Bingham's Life Made Him a Hero

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In a tragic way, Mark Bingham spent much of his life preparing for what happened to him on Sept. 11.

As he boarded United Flight 93, Bingham carried with him a sense of confidence and competitiveness, the friendship of those close to him and those of us who never got to meet him.

We have come to understand that when the plane was taken over by terrorists, Bingham and a few other courageous men fought back.

When the plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside and not the U.S. Capitol or White House, as the terrorists intended, Mark Bingham died a hero.

Bingham, a former Cal rugby player, and the other men were hailed as courageous soldiers on a day of such painful loss.

"I may very well owe my life to Mark," U.S. Senator John McCain said at a Berkeley service earlier this year honoring Bingham. "I love my country and take pride in serving her. But I cannot say that I love her more or as well as Mark Bingham did."

But as much praise has been placed on Bingham, as great a story his life and death have been for the media-the gay rugby player who helped saved the lives of our nation's leaders-some of the people who knew him knew it was just Mark being Mark.

Cal alumnus Ken Montgomery considered Bingham to be his best friend and thinks Mark would rather have been kept leading his anonymous life than to be remembered as a hero.

"I am positive that is not how Mark wanted to die," Montgomery wrote in an e-mail sent this week from Cape Town, South Africa. "He surely did not want his fate determined by some piece of scum religious fanatic who hated America. I am sure he was scared on that plane, but it would be just like him to work through that fear and to act in the moment to make a difference."

Athlete In Action

Mark Bingham, all 6-feet, 5-inches of him, loved a lot of other things besides his country: food and wine shared with good company, discussions on politics, travel to foreign lands and laughing with friends.

Rugby was also a big part of his life. He was a sophomore on Cal's 1991 national championship team-the squad that started the current string of 11 consecutive national titles.

"The unique thing about that '91 team is that we were pretty close because of what we had to go through in training to win," says Jon Beck, who stayed in touch with Bingham over the years.

Cal rugby coach Jack Clark has built the program based on a commitment to intense conditioning, and Beck called the 1991 team the "guinea pigs" for some of the training regimens Clark designed.

Beck says winning that national title was predicated on the execution of long-and short-term goals, and the commitment of a group of people to accomplish something greater than themselves. It was preparation for the brief opportunity in which the ultimate goal could be executed. It was something ingrained in the athletes over time.

Ten years later, Bingham used those same skills to protect a nation.

In the days since Sept. 11, Beck, the senior vice president of sales for EXP systems, says he often thought of Bingham on his many cross-country business flights, and what must have transpired on Flight 93 in the moments before it crashed.

"I flew to New York two weeks after Sept. 11," Beck recalls. "On that flight and on the return flight more so, I thought about what Mark had experienced, and how the others on that flight had put their terror aside and banded together and taken that action. It's truly inspiring."

Phone calls passengers made to loved ones indicate Bingham and three or four other men-all of them former high school or college athletes, and one of them a national judo champ-fought back and subdued the terrorists. Many believe that Bingham's rugby experience, coupled with the kind of person he was, helped him overcome the hijackers.

"When you're an athlete, when you're in that space you've got tunnel vision," Beck says. "When you're in the zone, it's almost meditative. It's kind of a stillness-you can clear your mind of all other distractions."

Beck is one of the many people who knew Bingham that believes he helped prevent the plane from reaching the terrorists' destination.

"To a man, to the members of the '91 team, there wasn't a person who was surprised," Beck says. "That was the caliber of the people on that team, just a bunch of strong, dynamic people."

'A Magnetic Personality'

Montgomery describes Bingham as a modern day Renaissance man and someone who hated to see the little guy picked on. He was the type who could always find a friend in the room.

"He was just a magnetic personality," Montgomery says. "I was always amazed and impressed at how easily he could go up and talk to complete strangers and make those people feel like they were friends right then and there."

It was in this fashion that Bingham befriended Montgomery, a former Cal mic-man. Although both attended Cal at the same time, they didn't meet until after they graduated.

Montgomery was watching a football game at his apartment in San Francisco. The power went out and Montgomery headed out to find a bar to see the end of the game. It was there that Bingham approached him and an incredible bond was formed.

"I think what made our friendship so special is that we were at such remarkably similar stations in life," Montgomery says. "People used to comment that when they thought of one of us, they always thought of the other. We were both physically large and athletic. We both went to Cal, and to understate it, had a passion about the university. . .

"And clearly the fact that we were both gay, and not so much coming to terms with that, but how to say it, feeling comfortable with who we were and the paradoxes that created in our respective lives, added a further level of strength to our friendship."

Remembering A Friend

One of the things that Sept. 11 has showed us is the power of humanity. Markbingham.org, the Web site launched just days after his death, has shown Mark Bingham touched the lives of countless people.

But Bingham was just one person who perished on the day they say the world changed. Those of us who did not know Mark, or the thousands of others who died, probably know someone who did. And if it's not Mark, it's probably someone else.

"You hear about six degrees of separation, but it's only like two or three," Beck says. "It just shows what a close-knit society we are. We are such a huge country, but we're still a community."

Beck not only lost his college teammate, but he also played high school football with Brent Woodall, the former Cal football and baseball player who perished in the World Trade Center.

"Some of the solace I've taken about Mark and the people in that plane is that they were thinking about defeating the enemy, not 'I'm going to die,'" Beck says. "Brent Woodall sat in a stairwell and things came crashing down on him."

Montgomery has also had to make his own peace with the tragic death of his friend, but he has had to do it largely own his own. After working for seven years in the high- tech industry, Montgomery has spent this year volunteering at a community-based orphanage in the Central African country of Malawi.

Although Montgomery said he has been "devastated" by Bingham's death, he feels lucky to have a pleasant memory of the last time he saw his friend.

"It was in New York in May, I was headed back to Africa," Montgomery says. "Mark used to give me a bad time because I always thought I was a bad hugger. I would always turn the wrong way, or bend too low or whatever and for some reason it was always awkward when I would hug someone. This would crack Mark up because he always gave these great affectionate bear hugs.

"So as I got into the cab to head to the airport we hugged good-bye. As the cab drove off I could hear Mark shouting, 'That was a great hug! You're getting the hang of it!' And I looked back and he was smiling his big infectious smile. I am so glad that I have that last mental picture of him, waving and smiling, framed by the back window of the cab."

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