My 9/11 Heroes

September 11, 2008
It's hard not to feel pain or sorrow on September 11. Whether you knew someone who died at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon or not, today is a universally solemn one. I have two heroes that died seven years ago today. I went to Loyola Blakefield (an all-male Jesuit high school) with Dan McNeal, one of the smartest and most ambitious guys I've ever met. Our high school's philosophy was to produce students who were "men for others." Dan lived up to that moniker on September 11, 2001 -- by helping people out of the World Trade Center (where he worked) before thinking about his own safety. Every year our high school honors his memory by hosting the Dan McNeal Golf Outing, which benefits the The Dan McNeal Memorial Fund.
Mark Bingham with fellow ruggers

Mark Bingham (right) with fellow ruggers

My other 9/11 hero, Mark Kendall Bingham, is someone I never had a chance to meet, but who has had a significant impact on my life and the lives of so many other gay athletes. Mark Bingham was a passenger on United 93 and is believed to have helped organize the storm on the plane's cockpit which stopped the terrorists from hitting yet another target that day. Press coverage of Mark's heroism reached far and wide - from Bay Windows in Boston to The Guardian in the UK and from the pages of Sports Illustrated to the pages of The Advocate.  Mark and the other passengers aboard United 93 sacrificed themselves while saving countless lives in the process. Like Dan, Mark was one of those "men for others." Presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain spoke at Mark's memorial service in 2001.  Standing next to Sen. McCain was Mark's partner of several years, Paul Holm.   In an interview with The Advocate, Holm said, "[e]veryone should be proud of him - black, white, gay, straight, Bay Area, New Yorkers - because of his actions that day. We in the gay community should be particularly proud because his actions broke a lot of stereotypes." Mark was an avid sportsman who played rugby for UC Berkley - a powerhouse of collegiate rugby. He was also an original member of the San Francisco Fog, one of the first gay rugby teams in the nation, and helped plant the seeds for the beginning of another gay rugby team in New York City, the Gotham Knights. His fingerprints are on every gay rugby team in some way or another.  When I played for the Phoenix Storm, we chose blue and gold as our colors - in honor of Mark's alma mater, UC Berkeley.  Now, I play for Gotham in New York (whose team colors are also blue and gold), a team that might never have formed if it were not for Mark's meeting with New York rugger Scott Glaessgen. Gay rugby players commemorate Mark's heroism in an international tournament held every two years, appropriately named the Bingham Cup. The first tournament, hosted by the San Francisco Fog in 2002, had eight teams participating. This past June the tournament saw over 30 gay rugby teams meet in Dublin, Ireland. The sport continues to grow in popularity among the gay community with almost 40 gay rugby teams worldwide.  News and feature articles on Mark helped to spur this growth, so much so it's been dubbed "the Bingham effect" by some.  You can read more about that here. Mark's mother, Alice Hoagland, continues to infuse Mark's spirit into the game.
Mark Bingham with his mother, Alice Hoglan

Mark Bingham with his mother, Alice Hoagland

In 2006, I traveled to New York City from Phoenix to play in the Bingham Cup. At the opening ceremonies, Alice Hoglan addressed the crowd of ruggers. She told us how the movie studio behind the film United 93 wanted her to fly out and attend the European premiere. She explained how she declined the studio's offer. Why? Well, she had to be with her boys in New York to play some rugby. I can't begin to describe the roar of cheers that erupted and what her presence meant to the hundreds of men and women who were there to watch and play. The following day, my mother drove up from Baltimore to watch me play. While I was on the ground changing socks, Alice walked up to my mom and started a conversation. I listened as the two talked about what it was like watching their sons play this crazy and dangerous game. Then, my heart dropped when I heard my mom ask which team Alice's son played for. The conversation that followed, however, was amazing. Watching these two moms talk to each other so intensely about how proud they were of their sons who were openly gay and athletes is something I'll never forget. Mark Bingham wanted gay athletes to be accepted not only by their straight counterparts, but by themselves as well. Shortly after the San Francisco Fog was accepted into the Northern California Rugby Football Union, a union until that time comprised of only straight teams, Mark sent his teammates the below e-mail. He wrote:

Now we've been accepted into the union and the road is going to get harder. We need to work harder. We need to get better. 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. More importantly, we have the chance to show the other teams in the league that we are as good as they are. Good rugby players. Good partiers. Good sports. Good men.

Gay men weren't always wallflowers waiting on the sideline. We have the opportunity to let these other athletes know that gay men were around all along - on their little league teams, in their classes, being their friends.

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.

Let's go make some new friends...and win a few games.

Mark understood the power of living life openly and honestly. I take his words and his memory to heart every time I step onto the pitch. I hope you will adopt his message in your life as well. May the memories of Dan, Mark, and the many other heroes and victims of 9/11 live on with us.