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Gay rugby tournament to honor slain former Cal player

By Margie Mason, The Associated Press
Friday June 28, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – A rugby match lasts 80 minutes. No timeouts, few player substitutions, not a lot of time for coaching. It’s a rough contact sport that forces players to think and act under extreme pressure. 

Former Cal rugby player Mark Bingham may have demonstrated those hard-learned skills during his final moments on Sept. 11 aboard United Flight 93, the only one of the four hijacked planes that didn’t reach its target. 

This weekend, his San Francisco Fog teammates will honor that spirit by holding the Bingham Cup, an international gay rugby tournament, during the city’s annual pride celebration. 

“There’s something to be said for competitive sports,” said Alice Hoglan, Bingham’s mother. “His last game wasn’t on a grassy field. It was on a narrow 757.” 

Hoglan will present the trophy on Saturday to the winner that emerges from the eight rugby clubs. She also plans to march with some of the 200 players in Sunday’s Pride Parade, which draws about 1 million people each year. 

“It’s going to be everything Mark would love,” Fog forward Bryce Eberhart said. “It’s going to be a rockin’ party, people from different cultures getting to know each other and it’s going to be two days of rugby, rugby, rugby.” 

While the two teams from England will be tough to beat, Eberhart said the Fog (2-8 this year) will play with the same fierce determination Bingham brought to the scrum. Just before he died, Bingham’s team was accepted into a straight rugby league, prompting him to give his teammates a congratulatory pep talk. 

“We have the chance to be role models for other gay folks who wanted to play sports, but never felt good enough or strong enough,” he wrote. “This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds.” 

“Mark came in like a steam engine, just knocking the heck out of all of these guys and he brought an intensity to that practice that left a lot of guys saying, ’We don’t like this guy very much,”’ Eberhart said. 

“Then, afterward at the pub he made his way to each person and pointed out something they’d done right that day and maybe even gave them a little tip. And by the end of that social, he was everybody’s best friend.” 

Bingham helped Cal’s rugby club win national titles in 1991 and 1993. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he played the position of eight man, which requires leadership and poise to get the ball out of the scrum and into the runners’ hands. 

Cal rugby coach Jack Clark remembers Bingham fondly as a player who wasn’t a star but was always a dependable, fierce competitor. 

“Mark was one of the lads. He was right in the middle,” Clark said. “I don’t have much doubt that Mark would have been pleased to have his legacy in rugby remembered.” 

Clark also said he has no doubt Bingham was one of the passengers who took on the terrorists, forcing the plane down in a rural Pennsylvania field instead of into its unknown intended target. He credits rugby with helping to shape Bingham into a take-charge, fearless leader who didn’t hesitate under pressure. 

“I have no doubt he would have been brave enough to do whatever was needed,” Clark said. “In rugby, you have to deal with pressure of that moment. You can’t get off the mountain.”