Although immensely popular elsewhere in the globe, rugby didn’t start gaining any real traction in the United States until fairly recently.  It’s similarities to some of American’s favorite sports, namely football and soccer, may have kept many from embracing what seems like a brutal bastardization of the two – but I think it has more to do with the perception of the sport, and parents wanting to keep their kids conscious and concussion free.  In the minds of many, rugby is nothing more than American football without pads – full of collisions, impacts and the potential for injury… and they aren’t completely wrong.  Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

While lots of rugby players are introduced to the sport by watching it on TV, or knowing someone who plays in a club league, my introduction was rather different.  After breaking my leg pretty badly my senior year in high school, I lost the opportunity to play college football freshman year, and like any reasonable soon-to-be-adult, I ran away.  I spent a while on the West Coast, visiting shoreline towns in Alaska before making my way through Canada and eventually all the way down to Catalina Island in California.  Broke, and no closer to understanding what I wanted to do with my life, I returned home with my tail firmly deposited between my legs and no plan.  My parents, who were struggling with their own emotional crisis (they would soon decide to get a divorce) made a deal with me: I had a place to stay and food to eat if I decided to pursue college, otherwise my return could only be a visit, and not a homecoming.

I promptly applied to a local private college (Southern Vermont) and because my family couldn’t afford the tuition, I pursued grants, scholarships, and financial aid with a fair amount of success.  After being awarded a scholarship for my writing, I was able to lock down a small student loan for the remainder of my first year’s tuition and I began my life as that guy that stuck around after high school.

The school didn’t have a football program, but I heard rumors of a rugby team.  Knowing absolutely nothing of the sport, I didn’t pursue it until I was recruited (rather, ordered) to attend practice one Friday by a monstrous man with a gravelly voice named Nate.  I followed him to the practice field where a rag-tag group of young men had congregated around what looked like a football with an infection.  They ran around, spouting strange commands and piling onto one another – and I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it – but I knew it looked fun.

The next day, I played in the first rugby game I’d ever seen.

I can be seen on the bottom left, lifting my good friend Andy for a line out.

Although a pretty terrible ball handler, it turned out the months of rehab hadn’t robbed me of my ability to lay down some pretty good hits, so I told myself I’d avoid touching the ball if at all possible, and focus all my attention on being a defensive player.  Our opponent, a division three program out of Hartford, Connecticut, was pretty evenly matched with us, with one exception.  A huge, red-headed guy quickly set himself apart from the rest of his team, clobbering our best defenders, breaking huge runs, and scoring three times before we had even put any points on the board.  It was clear to me that some of our guys were intimidated by this monster – so I saw it as the perfect opportunity to make an impression.

The next time he broke through our defenses and set off on a long run, I left my position on the other side of the field in pursuit.  After what felt like the longest thirty or so yards of my life, I caught up to him and hurled my head and shoulders into his legs.  His knees felt like baseball bats impacting my skull, but my limp body managed to tangle him up enough to send him crashing to the ground on top of me.  In football, such a tackle would be met with a whistle and a break… in rugby, hitting the ground is the start of the race.

He promptly placed his giant, freckled hand on my head and thrust it into the ground as he stood up, stepping on my bad leg with his cleated foot as he moved past me in pursuit of the ball he’d dropped during the tackle.  Furious, and without much clear thought, I leapt to my feet, grabbed him by the jersey and throwing one solid punch into the left side of his chin.  It felt like I’d hit a brick wall covered in stubble, and despite being a fairly solid six foot, 190-pound guy at the time, I suddenly felt very, very small.