Amma Marfo reflects on a movie that brought her face-to-face with multidimensional, complicated men.
It was a fate I never could have imagined for myself, but there I was: singing along to one of my favorite albums in the back of my friend Steve’s car, with US Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby captain Mark Zupan, of the 2005 documentary Murderball. Zupan was a guest lecturer on my college campus, and my intense fandom of the movie had earned me a spot in the car en route to and from his hotel. In truth, the company was less remarkable than the juxtaposition I was confronted with. The guy I was trading music recs with in the backseat, knocked people over for a living. How were these two sides of the same person?
Murderball tells the story of the rivalry and eventual faceoff between the US and Canadian paralympic rugby—known affectionately, if terrifyingly, as Murderball—teams, in the year leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. The action centered primarily on Zupan, a former college soccer player who became a quadriplegic after a late-night car accident, and his contentious relationship with Team Canada’s head coach Joe Soares. Soares, a former Team USA player who switched sides to coach the rivals after bad blood surfaced, was electrifying to watch as his obsession with beating his former squad seemed to take over his life at the expense of a relationship with his wife and son. But it was his opponents, led by Zupan and a few other members of Team USA, that gave the film both its heart and its teeth.
Over the course of Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s swift ninety-minute documentary, we learn a bit about how several team members arrived on Team USA (a bit of background: while several players are quadriplegic, it’s not a requirement—there need “only” be a given level of impairment in all four limbs), with a significant focus placed on Zupan as the team’s captain. He is depicted as gruff and crass, fearless and ferocious, even as he seeks to rebuild his relationship with Chris Igoe, the driver of the truck that ultimately changed his life. Zupan recounts his tale and attacks his sport with a toughness and ferocity that truly left me wondering who we’d meet when we pulled up in front of his hotel on that February day. But the Mark we met was conscientious, smart, and funny … with the same authenticity as he held the traits that made him such a captivating protagonist in the movie.
I was still pretty young and sheltered when Murderball and Zupan entered my consciousness, maybe twenty. At that point, it was easy (and frankly, it remains easy) to place people in boxes. Even as someone who gravitated toward male friend groups growing up, they generally fell into a finite number of “camps,” as is often the case when you’re young. In my mind, men were either good-hearted or mean-spirited, kind or unkind … good or bad, if we’re being simplistic. I admired Mark for his dedication to his sport and to winning, even occasionally at the expense of the likeability that makes it easier to move through the world, but had no idea if the Mark I met would be someone I could like.
The same complexity is likely true for each of the men profiled in Murderball. Their ability balance the aggression and hypermasculinity that serves as a hallmark of most contact sports, must be balanced with a heightened vulnerability that comes with navigating the world with a disability. While each of us regularly toggles with “versions” of ourselves to share with the world, based on the environment we inhabit at any given moment, this was the most dramatic example I had seen to date, and it sparked some thoughts that I wrestled with mightily—and, admittedly, continue to wrestle with.
In meeting Mark, learning more about his story (between his talk, our conversation, and his book), and disentangling the Mark of the court with the one that I met in the car and later in the auditorium, I started seeing something I hadn’t needed to consider before now: middle ground, shades of gray that we all carry around with us. Whether our gray comes at the intersection of our environmental personas, or when our younger and older selves collide, that gray makes us complicated and crunchy and worth getting to know. It is that gray that I continue to weigh when I encounter scenarios and circumstances that challenge me. It is that middle ground that I look for as I bring new men into (and, at times out of) my life, with eyes wide open to the idea that the same guy who you trade song recommendations with … can also run people down on a court for Olympic medals. That energetic competitive streak can coexist with emotion and vulnerability. Both sides are equally legitimate, real, and significant pieces of a human being.
I credit Mark, and Murderball, for helping me dig deeply into the idea of complicated, multidimensional men, and come back to that movie often as the moment where I truly realized they existed.
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