Murderball documents the U.S. Quadriplegic Rugby Team as they strive for the gold medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. The film opens at the 2002 World Championship in Sweden during the final match between USA and Canada. The USA team had dominated the sport for 10 years, but they lose to Team Canada.
This rivalry has turned ugly because former American all-star, Joe Soares has become the coach for Canada after being cut from the USA Team. He is labeled “a traitor” and “Benedict Arnold” by his former teammates. It’s a bit harsh for a sport. Joe felt his team and country had already deserted him, but that’s how much passion and patriotism these men have. They almost get into a fistfight.
Shapiro explains the how the game is played in an article he wrote for Maxim November 2002 that inspired the film:
“The game’s played on a basketball court, with four eight-minute quarters, using a volleyball and football-style end zones. The chairs look like tricked-out bumper cars, with bucket seats, safety harnesses, angled wheels, and grills to protect the feet. When they roll over, the guys go with them. The four players on each side are all quadriplegics (some impairment of all four limbs) of varying levels of mobility. They’re ranked in levels from .5 to 3.5, depending on their ability to move their upper bodies. Team mobility rankings cannot exceed a total of eight. The most mobile players handle the ball. The low-pointers act as human speed bumps.”
The game is exciting to watch as the men are committed to leaving their all on the floor for a victory. The hitting is surprisingly hard as they try to stop their opponents, preferably by up-ending him out of his chair.
It looks like a fun sport to play although I wouldn’t want to become eligible for the team. The men have become quadriplegics from different causes, such as car wrecks, gunshots, and polio. Everyone has a different story to tell.
We see the men off the court as well, dealing with familiar issues: jobs, families and girlfriends. Just because they are in wheelchairs doesn’t mean they have given up on life or stopped being men. They are tough and would be the first to back up a friend. They chase good-looking women and assure them they can still have sex. They have all accepted their situations very well with humor and the love of their families.
Mark Zupan is the leader of the team. He sustained his injury when his best friend, Chris, left a party drunk that they were attending and got into a bad car accident. Zupan had gotten wasted and passed out in the back of Chris’ truck. Chris bears a lot of guilt even though he had no idea Mark was back there. The strain of it has damaged their friendship.
Keith Cavill becomes a part of the film after sustaining injuries from a motor cross injury. We watch as he and his family come to grips with his new reality. Zupan comes to speak at the rehabilitation center Cavill is at and speaks about the team and the life experiences these men share. Cavill tries out the rugby chair and you can see the birth of a new player from the gleam in his eye.
Murderball is an amazing story of the triumph of the human spirit and one of the best sports movies ever. It’s uplifting and life affirming and shows what will, determination and hard work will bring. The film won an Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Editing at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. I hope they broadcast the 2008 Paralympics because I am now a fan of the team and you will be too.