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Wheelchair Rugby Highlighted in 'Murderball'

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

"Murderball" is a new video documentary about men in wheelchairs who play rugby just as aggressively as people do on foot. The players use special wheelchairs; they crash into each other at full speed. Most of them are young. Most became quadriplegic after an accident involving a car or a dangerous sport. Murderball then becomes their obsession, a way back to their former normal lives. DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand spoke with one of the players featured in the film, Mark Zupan.

Mr. MARK ZUPAN (Wheelchair Rugby Player): It's pretty much full-contact, chair on chair. You can hit somebody as hard as you possibly want, or can, in a wheelchair. It's played inside on a basketball court with a volleyball. It's kind of a hodgepodge of hockey, basketball, football, soccer; just--it's an amalgamation of sports. And the chairs look like something out of a Mad Max movie.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

So you have specially designed wheelchairs.

Mr. ZUPAN: Yes. Everyone has a specially designed chair that's fit to them.

BRAND: And they have to be really rugged to withstand all this combat.

Mr. ZUPAN: Yeah. I mean, they are. My everyday chair weighs, I think, about 12 pounds, and my rugby chair weighs about 35 just because that's how much more it's reinforced. That's how much more aluminum is put on just for the game.

(Soundbite of "Murderball"; music; screaming; whistle blowing; cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: Hit for this man. That's your job.

Unidentified Man #2: My position, when you're back here on this last man standing, stay with this man.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing; cheering)

BRAND: Why do you love it so much? What does it do for you?

Mr. ZUPAN: Well, the competitive aspect. I mean, I got hurt when I was 18 and I was playing college soccer, and you think you lose that competitive side. You know, you're always going to have the competitive side inside of you. That was the draw. It's like, `Oh, wait. You know what? I can train, and focus on more than just walking.' 'Cause initially when you get hurt, it's like, `Oh, I will walk. I will walk. I will walk.' Well, you learn that you may not, you know, in about a year, two years or however long it takes each person, and then you can focus all that energy on something that you can see more returns out of.

BRAND: And, Mark, how old are you now?

Mr. ZUPAN: I'm 30.

BRAND: Thirty. So it was 12 years ago.

Mr. ZUPAN: Yeah, it'll be 12 years in October.

BRAND: And what happened?

Mr. ZUPAN: I was playing college soccer, like I said before, but we went out after a game we had won. We went to the bar and drank with the friends and girls and what have you. And then I wandered out of the bar and I passed out in my buddy's pickup truck. Well, he came out, I think it was probably about an hour or an hour and a half later, and hopped in the car. He was just going to drive home--well, he got lost. And he hopped on I-95 down in south Florida. He got off, he spun out, threw me out of the back of the pickup truck, over a fence, over some trees, into a canal, where I spent 14 hours in the canal hanging on to a branch. I had red ant bites from the tips of my fingers to the tips of my toes. I was hypothermic. I had pneumonia. My body temp was--when they found me was 88 degrees, and my pulse was 30.

BRAND: So you broke your neck.

Mr. ZUPAN: I did.

BRAND: And which means you are paralyzed...

Mr. ZUPAN: Breaking your neck, I am considered a quadriplegic. So what that essentially means--it doesn't mean you can't move all four limbs; it means you have impairment in all four limbs.

BRAND: And then you discovered wheelchair rugby, murderball.

Mr. ZUPAN: Right.

BRAND: I guess, you know, the obvious question is: What--did it save your life, in a way? Did it...

Mr. ZUPAN: Of course.

BRAND: It did.

Mr. ZUPAN: Of course. Yeah, it did. I mean, it gave you that thing that you weren't sure that was out there. It opened you up to a world of other people in chairs. You think--at 18, you break your neck, you either die--I mean, I don't know. I had no idea. And wheelchair rugby showed me others in chairs so I could learn, so I could figure out what, how--you kind of steal from your friends just how they live their lives, how they get--how they do things in life.

BRAND: And you live a normal life.

Mr. ZUPAN: I do. I live independently. I have a house. I drive. I have a full-time job.

BRAND: And you have a girlfriend.

Mr. ZUPAN: I do. So, yeah, I mean, it's a pretty typical life.

BRAND: I guess there's a section in the film where everyone wants to know.

Mr. ZUPAN: Yeah. Everything--I mean...

BRAND: Everything...

Mr. ZUPAN: Everything's cool. Everything works. Everything's--and that's a big misconception, you know, like `Oh, wait'--or a question that people don't want to ask. They don't want to ask somebody. It's like they're curious, but--`Hmm. So your sex live is?' It's phenomenal. It's awesome. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you about that. And I don't know. The movie--that's what's cool about the movie. The movie addresses that. The movie will address very--many misconceptions. You know, you have people in chairs that--you just think we're different; I'm no different. My eye line's different. When we meet, I'll be--I mean, I'm probably going to be staring at your butt first, and then you look up and it's like, `Oh, hey. How are you?' But it's just kind of one of the perks, maybe, if you will, that comes along with being in a chair.

BRAND: It depends. Depends on the butt.

Mr. ZUPAN: Well, no, I got you. I got you. There's good and bad with everything, of course. But for the most part, it's not a bad thing.

BRAND: Well, Mark Zupan, thank you very much.

Mr. ZUPAN: Thank you for having me. This has been fun.

BRAND: Mark Zupan is a Paralympic rugby player. He stars in the new documentary "Murderball," and "Murderball" opens at the end of the month across the country.

CHADWICK: And that interview by DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
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