Monday, February 16, 2009

The Marrying Kind

It takes leather balls, read the bumper stickers of the golden age, to play rugby. More rightly, I was to learn at my own peril, it took the willingness to receive a blinding scissors kick to them and keep running as if your village--its wooden towers just peeking up over the horizon--had been set aflame by Vikings and you carried the only bucket of water.

At San Jose State I was, for God's sake, the drum major of the marching band, not a football legend. But we met on Saturday mornings at the ROTC field with our heavy cleats and bottles of orange juice laced with vodka, and taped up to celebrate touch football between the scribes of the school paper and the tuba section. I was always matched up at guard or blocking back against the short and fleet Gary Rubin of the Spartan Daily, who would rush the quarterback with the finesse of a junky finding a smoldering roach on the turf. I was never quick, but I loved to get in Rubin's way if I could and deliver a glancing blow.

After one muddy battle, a trumpet player came up to me and said I might make a good candidate for the rugby club. In the mid-1970s, colleges on the West Coast fielded rugby sides, but were prohibited by the rules from competing as NCAA teams. That meant you formed a collegiate "club", an informal team that under any other moniker were madmen who loved to pull hair, gouge out eyes, and take a tasty bite of an opponent's ear all in the name of the local colors. Incentives included after-match drinking parties that involved opening kegs in team cars as you sped to the local sorority house to gather spoils much like the Mayans disrobed their opponents following ball games and tore out their hearts.

The game of rugby, legend goes, was born in 1823 when a soccer player at England's Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, plucked up the round ball "with fine disregard for the rules of football" and raced with it in his arms. Nice mythology if you would have it. As far back as the Middle Ages, villagers across the English countryside beat each other senseless in games called mob football or Shrovetide footie, finding every manner of habit in dragging an inflated pig's bladder across a felicitous boundary. These were the people who invented culinary delights such as blood sausage, kidney pie, and haggis. Even the Vikings (evoked earlier) had a their game of knattleiker in the 9th Century, a rite where you passed a stone, ball, or anything else that would bounce using hefty sticks. Who needs both eyes, anyway? Isn't that why the good Lord gave you two?

My civilized brush with rugby came at a time when universities allowed you to wear rubber tooth guards, shin guards (if you were a true wimp), and you could wrap athletic tape round your head to pin down your ears so an opponent couldn't rip them off in a single attempt. We met on the south campus fields at San Jose State, far from other organized sporting conclaves, on freshly mown grass on fields that ruggers called "the pitch".

The very first practice I was beset with dry heaves that left my ribs aching. You ran the pitch like a soccer player but slammed into each other with the ferocity of American football athletes. You ran, then ran with the ball, then ran laps around the pitch for an hour, then ran some more, and when you had worked on your conditioning for a while, the coaches would blow a whistle and you'd scrimmage the game. Unlike brutish American football, you just didn't go around hitting somebody on every play. Rather, you only hit the fellow with the ball, and then fought like two hundred paupers over a feeble penny to win its possession. This was called a "ruck".

When a ball carrier was struck or tackled, he immediately released the ball, in a gentlemanly fashion that clumsy Americans would consider a fumble or horrific loss of ownership. But in rugby, the two sides would converge on the fallen ball, bind themselves together by gripping loose uniform parts or (quite without shame) any available limb or muscle, and attempt to push the other team off the ball.

I would go home after play to the billowing pot clouds of Allen Hall and climb the stairs to the second floor in my cleats, clattering especially loud to announce that I had survived another practice, and sit on my bed, my heart pounding madly, so much grass in my clothes and receding hair that I resembled a chia pet with bruises. I looked with great fear and wonderment toward Saturday matches, always playing with the knowledge that I was smaller, slower, and an easy target on the pitch.

Because we were a club, a sad step-child to organized college athletic teams, we played the universities around the Bay Area, regardless of their distinct NCAA athletic affiliations. Translation: we were a small, eager side from San Jose State that routinely held matches with gorilla monstrosities hailing from Cal and Stanford, sides that regularly were comprised of pre-steroidal banshees that played on Stanford's Rose Bowl football squads, or on Cal's national championship rugby sides or, worst of all, out of work professional football players who maintained affiliations with their alma maters and thoroughly enjoyed turning us into muddy pancakes across the pitches in Cal's Strawberry Canyon or in Stanford's sprawling fields.

Dave So-and-So, a backup linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers took great relish one Saturday afternoon of punting the ball in a "up and under" with a vicious slice of his leg, following through without impediment into my right thigh. For a week, you could trace the cleat pattern from his shoes in the blue-cum-yellow Rorschach of blood pudding beneath my flesh.

Week after week, it was like watching from on high while the man who possessed my body kept going back for more, driven by some unseen force to seek glory in a game that fled back through time to when angry villagers cracked each other on their crowns with Shillelaghs in some pagan dance of idiocy.

There were enough morons to go around, apparently, so we fielded three sides at San Jose State, and I was never good enough to play for the A-team. I was happy to play the position of second row for the B's. It was a thankless position. Sides began play with what was called a scrum. You lined up facing your opponents in an inverse pyramid: three men in front, two behind, and a final man at the rear. The two largest men, called props, held the third man--a swarthy dwarf with quick legs-- between them. Then the rest of us crouched low, and pushed the entire pyramid against the opposing side. Confused yet? The referee would wait until both pyramids joined in a brutal smack and tossed the ball on the ground where, at once, the little guy held aloft by the props would rut around for the ball with his legs, winning possession.

Of course, you were kicked. It was like bedding down with a team of mules in rut. And by the time the ball was won, you ran off as a pack, chasing the ball carrier, your eyes tearing and head afizz from receiving more than your share of kicks in the leather.

Our last match of my rookie--and only--season, we were bussed down to southern California were it was said we would play Occidental College at the Rose Bowl. I was buoyed by the prospect of playing ball on this halcyon field where John Wayne, Frank Gifford, and O.J. Simpson toiled for the Trojans in the glory of their times. But when we arrived, it became crushingly clear that we were to play our match on the uneven grass of the Rose Bowl parking lot where the pitch was measured out and our narrow goal posts erected.

No matter that the lot was strewn with jagged rocks and bits of broken glass left behind by tailgating revelers. No matter that the stadium towered behind, rather than around, us. We set to work against our adversaries from, as we joked, Accidental College, and afterwards, our gashes stitched in unprofessional creases by volunteer trainers, so many pebbles yanked from shins and raw-rashed buttocks, we shared a keg with our new-found Occidents. We had won by two tries.

I never scored a try in my abbreviated career, taking the ball across the line and touching it down in the act that gave American football the name for a score. But I played out every game, ignored the raging voice that said to play possum, sit on the sideline nursing a faux injury against the beefy ruffians of Cal or Stanford, and when the year was out, I had really done something that none of those fellows from the Saturday tiffs between band and news-rag could even imagine. Only once, concussed in practice, did I pass out and tumble down the stairs at Allen Hall.

You may wonder (though I doubt it) about the title for the spindly fellow who would kick like a newborn demon for the ball in the midst of the scrum. He's called the "hooker." He hacks for the ball like the weekend chef with a barbecue fork who jabs at tri-tips; and after all is said and bruised, it's the hooker who leads us in song at the post-match drink-em-ups, igniting a tune that doubtlessly has been crooned drunkenly for ages on the pitches of Marlborough, Cheltenham, and Shrewsbury:

"If I were the marrying kind, and I thank the lord I'm not, sir,
The kind of man that I would wed, would be a rugby hooker.
and he'd strike hard and I'd strike hard,
we'd both strike hard together,
we'd be all right in the middle of the night
striking hard together...."


Char said...

there is a regular Sunday rugby game in Birmingham. I used to love to drive by and watch them.

Gabby said...

Thanks so much Char. Apparently, no one else seems to like this post. Perhaps the leather balls allusions are off-putting. (I like the pillaging vikings imagery myself.)

Good news is i will be at wilbur hot springs the next two cell phones, no computer!