The Best Kind of Hero

Minneapolis Mayhem Host World (Gay) Rugby Championship

To look at him during the summer of 2001, you’d think he was fairly ordinary: ruggedly handsome, sure, and handsomely rugged, surely, but on the surface, he must have seemed like little more than a successful public relations executive packed into an admittedly impressive 6’5”, 225-pound frame. But he owned a passion (or maybe the passion owned him). And that passion would define him well after his death—which was good, because that was not far away.

Mark Kendall Bingham was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field, adding a particularly tragic exclamation point to the 9/11 terror attacks. By most counts, he was part of the famous “Let’s Roll” Posse that assailed the terrorist-dominated cockpit of the doomed jetliner, forcing a premature, annihilating crash.

Although Bingham was gone, his passion remained: rugby—specifically, gay rugby.

Bingham had discovered this piebald outlet when he joined the San Francisco Fog Rugby Football Club, which reached out specifically to gay men, black men, and even women. For him, this commingling of the marginalized was a social statement as much as anything.

As Bingham said, “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. This is a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s minds, and to reach a group that might never have had to know or hear about gay people.”

Early on, Bingham felt, as many gay athletes do, that the concepts “gay” and “athlete” were virtual contradictions—until he discovered rugby, that is.

Bingham recounted in an e-mail to another player, “As we worked and sweated and ran and talked together this year, I finally felt accepted as a gay man and a rugby player. My two irreconcilable worlds came together.”

It was this sentiment that led to the name of gay rugby’s grandest-of-grand contests, the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament.

Blair Dempster, a local rugby player, observes about his fallen brother, “He made a difference through his actions. He didn’t set unreachable goals. He didn’t beat people over the head with rhetoric. He made an impression on them. He won them over—however difficult it was, or however slow the progress. And in the process, he made a difference for a lot of people.”

The tournament is no flight of fancy. The International Gay Rugby Association and its board preside over it. This much-respected umbrella organization for gay rugby clubs worldwide is based in London. Its membership spans the globe, including clubs in Amsterdam and Atlanta, Brisbane and Buenos Aires, Copenhagen and Cleveland.

The Tournament—after much off-field tackling, rucking, and mauling—is coming to the City of Lakes, thanks to the efforts of the Minneapolis Mayhem Rugby Football Club. For the first time in two years, the competition runs four days, from June 17 to June 20. It’s the culmination of a path that has wound and bound through such cosmopolitan locales as Dublin, London, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

In addition to playing rugby, Dempster is Director of Public Relations and Marketing for this year’s tournament. He insists that the GLBT community owes a debt to Bingham.

Dempster states, “Mark helped pave the way for the men that will be coming to Minneapolis to compete in the Bingham Cup this year.”

The venue is the National Sports Center (NSC), the world’s largest soccer complex, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The space is no stranger to separating international competition from the elements, having housed numerous Olympic festivals and world championships.

According to the Bingham Cup official website, “The National Sports Center is a 600 acre, multi-sport complex that includes a soccer stadium, over 50 full-sized fields, a golf course, a velodrome, a meeting and convention facility, and an eight-sheet ice rink. The NSC is one of the largest facilities of its type in the world. Since opening its doors, the NSC has hosted approximately 28 million visitors.”

But the tourney isn’t merely an elaborate, grunting, yang-infested menagerie of full-contact, super-football games. Rugby is famous—sometimes infamous—for its Third Half, where opponents-on-the-field transmute into allies-on-the-barstool.

Bingham himself perhaps summarized this aspect of rugby best: “Let’s go make some new friends…and win a few games.”

Speaking of those games, various access levels can be purchased for the tournament, but game watching is free. The play itself is divided into four divisions—Cup, Plate, Bowl, and Shield—based on various criteria.

Dempster remarks, “I think The Bingham Cup has something to offer everyone. There’s a lot of great rugby to watch. There’s a week straight of amazing parties. There’s a chance to meet new people from around the world. And who can forget the cute boys in short shorts?”

The tournament is meant to symbolize the traits that Bingham demonstrated during his final—his finest—moments: “loyalty, honor, brotherhood, courage, and unity,” according to an official press release.

As Dempster puts it, “Mark was an everyday hero, and, in my opinion, that’s the best kind.”

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