The Rugby Player

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Oct 15, 2013
A scene from THE RUGBY PLAYER  

Scott Gracheff's documentary on the life of rugby player Mark Bingham is as innocent, raw and powerful as the man it memorializes. It is a story about a man who grew up in what would be considered by some a broken home but managed to create and find family just about everywhere he ever turned.

"The Rugby Player" (scheduled to be released under the name "With You" while it was being produced) portrays a man who had a two-fisted hold on life. On 9/11, Bingham and his fellow passengers on United Flight 93 grabbed fate with the same gusto he grabbed life when they overpowered a band of hijackers and crashed the plane in the rural fields of Pennsylvania rather than the strategic target in Washington, D.C.

The strength exhibited on that day of tragedy has inspired many to acts of bravery and sacrifice in the years since. In Bingham's case, it inspired many athletes to come out of the closet, inspired the creation of an international gay rugby tournament championship in his memory, and inspired his mother to become a restless advocate for gay rights and greater transportation security.

It also inspired Gracheff to document the evolution of a hero, from a gawky and socially inept Labrador retriever of a boy into a worldly, compassionate and fun-loving man with the fighting instincts of a Marine. In this, Gracheff was fortunate that we live in the video age. Not only were many critical moments captured by news crews, but Bingham also was a videophile, camcording numerous personal moments, creating goofy home movies, and generally documenting enough of his life to alternately alarm and amuse his mother. Gracheff shares these with us, allowing us to see Bingham running around bare-chested on the rugby pitch in his high school days, boozing his way through college and soaking up the vacation pleasures of France.

The movie does not solve the riddle of whether rugby developed the courage in the man or was merely attractive to him because of his courage, but it does clearly show that it was the medium in which he blossomed.

We learn that Mark was born Gerald Kendall Bingham but, with his parents divorced, was called "Kerry" as a child. He rebelled against the name, however, as being a girl's name, and so in fourth grade when he and his mother moved to Monterey, California, he changed it to the more ubiquitous "Mark." For the first few weeks, he went down to the pier each day to fish for food while his mother searched for work.

Mark grew from a somewhat chubby, awkward, defenseless kid into a gangly man-child who loved physical contact. When he was in high school, he came home and announced to his mother that he had discovered his sport: rugby.

"I thought, 'Isn't that a bunch of English guys trying to kill each other with no pads -- a lot of blood flying and cussing?'" Hoglan said.

Well, exactly. Oh yeah, and cigarettes and beer.

"He kept coming back," Bingham's high school coach Dan Smith recalled. "You can develop a tolerance for pain. You can get used to getting hit in the face. Once you've been hit a few times in the face, it's not a big deal."

Once you’ve been hit a few times in the face, it’s not a big deal.

His mother started going to his games. When he thought about going to Chico State because it is a party school, she convinced him instead to check out UC Berkeley, where he received a full scholarship and, in his freshman year, became a reserve on the 1991 rugby team that won the national championship. He was a Bear in his heart the rest of his life.

Smith noted the qualities Bingham developed in rugby he used later in life.

"If he's not fearless, at least he acts fearless -- overcomes fear," Smith said. "That's what soldiers do."

We learn that, in the 1992 Big Game football game against Stanford, Bingham was so enraged by the Stanford mascot tree coming to the Cal sidelines that he charged through security guards to tackle the tree, stole the mascot's eye, then sprinted through the Stanford crowd trying, unsuccessfully, to elude the cops.

Later, after the crash in Pennsylvania, the fingerprints taken that day were used to identify his body.

There are many such juxtapositions throughout the film. Inspired by Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," Bingham ran with the bulls in Pamplona with two of his buddies as they bar-hopped through Spain. Every time we learn of a mugger Bingham fought off or a party he hosted, we are reminded that we are never so near death as when we are living life to its fullest. The only question for most of us is, will we fight it?

Parents who lose a child have a lifetime to hear the last words they said to their child echoing through their memory. Alice Hoglan's last words to her son Mark were recorded on tape and played back in the film.

"It's true," she told her son when she called him back on his cellphone after learning of the other planes hijacked and crashed that day. "They're hell-bent on crashing the aircraft, so if you can, try to take over the aircraft. Goodbye, sweetie. Good luck."

The rest is told by the plane's recorder and the imagination of those who waited or watched.

"Mark had the fight response hard wired in every part of his being," recalled Steven Gold, one of Bingham's older mentors.

Bingham did what his mother raised him to do and what rugby taught him. We cannot tell how many lives were saved; we can only be glad for the lives that were changed.

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.


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