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Minneapolis with a bronze medal in rugby, a bronze in shot put and a silver in table tennis, agrees that the first years after an injury present incredible challenges. During a rescue mission with the Idaho Army National Guard in 1988, Sparks' helicopter crashed. He suffered spinal cord and neck injuries that rendered him a C-7 Incomplete Quadriplegic, meaning he is paralyzed from the upper chest down but has sensation to the waist and full use of his arms and some control of his hands. Sparks spent eight-and-a-half months in the hospital and says rehab was the hardest part of his recovery.

Like the men portrayed in Murderball, Sparks leads a busy and active life. He holds down a full-time job as a contract worker with St. Alphonsus Hospital's Think First program, and travels to schools to talk to kids about spinal cord injuries and how to prevent them. He says the free, one-hour program never lectures, but rather provides students with information about the benefits of seat belts and helmets. He also tells them about his life in a wheelchair. "I'm like everybody else," he says. "I have my good days and my bad days."

Most of his days are good. He takes frequent camping trips, participates in a variety of sports and referees wheelchair basketball for the Boise Parks and Recreation Department's ChairHoops fundraiser. He is currently gearing up to take a group of 32 people camping in Yellow Pine this summer.

Sparks also holds a post on the board of the Idaho Youth Wheelchair Sports Camp. Camp Director Kelly Odell says their mission is to promote health and wellness through sports and to support families who want to continue doing the activities they've always enjoyed. Kids come from all over the Northwest to participate in pre-camp clinics and a four-day camp session that features wheelchair rugby along with tennis, basketball, water sports such as kayaking, climbing, fishing and power soccer. Odell notes that all the coaches are wheelchair athletes who compete regionally or nationally.

Murderball captures the excitement of the game and the people who play it. The elite athletes slam into each with abandon and with such force that players are routinely knocked over in their chairs. Sparks confirms that playing the game is "an adrenaline rush" and recounts that during the recent competition in Minneapolis, he was hit so hard, the impact broke his chair. He then adds, "But I just go out to play and have fun."