I still remember my last rugby game. It was 1994 and I was a flanker for the Stanislaus Harlots, a men's club that claimed most of the Central Valley as home. Chris Angelica and I were the only two on the team from UOP and we'd carpool once a week to Merced or Modesto or Manteca or Mazatlan -- some Hwy 99 podunk town south of Stockton -- for practice. Aside from Chris, I had few friends on the team. I practiced, played, and partied with this group, but it was after all a men's team. Back then, I still felt like a kid.
In my last match, we played a side from Monterey. Half their team got lost on the way to the pitch and I volunteered to step in as their hooker. By the middle of the first half, I'd already pissed off my own team because I kept stealing the ball in the scrums. At some point I kicked our hooker in the knee and nearly went to blows with our lock. Monterey loved me.
And then it was over. I remember driving home that day in disbelief. I was graduating soon and knew that was probably my last rugby match. I didn't like the thought one bit. I didn't want to be done at 22-years old. Nor did I want to be like the creepy 50-year old "doctor" on our Stanislaus team who snorted coke in his van before and/or during matches, then played for five minutes. There had to be a middle ground.
But there wasn't. I tried to join a rugby club when I taught in Japan, but I found that working at an all-girls' school didn't help shed any light on the whereabouts of a men's club. My only male Japanese friend went to an art school; he was a worse resource than my female students. When I came home, I heard rumors of rugby in Medford and Redding, but a two-hour drive, just for practice, didn't seem practical.
I grudgingly accepted that I was done playing rugby. I bought a satellite and watched World Cup matches as my 20s turned into my 30s. I got high-speed internet so I could watch rugby clips on YouTube and my 30s nearly turned into my 40s when Trevor called.
"I'm starting a rugby team here. I heard that you used to play." I almost thought it was a prank. Rugby in Siskiyou County? I never thought I'd see it. "I'm old," I told him, "but I'll do whatever I can to help." I dug my 20-year old Adidas Flanker boots from the ball closet and joined the team.
|Of course I close my eyes before we engage.|
My out was that I didn't own a mouthguard. The one piece of protection in rugby: if I didn't have one, I could still remain on the fence about playing. Then, during a full-contact tackling drill (in which I was participating, without a mouthguard), one of our players lost a tooth. I went to Walmart after practice, slapped my $3 on counter for a new mouthguard, and stepped, in my mind, back onto the pitch.
It hasn't been easy. I don't remember Sundays hurting so badly. In college, I never broke a bone, needed stitches, or spent more than a day recuperating. In my first match back, I broke a pinky-toe. Next match, a rib. This winter I had a shiner so big that I terrified my kids and have pulled the muscles in my neck (twice). I had a concussion so bad that was asking players at the end of the match when the second half was going to start. Currently, one leg feels shorter than the other and my forearm is yellow and swollen.
|That's what an old hooker looks like|
Still, I'm back. Fatter and slower, sure, but I feel like I understand the game a little better. I'm the old guy I used to hate playing against. I'm the old guy who knows every dirty trick in the book without getting penalized. I'm the old guy who pisses of indignant young flankers. I'm the old guy in the middle of the pack, mixing it up with the big guys. I'm the old guy who doesn't think he's an old guy. My friends and family think I'm nuts. I probably am; I probably always have been. But I'm a rugby player again and it's never felt so good.