BERKELEY Admittedly, I have a strong affinity for people who confront bullies, cherish their mothers, take risks large and small, dare to be different.
I would have liked Mark Bingham.
As told through the voices of his mother, his college rugby coach, former opponents and acquaintances, he confronted bullies, adored his mother, dared to be different and based on cockpit recordings, cellphone calls and FBI analysis took risks that remain almost unfathomable.
Bingham was among the passengers and crew members who tried to overtake the hijackers before United Flight 93 plunged into a field in Shanksville, Pa., killing all 44 aboard, but thwarting the terrorists' attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Many of those who knew him weren't surprised to learn that he was one of the leaders.
"The athletic mindset would be, 'We have to do something or this is going to end badly,' " said legendary UC Berkeley rugby coach Jack Clark, who recruited Bingham out of Los Gatos High. "The passengers who stormed the cockpit had to acknowledge what the situation was, that it was dire, yet that didn't keep them from acting. It makes total sense that they were athletes."
Todd Beamer, who uttered the words "Let's roll," played baseball and basketball. Tom Burnett was a former high school quarterback. Jeremy Glick was a judo champion and accomplished rugby player. The three men were all in their 30s and at least six feet tall.
Bingham, a reserve on Cal's 1991 national championship rugby squad, was even more imposing at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. Proud of his fitness and athletic mien, he wore baseball caps turned backward and tight shirts that accentuated his chiseled frame. He loved French food and living in the Bay Area and traveling to exotic destinations, almost always with a Cal rugby bag slung over his shoulder.
We know some of this because Bingham sort of shares the neighborhood. The rugby community within Northern California is a vocal, tightknit club that stretches deep into the foothills. According to the Northern California Youth Rugby Association (NCYRA), the Sacramento region accounts for 41 percent of participation at the youth, middle or high school levels in this part of the state.
One Cal official referred to Sacramento as the "epicenter" of youth rugby and noted that the Bears' 2011-12 roster includes 16 players from the area, with defending national champion Jesuit High accounting for 10 spots. Additionally, three former Marauders were selected for the U.S. national team.
Without overstating Bingham's athletic accomplishments, the mention of his name within rugby circles continues to evoke a powerful response. Images of doomed Flight 93 remain inescapable, details of the insurrection still compelling, never more so than during Saturday's televised memorial service at the crash site.
"Everyone is affected," said longtime Jesuit coach Fred Khasigian, "especially out here where Cal rugby is so dominant. My oldest and youngest sons played for Jack Clark. They knew all about it (Bingham's role on the flight). People are still around who knew him when it happened."
Bingham's imprint on his beloved sport is complicated, fascinating, evolving. His mother, Alice Hoagland, credits rugby with giving her son much-needed confidence and emotional equilibrium. She believes Mark would have been delighted by many of the subsequent developments pertaining to rugby, been humbled by others, and thoroughly surprised by the sport's growth in the decade since the terror attacks.
When officials at Cal announced plans to trim four sports following the 2011-12 seasons baseball, lacrosse, men's and women's gymnastics, and demote rugby to varsity status in order to comply with Title IX requirements a defiant Clark counterattacked; he arranged for his self-sustaining program to finance the threatened women's sports.
Bingham would have strongly approved, said his mother, and been similarly moved by the San Francisco Fog's increased credibility in international club circles.
"Gay rugby would have continued to grow without Mark," said Kory Salsbury, the Fog's president, "but certainly it would never have been near this pace. The simple fact that Mark signed on, after playing at Cal, was huge for us."
The Fog will honor Bingham today at a San Francisco pub. The Bears will hold a moment of silence and show a video of the 1993 Cal graduate on overhead screens during today's events. Hoagland is in Shanksville, attending memorial services.
When asked his plans, Clark instead related his last conversation with his former player. The two chatted privately at a reunion of the 1991 championship team just months before the attacks. Bingham, who ran his own marketing and public relations firm, appeared to be thriving.
"He talked about playing rugby at Cal, how important it was to him," said Clark. "I think it meant a lot for him to renew those bonds. What is proprietary to sports is this concept of team, of going shoulder to shoulder with other people."
After a pause, the coached added, "That day (9/11)? They did pull it off. They saved a lot of lives."