A few months before Dr. Phillips screwed my ankle back together, I was at the Mardi Gras tournament in Louisiana playing for the Vandals. Fifteen minutes into our first match, the sky was low and dark as we spread across our goal line, waiting for their forwards to attack. The referee marked the spot and they ran a fake to the right, freezing the stiffest part of our defense, the heavyweights. Then their biggest player—roughly half my age and twice my size—charged straight at me as the scrumhalf flipped him the ball.
At 52, most guys are watching their kids play high school sports or riding in carts across the local golf course. But as the young behemoth tucked the ball under his arm and hurtled forward, I bit down on my mouthpiece and lowered my center of gravity and scrambled toward him. I didn’t have any real thoughts, just an instinct to step into the gap. In rugby, you lace ’em up and take your chances.…
* * *
Five miles east of downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Independence Park is a vast, flatiron complex of athletic fields and jogging paths, with five rugby fields lined and laid out beside the main parking lot. That weekend, I was competing in the annual Mardi Gras Rugby Festival as part of the Vandals RFC, a team assembled by my old friend Frank Baker, an Associated Press editor in Los Angeles. Shortly before our first game, Baker announced the starting team and after pulling on the red and black Vandals jersey, I swigged from a gallon of water and set off at a jog, past the concession stands and the medical tent and a portable stereo playing zydeco music. In the stench from the local oil refineries, I ran along with the pancakes from breakfast leaping around in my stomach, trying to steady my heart rate and take the edge off the jitters.
If all sports are really about war, then rugby is an eighteenth-century epic of bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting. On an expanded football field without any yard lines, the teams line up facing each other like infantrymen wearing cleated boots. And every few minutes the combatants must steel themselves for a fresh assault into the teeth of the enemy. Faintheartedness is easy to spot: the player who shirks contact is hooted from the sidelines and often injured. I’ve been playing rugby since Gerald Ford was president and these days I’m the oldest guy on the Vandals roster, an invitational side made up of players from all over, many of whom are in their twenties and early thirties. Current Vandals hail from Ireland, Australia, Kenya, New Zealand, Uruguay, Cuba, Rhode Island, Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. It’s a pretty good club, one of the best I’ve ever played for.
I hear the voices on occasion, saying that I’m too old and too slow, my best rugby long gone. Certainly I have the responsibility of a career, a sixteen-year-old son who needs and deserves my attention, and a body that’s intact but constantly on the verge of major breakdowns: ankles, knees, neck, hamstrings, upper back, and the rest. But rugby gives me something that I can’t get anywhere else: the feeling that, while I’m out there, I’m living the truth. Sure, it’s a young man’s game, but that’s no reason to surrender something you love. What compels my passion for rugby at this age is the dividend from grit: the months of training exchanged for one or two golden moments of performance.
After jogging half a mile, I stopped among some trees and pissed on a holly bush, coming out to a baseball diamond to stretch in the dust near home plate. Away in the distance I could see the rugby fields grouped together and the other Vandals moving back and forth in a red-shirted mass. Seven of this year’s nineteen Vandals come from my home club, Amoskeag RFC of Manchester, New Hampshire. Then there’s thirty-one-year-old Tom “Reggae” Rege, who was born in Kenya, and Lyle Jones, thirty-three, from Renova, Mississippi. My old college roommate Surfer John Hearin from Cocoa Beach, Florida, and Super Dave Laflamme of Rhode Island, and Spencer Cackett, a commercial deep-sea diver from Australia. Tennessean Daniel Carter, who talks about as fast as a possum does arithmetic, enjoys regaling us with stories about his hometown. “In ‘Sweet Lips’ you order food and they bring you gravy—whether you want it or not,” says Carter, who owns a coon-hunting mule named Festus.
But the undisputed chieftain of the Vandals is forty-two-year-old Frank Baker, the son of a newsman who’s originally from Upstate New York. With his mobile features and white-blond hair, Baker looks like a younger and more rugged version of the actor Ed Begley, Jr., and was once a four-letter man for the Voorheesville High Blackbirds. A couple of times a year, he invites his favorite ruggers to join him under the banner of the Vandals, and players converge from various points to witness Baker’s monumental place kicks and offbeat sense of humor.
Baker invented the Vandals back in 1995, when he was playing for Amoskeag, by combining our sturdy pack of forwards with Providence RFC’s shifty backline, which produced a tournament victory in Portland, Maine. (I didn’t play in that first game, but I’ve played for the Vandals on just about every trip since.) The idea caught on and soon, excellent rugby players with exceptional social skills—funny, charismatic guys that Baker had encountered over the years—were clamoring for a Vandals’ invitation. As he roamed the country in various assignments for the Associated Press, he added ruggers from the Deep South, Washington, D.C., and California and Colorado to the mix. It was a perfect rugby storm for me: high-level tournament competition two or three times a year, with representative level players who didn’t take themselves too seriously and loved to have a good time. I’d tried Old Boys rugby with various over-thirty-five and over-forty teams and it wasn’t for me. Fat guys huffing and puffing around the field, sloppy play, and bad jokes; nothing like the kinetic, forward-driven rugby I’d always thrived on. And just when you caught on to the joke and relaxed, some 230-pound moron would knock you senseless. Fuck that.
Even in a public place, a rugby team is a closed society, talking in a kind of shorthand that outsiders are never privy to. On this particular trip, several of the Vandals visited Bourbon Street in New Orleans and as we proceeded among the masked revelers and funky, pie-eyed tourists, Baker jerked his hand upward, pointing to a middle-aged woman on a balcony overhead. She had a cup of beer in her hand and a pair of red plastic horns attached to her head.
“A housewife from Ohio is, in fact, the devil,” said Baker.
“Get behind me, Mrs. Satan,” I said, as we went past.
Minutes before the opening kickoff, I joined the other Vandals beneath the goalposts with a sense of mortal dread running through my veins. There’s a fair chance you’ll get hurt or maimed in a rugby game, and a remote possibility you’ll be killed. Over my career, I’ve known three very athletic guys who ended up in wheelchairs and before every game I kneel down, make the sign of the cross and whisper, “Dear Lord, please keep me, my teammates and our opponents free from injury and help me play to the best of my ability, as a glory to God. Amen.”
Being in a scrum, especially right up front—at hooker, where I play—is particularly dangerous. The two packs line up a yard apart, a total of eight men on each side intricately bound together with three men forming the front row, the hooker in the middle. When the referee shouts, “Ready. En-gage!” and sixteen guys collide with the thump of bone on bone, there is absolutely no way to remain half interested in what’s happening. As soon as the scrumhalf puts the ball into the tunnel between the two sets of forwards, it’s my job to hook the ball back with my foot, at the right speed and in the right part of the tunnel, so our scrumhalf can get it out to the backs. Once the two packs come together at that velocity and with that much force, the joy of risk crowds out the dread.
The two props—the Argentines call them pilars—are expected to protect the hooker no matter what. That weekend in Louisiana, I was playing between two longtime teammates from New Hampshire. Butch McCarthy, six foot one, 285 pounds, is a former Plymouth State College Academic All-American in football who lives by the credo: high intensity, short duration. Like-sized Fred Roedel played football and rugby at Norwich University and has the on-field temperament of an enraged moose. I’m five foot nine, 165 pounds and for the past twenty-three years, I’ve trusted life and limb to Freddie and Butch. In the scrums, we hang on and squeeze until our fingernails bleed.
Our first match was against a team of buzz-cutted navy flyers from Pensacola, Florida, who won their preliminary game by a score of 67–0. They kicked off and Bill Bishop caught the ball and the onrushing Pensacola boys hit the breakdown and we all went down in a heap. In rugby, the area surrounding you is exaggeratedly clear, absent of sound and slow moving like syrup. Outside that circle everything whips past at incredible speeds. The game moves with the quickness of thought, the ball spun from player to player, suddenly appearing in your hands. Decisions are made on the crest of an instant—run with it, pass it, take a tackle or go to the ground—and mistakes bring that blurry violence right to you.
The first few scrums of the Pensacola games were tight and breathless; all I can really think about is doing my job, executing the skills I’ve acquired over the years in precise little steps. I’m not a star, and never have been; I know what I’m supposed to do and do it without any fanfare. In the rest of life, my role is a little uncertain, but here, in the midst of what looks like utter chaos, I know exactly what’s expected of me. I know who I am.
Against the navy boys I did what I needed to in the scrums, the lineouts and the loose play, waiting for the younger guys to tire, for the game to come back to me. But when we committed a penalty about eight meters from our goal line, we were forced to retreat and they played the ball off the ground from the referee’s mark and charged at our line. Our defense was stretched thin and they handed the ball to a young, sturdy-looking prop who took it on the dead run and came straight at me. In a nanosecond I stepped forward, dropped my shoulder and tried to get underneath his chest. But he was running low and the broad blade of his shoulder struck the top of my head, glanced off, and crashed into my left side, throwing an electric charge from my jawbone down the length of my spine.
The sky turned black, and I went ass over teakettle and landed on my head in the end goal. Somewhere in the blur of our collision, the Pensacola man flicked the ball to a teammate and it was that fellow who scored in the corner. Butch McCarthy came over and yanked me to my feet. “Physics,” he said.
My neck felt like it had been cranked downward a few notches, and my shoulder was killing me. Since the early 2000s, I’ve barnstormed with the Vandals twice a year and spent the rest of the time getting fit. I train pretty hard six days a week, limit myself to a couple of beers, and go for regular medical checkups. With all those hours in the gym, the last thing I wanted to do was take myself out of the game.
A few minutes later, I got whacked in the head with somebody’s boot when I was rucking the ball from a pileup. Sinking to one knee, I asked the referee for a minute of injury time. Fred Roedel came over and put his hand on my back and asked if I was all right. We stood up and I walked in a little circle, jangling my neck loose. Then I stepped through the knot of players and slung my arms over my props’ shoulders, preparing for the next scrum. My heart was hammering and my breath came shallow and fast. I leaned hard against Butch’s hip, the two packs slammed together jarring my vision, and the ball came skittering into the tunnel. I struck with my right foot, heeling it toward the back of our scrum. We drove over the ball, securing it, and Fred said, “Good job.”
Although we trailed by only three points with a few minutes to play, we ended up losing to the navy boys 34–23 and got bumped into the consolation bracket. In the next game, we defeated a team from Oklahoma City 37–0 but I further telescoped my neck in a mismanaged scrum and had to come out. After the match, I limped over to the medical tent and asked one of the physical therapists to examine my injuries. I felt a pinching sensation behind my left ear and the trapezius on that side was tense and weak. The therapist probed around with her fingers and discovered two knots of muscle behind my shoulder blade.
“Take some aspirin and ice it,” she said.
We were scheduled to play Lafayette in the third-place match the next day. “Can I play tomorrow?” I asked.
The therapist shrugged. “I don’t know.”
That night, it was time for kangaroo court, an ongoing stream of banter, where your rugby pals zero in on your weaknesses for the entertainment of the assembled. One man was accused of laundering and ironing his jersey between matches. Another was mocked for being thrown out of the game just minutes into his Vandals debut. In rugby, no one is innocent. As Judge Baker worked his way through a crowded docket, I nursed a can of beer and worried about my neck.
After the court session, most of the Vandals ambled down to the casino, which was a big riverboat tied up near the hotel. At my age, important matches don’t come around very often and I wanted to play in the consolation final. So I went back to my room and watched an old Steve McQueen movie with an ice pack on my neck, praying for a fast recovery.
Early the next morning, we gathered in the lobby for the drive out to the fields. When we heard gospel music coming from a conference room, fellow Catholic Tom Turner and I walked down to investigate. A short, powerful-looking man from the Christian Interfaith Ministry greeted us at the door, shook our hands and welcomed us inside. A drum kit stood at one end of the narrow hall, flanked by an electric organ and three female singers in their Sunday best. Facing the musicians were several rows of chairs but none of the tiny congregation was seated: white-gloved ladies were swaying back and forth with their arms raised and a man who looked seven feet tall was clapping his hands like thunder.
They were singing the Lord’s Prayer and the organist punctuated the final bars of the hymn with cries of “Thank you, Lord!” while the congregation shook their hands at the ceiling. It occurred to me that I’d traveled to many exotic places and experienced many incredible things because of rugby. And as the hotel conference room erupted in “Amen!” and the vocalists held the last, trembling note, I said my own little hosanna to the fellowship and mutual esteem that are the hallmarks of our sport.
Out at the pitch, I felt pretty good after stretching out and receiving deep pressure massage at the medical tent and informed Baker that I was able to play. We went down into the shade at the north end of the park and ran some ball drills and practiced a few lineouts. Then the referee came over and inspected our boots and gave us a few perfunctory instructions. “Two minutes,” he said.
Baker drew us into a circle. “The Vandals have never entered a tournament without winning a piece of hardware,” he said. “Let’s get that plate.”
The referee blew his whistle and we ran onto the field and lined up to take the kickoff from the Lafayette Rhineaux. Even after giving up a fluke try in the opening minute, we knew we were going to win. “Steady, boys,” said Damian MaGuire, our hard-charging Australian center. “Hit it up in there.”
For several minutes, everything we did turned to gold: swift, beautiful scrums, clean pickups and hard running into the gaps. I sprinted from one joyous breakdown to the next, digging the ball out like a fox terrier, and in the continuous, switchback manner of good rugby, twenty-six-year-old Marc Murray from Amoskeag scored three tries in succession. Walking back to midfield, gnarly-eared John Solomon from Washington, D.C., slung his arm around my neck and Bill Bishop came alongside and grinned like a matinee idol.
“That’s the stuff,” Billy said.
On that chilly afternoon in Louisiana, we defeated the Rhineaux 48–14. At the final whistle, the Vandals all crowded around and mussed each other’s hair and spat on the bayou mud we’d been wallowing in. Then we gathered round, making a bouquet of our fists and gave three cheers for Lafayette and three for the referee, and I felt young and strong. I felt alive. Past the age of fifty, I was grateful for every second on the field, and for every moment I spend on this earth.
Not long after that trip, Surfer John and I played for the Vandals again in the Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest, with several of our old buddies from U of Florida watching from the sidelines. They were hooting at first, making fun of my gray hair and pretty much ridiculing everything I did. But we played a solid match against a bunch of young studs from the metro New York select side, losing by a converted try. Afterward our former teammates greeted us with some cold beers.
“You’re still playing real rugby out there,” one of them said.
Not long after that, I injured my left foot in a mountain climbing accident, suffered through the ankle surgery, and then an eye operation for a “cataract by trauma,” which was caused by a vicious sucker punch in a rugby game nine years ago. Now, facing all that physical therapy and with my sporting future in doubt, I can’t help thinking about how much I love rugby, and how it all got started.
Copyright © 2012 by Jay Atkinson