It must have been a sight to behold. Sweaty from head to toe, gasping for breath, plopping to the dusty purple floor of Ehinger gym, too drained to walk twenty yards and sip the water my body cried out for. Immobile with the worst Charley-horse that I’d had since high school, I watched men who hadn’t appeared all that fit walk over to the fountain, sip water, and chill. The head coach came up and whispered in my ear, “These fellas have had a head start.” I didn’t have the breath to tell him that he was stating the obvious. The rest of practice was a blur, mostly with me nodding at phrases that I didn’t understand (like “ruck over” and “scrum down”) and standing bugeyed at drills that looked more like chaos than anything else. I consider myself pretty intelligent, but WCU rugby was confusing the hell out of me. At the end of practice, as I sat near the same spot where I’d nearly collapsed, the same coach strode over to me and asked very calmly if I’d be back. When my prideful mind said yes, it answered without my broken body’s permission.
That was just over two months ago, and now that I am finished with rugby (pulled kicking and screaming from the sport instead of limping away like a sissy) I count it as one of my greatest college experiences. But there were complications, among them the most obvious: I was the only black man on the team.
Admittedly, playing Jackie Robinson was a new challenge. I imagined all eyes on me through every dropped ball and missed tackle. I imagined eyes on me every time I asked the coach to re-explain which “pod” I was in, or where to hit a “maul.” Within a week, most of my friends at home had told me their version of “you’re crazy.” To them, rugby was a redneck game for mohawk sporting white boys. I’m glad I didn’t listen, for they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Rugby is a game that honors toughness, not skin color. Players are recognized for even more than playing through bloody noses and blackened eyes. They are recognized for what Coach calls “mental toughness,” or the ability to see only the task at hand, and not making excuses for the physical barriers. After realizing this, the glances over my shoulder died, as did any attention I was paying to my small-minded homeboys.
One stereotype was hard to break. Anyone who has seen rugby shorts knows how incredibly short they are, and our first game against Georgetown was on a cold and rainy February day. Allergic to cold, I came out with white long johns beneath the daisy dukes, making a fashion statement that had a few of the men in stitches. (Under pressure from one of the seniors, I removed the offending garment and went as barelegged as every other white boy, ending up nearly as pale with ash.)
The game was every bit as ragged as a bar room brawl, sprinkled with moments of fluidity that could challenge a ballet. Players flew around making tackles, and within ten minutes (a regulation game is 80 minutes, with two 40 minute, break-less halves) all of those phantom instructions made sense. They all could be translated (for us forwards) as “Go hit somebody. Come low, come hard, come together.” The twenty-minute scrimmage flew by in what seemed half the time, and I emerged from it muddy, bruised, and loving it all.
We traveled to other tune-up matches, from facing a men’s club in Philadelphia to a student group from Delaware University. Throughout it all, there had been one focus, an upcoming match against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Should WCU win, they’d qualify for the MARFU Final Four tournament at Penn State the following week. Yet, as the date grew closer, we began struggling against inferior competition. In an attempt to build character, the coaches upped the physical training, and to build morale, they installed new plays (something that I hadn’t realized could be done with rugby.)
After a crisp week of practice, we boarded three vans for Blacksburg. Eight very cramped hours later, we were there, and in a blink, the next day’s game time had arrived. I remember stretching on the plush non-state-school grass, seeing how nonchalantly the Tech men were flitting around, apparently looking past the ruckers from Pennsylvania.
Yet we didn’t travel eight hours to lose. Coach, who, as one of the team’s seniors remarked, “does this all for us,” told the men to have fun. As I joined the rest of my (killer) B-side team in our varsity huddle, we saw nothing but fiery eyes and heard only silent lips. All talk was finished and apparently so was V-Tech.
Our forwards, undersized by Tech standards, packed a punch that knocked the Hokies off of nearly every tackle. With the B-side hollering from the sideline, our varsity backs twisted and slipped through Tech tackles, slippery as wet balloons with jerseys. With every score, we’d taunt our hosts, who stood arms akimbo, wide eyed at the hurricane that was blowing through town.
At the half, one of the team’s bloodied elder statesman broke up a premature celebration, reminding us that Tech was embarrassed, and would come out harder after the break. They did, but so did we, and as the dust cleared, our varsity had silenced Blacksburg. (Besides some huge hits by my teammates and a couple crazy-legged Forrest Gump runs by myself, the B-side game was nothing special.)
That was my last WCU rugby game. A coaching job with WCU football is now absorbing my free time, and it leaves me with nothing but fond memories of an experience that I would’ve missed, had I listened to critics (both internal and external). This is my call to everyone: Join a sports club that you’ve never tried before! If you call yourself tough, give rugby a try. Good people, good parties, good fun, good rucking!