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True grit

By Lady Liberty
web posted February 6, 2006

Murderball

** out of ****

MurderballMurderball was an award winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival (it captured the Audience Award for an American Documentary), and early word was that it could prove an Oscar contender. It opened in select cities last July, and then...nothing. I'd been intrigued when I first heard about the movie, but over time forgot all about it. And then a friend of mine showed up with a rental copy and an enthusiastic recommendation I take a look.

Murderball focuses on a group of elite athletes who play a particularly rough and tumble sport: quad rugby (sometimes also called wheelchair rugby). The game was invented in the late 1970's and was originally called murderball because it was frequently such a dangerous sport. The name scared some doctors and other medical professionals, though, so the more staid "quad rugby" was adopted. But the game remains a violent one, and the men who play it are as tough as any boxer or football player you've ever seen.

Quad rugby is played on a regulation basketball court. Players are strapped into specially fabricated wheelchairs that can stand up to Mad Max-style ramming and repeated tips. They then travel from one end of the wooden court to the other in an attempt to cross the goal line while being in control of the ball. Passing is permitted; players must either pass or dribble once every so many seconds or they're penalized. Elements of basketball, rugby, soccer, and hockey are all there, but quad rugby is also very much a sport all its own.

The team featured in Murderball is the one destined to end up representing the United States in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece (the Paralympics takes place immediately following the Olympics and utilizes the same venues).

  • Mark Zupan, who is perhaps the most outspoken of the players, was paralyzed at 18 after he passed out in the back of a friend's pick-up truck. Christopher Igoe was drunk when he got behind the wheel, and had no idea his best friend was sleeping in the truck bed. When he ran off the road, Zupan was thrown into a canal where he held onto a branch for hours until somebody finally found him.
  • Andy Cohn was in a car accident at the age of 16. By 18, he discovered quad rugby. At 23, he was one of the best.
  • Scott Hogsett was thrown off a second floor balcony after getting in an altercation at a party. The man who threw him ran outside to punch him as he lay on the rocks below. The punch broke his neck.
  • Bob Lujano is a quadruple amputee thanks to a rare and deadly childhood illness.
  • Joe Soares was crippled as a child after he suffered a bout of polio. Long one of the top wheelchair athletes in the world, the Murderball documentary finds him unable to accept the fact that age has done what disability could not.

As the team works to build its roster and its skills, each player is highlighted both as an athlete and as a person. Each discusses his disability — how it happened, how he first dealt with it, and what his teammates and his sport mean to him. Christopher Igoe is interviewed about the tremendous guilt he felt after the crash that paralyzed Zupan. Friends and family members share their stories. Girlfriends smile. Joe Soares' son talks about his life very much in the shadow of his dad.

Throughout the film while we're getting to know the players, we also follow the progress and setbacks of a newly paralyzed young man. Keith Cavill, who is involved in a terrible Motocross accident, must face up to the fact he can no longer enjoy the sport he loves to distraction. Though he's told he's permanently paralyzed, he can't let go of some hope that he might walk again someday. To believe otherwise would just be too much. And then he discovers wheelchair rugby...

Murderball is a documentary that plays like the most fantastic of movies. If the story weren't true, there's no way you could believe it. The filmmaking itself isn't particularly impressive. The cinematography is average; the edits are often abrupt, inept or both. But the story, oh, the story!

There's so much those of us who don't live with a quadriplegic don't know and would never have the nerve to ask. But Murderball touches on everything from the humiliation of needing assistance to relieve yourself to the matter-of-fact how-to's (in general terms) of sex with a paralyzed man. Throughout the successes and disappointments of the team and the individuals, there's an overriding theme: these men just want to be treated like the perfectly normal people they are. Even so, and though they'd probably not like it much that I'd say so, these men are truly inspiring. Each and every one of them stands taller than most men who can.

POLITICAL NOTES: Murderball takes no position on politics nor on such political matters as the Americans With Disabilities Act. The men in Murderball live as normally as possible under the circumstances; none of them asks for special treatment. With the advent of elevators and the like, most venues are accessible to them including airplanes and hotel rooms. But there is one moment that is, in a film filled with emotional impact, the most moving of all: a visit to a VA medical facility.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Murderball is rated R for "language and sexual content." The language is rough — these are young men who play just as hard as they work. The sexual content is frank though not overly graphic or detailed. Although there is an edited PG version available, I don't believe it could have the same natural flow or the raw impact of the unedited version. While I wouldn't suggest the R-rated movie for young children, for those of about 10 or so and up, the tremendous value of the inspiration and the information by far outweighs a few repetitions of the dreaded "F" word.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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