The Fun/Dangers of Rugby


I was a rugger in college. The sport of Rugby looks like a mixture of American football, soccer, and sanctioned hooliganism. I can’t say for certain what caused me to take it up. I’ve always played sports but some were surprised when I began to play a sport that is often referred to as “elegant violence.” Back then I must have come off as shy or lacking the kind of savage blood lust usually associated with the game. Whatever the case, I argue that it’s natural to want to counter balance your personality. Boxing for instance is a common fascination amongst arty people who are not entirely comfortable with how arty they are. This includes many of the great arty people: Miles Davis quit dope the first time because he wanted to box, Bob Dylan weirdly owns a boxing gym, the likes of Hemingway, Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates can’t go on for more than a sentence about boxing without invoking metaphorical lessons on the human condition. We all need a physical outlet in order to be healthy and some of us may need an extreme one. Think of it this way, for years rugby was my yoga: instead of a mat and stretch pants I carried cleats and a mouth guard.

It is full contact, there are no pads, and the bedlam is more or less continuous between plays. I got dropped into my first game, an exhibition match against Seton Hall, at halftime before I was clear on the rules, when the sport was still pretty much indistinguishable to me from random violence. It would have been better actually, safer, if it hadn’t been an exhibition match. This meant the rules were lax and play was loose. The opposing side got away with stacking their line-up with alumni who were experienced ruggers in their mid twenties and early thirties all of whom were playing for mens league clubs. A few of them had brought their young children along to watch, which perhaps spoke to their confidence in the outcome. I remember these guys as huge and heavily bearded, moutain ruggers of folklore descended from the Appalachains to injure undergrad wusses. I’d only attended two practices and so had a limited idea of what I was suppose to do in terms of position, as well as what I was allowed to do in terms of self-defense. Could I spin kick? I wasn’t sure. It seemed in the spirit of the game (though as it turns out would have been highly illegal).

The first half appeared chaotic and actually pretty frightening, so much so that the guy next to me, a rookie forward who’d also never played before, but who was ready to go with his ears tapped and jersey on, suddenly remembered he’d promised to pick his girlfriend up from the train station. Multiple people offered to get her for him. No, he said, it was important that he see her when she got off the train, but he’d be back to play just as soon as he could, because he couldn’t wait to play alongside everyone and to hang out with all of us afterward. He rushed off and was never to be seen or heard from again. Between the two of us he may have been the sensible one.

Just as I was weighing my options of escape, Snot Rocket, a burly junior from Tennessee who had dislocated his shoulders during the first half, marched up on me. I would later find out that he dislocated one of his shoulders almost every game. He thought it was intimidating to make a scene of hollering, popping it back in, then continuing to play. It was effective, and truly creeped people out: opponents, teammates, and spectators alike. That was Rocket.

“You’re going in the game. You’re playing hooker.” He said.

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“Just follow the forwards. Have one of them explain to you what to do in the scrum. And hit the guy with the ball.”

I pulled a jersey that was too big for me over my head backwards. “Which ones are the forwards?”

I had a powerful urge to go pick my girlfriend up from the train station, despite not having a car or a girlfriend. I just wanted to be at the train station. I’d be safe there. I could find a girl. “Hi, do you care for cowardly men in cleats? Hold me.” A voice deep inside, a voice that sounded  like the announcer from the Late Show, told me very matter of factly that if I went in there, I was going to get hurt. Of course, I went in anyway. I’ve always thought of myself as a courageous person. Also, I was scared of Snot Rocket.

Our team was destroyed by double digits that day.  However, I acquitted myself well on the pitch. You just have to make that first tackle. Funny thing, physical trauma mutes nerves, a piece of information that’s admittedly difficult to make use of off the pitch. Having someone tackle you in a parking lot outside a job interview – well there are a mess of logistical difficulties. With the nerves out of the way, I discovered that I liked rugby, and what’s more: I was good at it.

I kept coming back over the next four years. The Alan Kalter voice was right. I got hurt, just not that first day. My middle finger does not straighten all the way because it was broken and never set properly. My left collar bone protrudes and rides slightly higher than my right one because my sterno clavicular joint was dislocated. My right knee clicks and gets sore in the winter. My two bottom front teeth were chipped during the one game I forgot my mouth guard and have been sanded down. I had turf toe. But all in all I got out barely scathed, and it was so much fun. I tried hard not to learn any metaphorical lessons about the human condition. But tackling really is more about mentality and then technique, than it is size or power. And the scrum is a pretty good allegory for cooperation and concerted effort with people you’re bound to.

Look, all I’m saying is that what you do with your body matters, and what you do with your body when you’re young, for years, matters a lot. There’s a reason why sports metaphors are par for the course, and if you’re going to tell me yoga works, well so does rugby, albeit to a different, more rugged effect.

(photo courtesy of Louis Houch/