BERKELEY - Athletic competition evokes words like "heroic" and "tragic." But the true meanings of these labels are quickly clarified when real tragedy strikes and true heroes emerge.
Mark Bingham emerged as a national hero following his tragic death on Sept. 11, 2001, with the crash of United Airlines flight 93 outside of Shanksville, Pa.
After graduating in 1993 from the University of California, where he earned a varsity letter as a member of the 1991 championship Golden Bear rugby team and a degree in social sciences with an emphasis in international relations, Bingham had gone on to become the chief executive officer of the Bingham Group, a public relations firm serving the high-tech industry. In 2001, he was dividing his time between San Francisco and New York City, where his company had opened an East Coast office.
Bingham barely made his flight to San Francisco from Newark International Airport on the morning of Sept. 11. The plane stayed on course until it reached Cleveland, when radar data shows it veered to the southeast, toward Washington, D.C.
Bingham called his mother, Alice Hoagland, from the plane to tell her that four hijackers had seized control of Flight 93. Alice, herself a flight attendant, quickly learned that three other planes had been hijacked and used as weapons to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She called Bingham back. Reaching his voicemail, Hoagland urged her son to take action against the hijackers.
Bingham never heard that message because, it appears, he had already joined several passengers to thwart their captors' plans. While the events of the final minutes on board Flight 93 will never fully be known, voicemails, cockpit recordings and witnesses from the ground make it clear that as the plane sped at low altitude toward the nation's capital, passengers fought their way into the cockpit to change their fate.
As more and more details became known about the victims, Bingham's experience as a rugby player was identified as a potential factor in his heroism.
Ten years before his death, Bingham had been a member of Cal's national collegiate rugby champions. He was a reserve flanker on that talented 1991 team.
"Mark was an athletic young man, a really good teammate and part of a team that worked as hard as any I've ever coached," said head coach Jack Clark.
Sports Illustrated published an article by Mike Silver in its May 6, 2002, issue in which Hoagland said, "I'm really grateful to Jack Clark for at least attempting to whip my son into shape. Playing rugby at Cal was a rich and rewarding experience for Mark, and it definitely helped shape the values he carried into adulthood."
In a phone call days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Hoagland reiterated: "Mark loved Cal. `Go Bears' was his mantra. His fraternity brothers at Cal's Chi Psi lodge became his lifelong friends. Mark wore the blue and gold rugby jersey proudly and played his heart out for his teammates on the rugby pitch and his remarkable coach."
Hoagland added that she will "always be grateful to Cal's fine faculty and staff, and extraordinary athletic programs, especially rugby, for contributing so generously to my son's life."
Bingham, who also served as the president of his fraternity, continued to wear his Cal hat and jersey after graduation, and he continued playing rugby with various clubs, too, including the San Francisco Fog, a gay rugby team that was founded a year before his death.
With little time to gather and process the facts, Bingham and his fellow passengers had made a heroic decision, took heroic action and died as heroes on a day in which thousands of Americans were killed. On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we honor the memories of those we lost, their families and friends, and all of us whose lives were forever changed by this tragedy.
At a memorial service in Berkeley 11 days after the attacks, in reference to the possibility that the hijackers intended for Flight 93 to strike the U.S. Capitol, Senator John McCain said, "I may very well owe my life to Mark."
Senator McCain went on to say: "I never knew Mark Bingham. But I wish I had. I know he was a good son and friend, a good rugby player, a good American and an extraordinary human being. He supported me, and his support now ranks among the greatest honors of my life. I wish I had known before Sept. 11 just how great an honor his trust in me was. I wish I could have thanked him for it more profusely than time and circumstances allowed. But I know it now. And I thank him with the only means I possess, by being as good an American as he was."
Bingham was neither the only brave American nor the only rugby player on Flight 93. Jeremy Glick, a former captain at the University of Rochester and national judo champion, was also on board and may have been right by Mark's side.
In the Oct. 8, 2001, issue of New Yorker magazine, writer Seymour Hersch quoted a former officer from the Central Intelligence Agency who said, "`What saved the White House on Flight 93 ... was a bunch of rugby players.'"
Clark is often asked whether Bingham's experience as a rugby player may have improved his ability to take action on 9/11.
"Athletes are trained to assess their situation, identify the key issuesand then act," Clark said. "We don't fully know what happened on that aircraft, but I'm comfortable saying that some athletes learned the fate of other planes and quickly decided to take action. And that action saved a lot of people. We will be forever proud of Mark."
Following Bingham's death, the California Alumni Association annually awards the outstanding achievement of a young alumnus or alumna with the Mark Bingham Award for Excellence in Achievement at its Charter Gala each spring.
On Sept. 10, 2011, the Flight 93 National Memorial will be dedicated in Shanksville. Other tributes to the life of Mark Bingham include the Bingham Cup, a gay rugby tournament founded in 2002 and held every other year. The next Bingham Cup takes place in Manchester, England, in June of 2012.
In addition to the film "Flight 93," which attempts to reconstruct the events on board that fateful flight, a documentary titled "With You" also honors his memory. "With You" is scheduled for the festival circuit before its expected release in 2012.
Everyone at the University and around the United States will be eternally grateful to Mark Bingham for his sacrifice, and to his mother, Alice Hoagland, for her everlasting resolve to champion her son's memory.