Rufus Hannah, the vulnerable 'Bumfights' participant who turned his life around, dies in car crash

Fifteen years ago, he was “Rufus the Stunt Bum,” a homeless alcoholic goaded into degrading and damaging antics by young men with video cameras.

Then Rufus Hannah turned his life around. He stopped drinking and became an advocate for the homeless. He got married, co-authored a book, reconnected with his family.

He seemed headed for a happy ending.

But Hannah was killed Oct. 4 when the car he was riding in with his sister was struck by a truck not far from their home in Adrian, Ga. He was 62.

“It’s just the saddest thing ever,” said Barry Soper, a San Diego businessman who befriended Hannah when he was on the streets and steered him toward sobriety. “To have come that far, and then to have this happen.”

Born Nov. 27, 1954, in Swainsboro, Ga., Hannah moved around as a child and found comfort in drinking. “Some kids are born with silver spoons in their mouths,” he wrote in “A Bum Deal,” a 2010 memoir he co-authored with Soper. “I was born with a beer bottle in mine.”

He dropped out of high school at 14 and worked construction, then enlisted at age 27 in the Army. An injury during basic training led to his discharge and a deeper descent into the bottle.

Homeless, he drifted to California and wound up in San Diego, where he and a buddy, Donnie Brennan, drew the attention of an aspiring filmmaker who paid them $10 to perform stunts. Brawling with each other. Riding in shopping carts down stairs. Jumping off buildings. Running head-first into brick walls.

Packaged into a 2002 video called “Bumfights,” the footage was a cult sensation that led to several sequels; collectively the films sold hundreds of thousands of copies and spawned a drinking game among college students watching them: Toss a shot back every time Hannah — toothless, wild-haired, the letters B-U-M-F-I-G-H-T tattooed across his knuckles — falls down.

The films also drew the attention of homeless advocates, who blamed them for helping to spark a wave of violence against transients, and law enforcement officials, who charged four men involved in producing the videos with conspiring to stage illegal fights, a misdemeanor.

They pleaded guilty, and two of them were eventually jailed for failing to complete their community service. The filmmakers also paid $300,000 to settle a civil suit filed on behalf of the homeless men.

By then, Hannah had started to change course, thanks to a budding friendship with Soper. They’d met one day when Hannah was sifting through a Dumpster for aluminum cans at a townhome building Soper owns in San Diego.

Rather than run him off, Soper hired him to do odd jobs around the complex.

“He opened my heart to the less fortunate,” Soper said.

After a doctor told Hannah he would be dead within a year if he didn’t stop drinking, Soper reinforced the point by taking him to a local mortuary.

“Get into rehab,” Soper told him, “or pick out your casket.”

He chose rehab. He went to work for Soper as an assistant manager at the townhome complex. He married a former girlfriend, the mother of two of his children. He toured the country as an advocate for the homeless, speaking at high schools and colleges.

About three years ago, he moved to Georgia to be closer to family.

Survivors include four children. He was predeceased by his wife and a son, Eric.

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Twitter: @sdutwilkens

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