SAN FRANCISCO - When her son Kerry was 9, and she was walking him to yet another first day at yet another new school, Alice Hoglan had an inspiration.
The boy had always hated his name. Kerry sounds like a girl, he'd complain. So it hit her as they neared the school. "I said to him, `If you want to change your name, this is the time to do it.' " Since no one yet knew him at this school, it was the perfect opportunity to assume a new identity. "He considered it a moment," Alice recalled, "and decided to call himself Mark."
For the rest of his abbreviated life, Mark Bingham - christened Gerald Kendall Bingham - would never allow others to define him. He relished the fact that he defied labeling, that he was always a surprise to those with preconceptions. In an America quick to stuff everyone into a category, no single box was big enough for Mark Bingham's 6-foot-5-inch self.
Even in death, he resists the pigeonhole. To much of the media, he has been "the gay hero," one of those presumed to have battled with the hijackers on United Flight 93. Instead of obliterating its intended target in Washington, the plane crashed in an isolated area in southwestern Pennsylvania, probably saving the nation from an even worse catastrophe on Sept. 11.
But gay doesn't adequately depict Mark any more than other shorthand descriptions - jock or frat boy or Republican or businessman or world traveler or adventurer. He was those things, all of them. But as Mark Bingham could have told you, that doesn't tell you much.
As an athlete, he had many gifts - strength, agility, power and, for such a big man, speed. He might have excelled at a high level in any number of sports. His choice was typically unconventional. He played rugby.
It made perfect sense to those who knew Mark at Los Gatos High School. "Rugby is the ultimate outsider sport," said Todd Sarner, a therapist and close friend since adolescence. And Mark was accustomed to the outsider role.
He was the only child of a single mother with a free spirit, one who might pick a new place to live by sticking a pin in a map (and who, in her 50s, twice became a surrogate mother for her brother and sister-in-law, the second time delivering triplets).
"In 1980, Mark and I hailed into Monterey," said Alice, a constitutionally cheerful woman who exudes enormous warmth. "We camped at Leguna Seca Campground. I guess we were penniless. While I went out looking for a job, he went down to Fisherman's Wharf and caught us fish for dinner. I guess we were a couple of vagabonds."
Three years later, they moved farther north to a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they reconnected with Alice's estranged family and finally put down roots. Alice settled into a job as a flight attendant with United and for the first time, Mark remained somewhere long enough to make lasting friends and enjoy the affections of a family beyond his mother.
In high school in Los Gatos, a prosperous town nestled between the mountains and the ocean south of San Francisco, Mark was well-liked if not popular. No one knew he was gay. But like him, his best friends tended not to fit in elsewhere. "We weren't all jocks, we weren't all nerds, we weren't all brains," said Sarner. "Mark didn't fit into any one box and didn't want to."
In his sophomore year, he showed up at the field where the school's rugby team practiced. "When I first saw him," said Dan Smith, a Los Gatos lawyer and the rugby team's coach then, "he appeared awkward. But as soon as he started moving, I saw he had a real graceful, athletic motion, and was excited about his potential because he was so big."
Mark took to the game immediately and fervently. Rugby is a contact sport played without protective gear, which is why most athletes are happy to leave it to those they consider either lunatics or masochists. By comparison, American football, with its helmets and padding, is a game for the faint-hearted. Rugby was considered so dangerous that for insurance reasons the Los Gatos team had to play off school grounds.
But Mark, captain of the team in his last two years of high school, reveled in the aggression of the game and played with unbounded intensity. "He was fast and he was fearless, absolutely fearless," says Smith.
Rugby changed everything for Mark. Thanks to his prowess at the game, he was recruited by the University of California at Berkeley, the dominant power in collegiate rugby for two decades. The Golden Bears won the national championship Mark's last three years.
Sarner can still visualize his friend's utter abandon on the field, like a wild mustang heedlessly racing across an arroyo. "He'd put his head down, and rip through a whole line of people and then tackle the guy with the ball."
Everyone who plays rugby gets hurt from time to time, but Mark was a unique case. "He suffered more injuries than anyone I know," said Smith, "and I played for 20 years and coached for 15."