After taking a star turn in a documentary, quad rugby player Mark Zupan decided it was time for a tell-all book. By Jenna Schnuer
Phone interviews rarely jack up my nerves. But as my interview with first-time author Mark Zupan - the heavily tattooed, slightly devilish-looking (his beard is straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting) quad rugby player - approached, I got a bit of a funny feeling. After all, as was made quite clear in Murderball, the 2005 documentary about Zupan's sport of choice, the guy slams his custom-made wheelchair into other people's chairs for fun.
Turns out the devil has a softer side. I interrupted Zupan's day job (he's a civil engineer) for a conversation about his new book, Gimp (HarperCollins, $25), which he wrote with Premiere's Tim Swanson. Though Murderball introduced Zupan and quad rugby to the world - he took up the sport after a drunken night ended up with his getting tossed from the flatbed of a friend's truck - there's a lot more to him than the movie offers up.
Can you describe quad rugby? It's pretty much a full-contact wheelchair smashup derby. The chairs look like something out of a Mad Max film. It's played indoors on a basketball court, and it's full-contact chair-on-chair, so if you want to hit somebody as hard as you possibly can, you hit 'em. It's not for the faint of heart.
You're a slightly different person in the book and on the phone than I was expecting you to be. Yeah, the book is raw. I'm a different person on the court than off the court. I'm kind of seen in the movie as this tough guy. In actuality, maybe I'm a [jerk], but I have a brain. It's really kind of fun to break people's perceptions.
Why did you write the book? It's an open door to my life. It's an open door to a lot of people's lives, to show what people go through. You know, you're 18, you break your neck, and, we discussed it in the movie, it's the worst thing. But then you realize that life isn't over. It's now just beginning, and to see the transformation from able-bodied to disabled to one of the best athletes in the country in a chair, that's cool - because I've always been an athlete, and I've always been driven. It's cool to actually show people that just because you're in an accident or something in life goes wrong, it doesn't mean you have to pack up and say "I'm done."
What did writing the book do for you? I guess it makes me realize that during certain periods of time in life, people do stuff that goes above and beyond. It makes you see what, and how much, friends mean. You realize it, but you don't really realize it - to see how people react in situations that they don't necessarily have to be in. I've learned a lot more about myself. I guess you find out what you really mean to your parents. And I've learned that … I've made mistakes, but hopefully people don't look at that as bad; it's just a learning process. It's a hard one. I haven't really sat down and thought about it. It's just weird. It's weird to see your life and your stories in print.
In the book, you told the story of punching your little brother in, well, a sensitive area when you thought he was pitying you after the accident. Are you treating him better these days? That whole situation, it just pretty much cemented what our relationship is and was. Now, it's awesome. We have such a great relationship. He's almost like a protector to an extent, but he still knows I'm his big brother and that I'll do anything for him. It was difficult for him. I think he looked up to me, and to see that happen, it kind of [messed] him up a bit. As time went on and he saw I was going to be normal and that sports were still important, we sat down and talked. That's kind of one of the cool things about getting hurt.
Why are you so good at the sport? I’ve always been an athlete. And I’m pretty good with angles, coming from soccer. I’m pretty driven as well. I can direct and say, “This is what we need to do.” You just see stuff. It’s kind of weird. When you’re really on your game, the game slows down. You can see. I’m sure it’s something like what Michael Jordan saw. He’s just that good that everything, I bet you, was really slow. For me, every so often, it’ll just get really slow. You just see where you need to go and how the sport should be played.
What’s your favorite part of the game? Getting turnovers. Making people play your game. When you’re on defense, you want to force the offensive player where you want them. When you can do that, just get a team turnover or what have you, it changes the pace of the game; it changes the game, period. Turnovers are the key to this game, period. A good hit doesn’t hurt either. Somebody is coming down the court, and you light them up; it’s pretty rewarding.