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14 November 2019

A legacy in cleats
by Roger Brigham

Ten years ago this day I stood on a pair of crutches in the drizzle of a San Francisco playing field, watching men sloshing about in the muck as I thought about the final moments in the life of a man I had never met.

It had been four days since the jolt of 9/11, the plumes of smoke long dissipated into the clear blue sky of that Tuesday morning but the national wounds of anger, anguish, and numbness were still fresh and lingering; they even ache a decade later. The evening of 9/11 several friends had gathered in our home to talk about what it all meant, talk about our friends back east dealing with it all, and a day later we had attended an impromptu solemn ceremony on what was supposed to be a happy occasion: the promotion of our friend Becky Campbell to sergeant in the Oakland Police Department. But you didn't laugh much that week and your voice, usually subdued, was more likely to be raised in anger than mirth, so we lit candles on the lawn and thought quiet thoughts and spoke of hope and courage and resolution.

But four days later on that Saturday the weight was still heavy in my heart and I felt a desperate need for some other connection. Never had I felt so cut off from lifelong friends in New York City, never so helpless. I wanted to punch holes in walls, I needed ... I needed ... I needed to be around ... jocks. My people.

I needed a testosterone and adrenaline fix. I had started getting mysterious pains in my hips earlier that year, pains which nothing relieved, pain that deepened and worsened until I needed crutches to walk. My hips had been subjected to X-rays and MRIs and thumping and poking until the verdict was finally rendered that I would have to have them both replaced with titanium rods.

It seemed a lifetime ago but it had only been a few weeks before that I was walking with relative ease at the Oakland Pride Festival with Eddie and our dog, Bessus. We were about ready to head home to get the dog out of the sun when a husky young man came running up to me in a Fog rugby jersey.

"Are you a rugby player?" he asked me. Indeed, I was wearing a rugby jersey but, unlike so many wannabes, I had actually played rugby in my shirt. I told him I was and he asked me what position. Fullback. That got him very excited. He had just switched positions to fullback and wanted advice on how to play it. So as we stood there, Bessus drooling and looking as chipper as he ever did and significant other getting the come-on stares he so often does from passersby, as I chatted about the times a fullback must peel off and charge the front, the times to deploy deep, and so on.

And that was how I met Derrick Mickle, a founder of San Francisco Fog Rugby, and learned about the club. And it was that chance encounter – that and the planes crashing in New York and Pennsylvania – that led me to the world of LGBT sports and extended my athletic life another decade.

So when post-9/11 Saturday rolled around, I packed up Eddie and the dog into the car and drove to a Fog rugby practice. The weather was cruddy, in other words perfect for rugby. We wandered over to the sidelines and watched.

Me watching. Not doing: watching. Which, as an athlete, really gnawed at me.

In years past, I would have run out on the pitch and joined the action. Now I knew I could not run out there and be part of it all. And I thought about all of the tragedies and disasters I had covered as a news reporter and it slowly dawned on me that if I were in New York City right then, not only would I not be able to help with the rescue efforts, I would not even have been able to outrun the cloud that billowed out from the twin towers.

The day after 9/11, newspapers and TV stations ran extensive color coverage of the victims, including profiles of the families of people on United Flight 93. For Mark Bingham the San Francisco Chronicle noted merely that he had played on national championship rugby teams at UC Berkeley a decade before and had a mother. Period. Ten years of his life were not worth mentioning.

It was not until later in the week that the mainstream media began to tell the world more about Bingham: to tell the world as much about this out gay man's life as they had already told about the heterosexual passengers with him on that fatal flight. Didn't tell them until the sense of immediacy had diminished ever so much.

I had spent the week leaving messages with the papers and TV stations castigating them on their double standard of coverage. And when I saw a TV reporter on the field interviewing players, I hobbled up to her and read her the riot act once more.

"Now is the time to tell the story," she said to me condescendingly.

"No, the same time as everyone else was the time," I said. "That would have been the right time to let the world know that a gay man fought as a hero and others were willing to fight alongside him."

In the anger and the drizzle, I fumed and I grieved, then I vowed that somehow and some way, I would play sports again.

Flash forward a decade and this is a different world in so many ways. Bessus is gone but we have his great, great nephew, Heracles. I never have been able to run again but was able to trot my titanium replacement hips out onto the wrestling mats for a fair number of matches and have become immersed in volunteerism in LGBT sports. The Fog and the International Gay Rugby Association and Board launched the biennial Bingham Cup in 2002 to commemorate the fallen hero. I met his mother Alice Hoagland at that inaugural tournament and our paths have crossed periodically since as she has become an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.

IGRAB has flourished and the Bingham Cup has become a major international event, with the next one scheduled for 2012 in Manchester. The Fog still thrives and has a bold introductory statement on its Web site: "The San Francisco Fog RFC is committed to an ethic of inclusion. The vision of the club is to be the preeminent rugby club in the world that actively pursues the participation of people of color, gay men, women, and other groups traditionally underrepresented in rugby."

On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 this year, the Fog players and friends gathered at the Lone Star Saloon to watch the coverage of the rugby World Cup and remember Bingham. The highlight was a showing on the NBC broadcast before the U.S.-Ireland match of a moving and well-done video tribute to Bingham. The video is buried deep within the NBC Sports Web site but can be seen at http://www.universalsports.com/video/assetid=35e0f696-563d-49b1-bfdc-c29248f9786b.html - profile+hero+mark+bingham.

And the Fog has a video of the reading of an inspiring letter Bingham wrote to the club just weeks before his death upon the team's acceptance into the Northern California Rugby Football Union. It is a battle call for excellence and acceptance that goes to the heart and soul of what LGBT sports are all about. A determination to be second to none in competition and compassion.

That's a call the Fog and other Bay Area LGBT clubs answer every time they practice and play. It's a battle I am proud to be part of.

The video of the reading of Bingham's letter may be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QLc8IagGk8. More information about the Fog is available at http://www.sffog.org. For information about other local LGBT teams, visit http://www.teamsf.ning.com.

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