I began playing rugby in the 1970s, having first seen it played when my wife and I stumbled upon the annual Aspen Ruggerfest tournament on an early fall excursion to Colorado.
We were living in Santa Fe at the time, and when we returned home, I poked around and discovered that there was a local rugby club, the “Santa Fe Santos.”
The first time I showed up for practice, no one had a real rugby ball, so we played around with a football in a small park just up the street from where were living on Canyon Road. I eventually figured out the rules of the game (complicated because the British invented it) and became a marginally useful player.
Over the years, I ended up playing for a team in Albuquerque, helped start another team in Albuquerque and eventually ended up as volunteer coach for the New Mexico State University rugby team, the “Chiles.” That team even made it to the national “Final Four” in collegiate rugby — a club sport.
Looking back on what appealed to me about rugby, I think it was mostly that it was an outlier kind of sport. Not like mainstream softball, flag football or pick-up basketball. It it was full of really unusual characters that made it highly entertaining. And there was a high level of comradery because of the unusual nature of the sport and the fact that so few people were involved in it. I also really liked rugby jerseys.
Rugby has been tamed a bit from when I played it, and I guess that’s a good thing. But I guess I really miss some of the characters, even though some stuff they did was bad, but mostly harmless. And of course the fact that they liked to drink lots of beer and Guinness resulted in some bad decisions along the way.
Some of my memories of rugby:
The team from Harvard Medical school that rolled cadaver skulls onto the pitch at the start of a game to intimidate the oppononent.
A guy once described as “smart as a box of rocks” who managed to get free drinks every time he could recite the names of all the 37 bones he had broken during his career.
A student player of mine, who when asked if he knew what a “pseudo intellectual” was, responded by asking: “Isn’t that one of those Japanese wrestlers?”
A guy who used to start the Aspen Ruggerfest tournament by playing the Star Spangled Banner on his accordian.
A guy who swiped a lawn mower to “trim” the shag carpet in the lobby of a plush hotel. (Yes, he paid to replace it.)
A few members of my college rugby team, who after an evening of drinking beer, went on to the NMSU golf course and rounded up all the flag pins on the greens and took them to their dorm. When I learned about it and barked at them, they quickly returned the flags. I suspect it’s why pins are removed every evening at the course now.
Players who shaved off the eyebrows of one of their teammates when he was asleep.
Another player, who for some unknown reason was asked what he thought his name would be if he was Jewish. His response: “Johnny Bagel.”
And perhaps most memorable was an incident with a free spirited player named Ralph. Ralph, who played with reckless abandon at times, had joined with other members of the team to help clean up a post-tournament event at the Southern New Mexico State Fair Grounds. When we were finished and were driving back to town on Interstate 10, Ralph was riding in a pickup truck in front of me. At about 70 miles per hour, he decided to climb out of the side window of the truck and into the bed of the vehicle. At that point he began stripping off his clothes — all of them. Standing upright with wind-whipped flesh and complete disregard for his safety, he began waving at passengers as they drove by.
I’ll never forget the look of horror in two elderly women in a Buick who happened to be rolling by Ralph’s truck when he blew them kisses in his natural state. I’m hoping they did not suffer heart attacks.
I’ll probably write more about rugby later, particularly why it was so rewarding to be a coach of young men — who despite occasional youthful foolishness, have turned out to be fine citizens and individuals who have made me proud. Among them are a bank president, fire chief, high school football coach, construction foreman, teachers, lawyers, small business owners, a high level law Border Patrol agent and good husbands and fathers.
I hope I played some small part in their lives.