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A jock, a champion, a movie star

Mark Zupan (3) works a day job as an engineer, but ever since "Murderball" played at Sundance, he's become an indie film celebrity.

Mark Zupan went home to Austin, Texas, for 14 hours on Saturday, to attend a buddy's wedding. That was his third weekend at home since April. The star of the documentary "Murderball" has been caught in such a whirlwind of overnight stardom that the latest news -- Eminem wants to play him in a fictional version of the story -- is just one more news item.

"Murderball," which looks poised to be the most successful documentary since Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," is the story of athletes who play quadriplegic wheelchair rugby. It is a full-contact sport. One objective is to knock over the other guy's chair. It is also the story of overcoming obstacles, of fighting back.

"This film makes people say, hey, s--t's gonna happen, so you gotta look beyond that and move on," Zupan said. "It bridges the gap between the disabled and the abled. For the disabled community, it's a change from the woe-is-me, I'm a poor gimp, feel bad for me because I'm in a chair, or happy for me because I brush my teeth."

The documentary, which opens Friday in Chicago, also answers questions that people are too shy to ask. "Audiences like the sex part," he said, "because they've always wondered how sex works if you're a quad. In general, the movie makes us seem approachable. Hey, we're just people. Talk to us. I had a guy tell me the other day he saw the movie and afterwards he started talking to some guys in the theater who were in chairs, and before the movie he would have, like, sort of avoided them or felt sorry for them or something."

Zupan, who is in his early 30s, was paralyzed when he was 18. He fell asleep after a party in the bed of a pickup truck. Not knowing he was there, a friend drove away and got in an accident; Zupan was thrown from the truck and injured. The movie explains that most quadriplegics retain some movement of their limbs; not all are paralyzed from the neck down, like Christopher Reeve. To provide balanced competition, the sport assigns points to degrees of disability and limits the number of points a team can field at once.

The movie, directed by Henry-Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, has been a buzz magnet ever since it premiered at Sundance 2005. When I showed it in April at my Overlooked Film Festival at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it was a huge audience favorite, winning a standing (and sitting) ovation.

It makes stars of several of its subjects, including Zupan, a goateed and tattooed all-American, who is an engineer in his day job, and the longtime all-American Joe Soares, who played on American wheelchair teams that won one Olympic title after another, then was dropped from the squad, left in a feud, signed with Canada and led the Canadians to their first victory over the U.S. team. Now back in his Florida home, Soares hopes to return as coach of the U.S. team and is signing an agent to help him deal with bookings as a motivational speaker.

Zupan is bemused that Eminem wants to play either him or Andy Cohn, another star of the film. "He felt very strongly that he liked the film," Zupan said, "and there's been some talk in Hollywood about a fiction version, but if the doc does as well as we hope it does, it may be hard for a fiction film to follow it."

The film will be on 180 screens by the end of July, unusual for a documentary, and the word-of-mouth has caused week-to-week growth in box-office grosses. "And, jeez, the Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes is 43 positive out of 43! That's a little unheard of. Sooner or later, somebody has got to dislike it somewhere."

I asked Zupan what his life has been like since we talked in April.

"I've had the busiest month and a half I've ever experienced. We do Charlie Rose [July 12], Regis on Thursday [July 14], 'The Today Show' on Friday [July 15], Jay Leno on July 22, we did ESPN, there was a doc about the doc on HBO, and we even filmed a 'Jackass' episode that will run at the end of the month. We did the wheelchair long jump and wheelchair jousting, with Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. It had to be one of the most fun times I've ever had."

He's proudest, he said, of being featured in a print ad for the Reebok "I Am What I Am" campaign.

"They had the balls to say, yeah, we'll put a guy in a chair in a major print campaign."

What about wheelchair sports in general? Will they begin to get air time on cable sports networks?

"I don't know. The wheelchair rugby nationals are coming up in Austin in March or April. The way the movie is taking off, I think there might be some interest."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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