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.

From behind me, I could hear my teammates closing in.  Fighting, I’d come to find, isn’t all that uncommon in rugby, and before the ginger Ivan Drago had a chance to mount a counteroffensive, a stout Honduran guy named Carlos, one of our team captains, hurled himself over me and onto the mountain of a man.  My memory, which is probably exaggerated after all these years, recalls Carlos wrapping his legs around the standing monster and using both fists to deposit a flurry of punches to his face and head.  A tall skinny guy named Peters was next on the scene and he put his shoulder into the guy’s stomach, bringing the whole pile of men to the ground, and within seconds, both team rosters were fully present – some throwing punches, some shouting to stop, all tangled up in a web of college testosterone and bad sportsmanship.

Rugby games consist of fifteen players on the field from each team and a single referee.  Just imagine that one poor guy, blowing his whistle as hard as he could and trying to stop a thirty-person bar fight.  It was glorious.

I’m pretty sure this picture is actually of a different fight, but you get the point.

We lost that game, but what I thought was a foolish transgression had actually endeared me to the team.  I learned that they’d been having trouble mounting a full squad because most guys tend to shy away from this sort of recreational activity, and as Carlos would explain to me, they knew I was one of them the moment I decided to start a fight I wouldn’t win.

I spent that season bouncing around a few positions, ultimately settling on playing strong side flank, which saw me in the scrum, but gleefully far away for the nastier bits of it.  Many people don’t realize it, but from within the scrum, the props often end up exchanging punches or jabs with the opposing team – which might be why they tend to play with bloody noses far more often than players in other positions.  I also learned that Carlos and another player named James, both older guys in leadership positions on the team, were attending school using the Montgomery GI Bill.  In a past life, they were both Marines.

Our team didn’t have a coach, so the captains served in that capacity, and Carlos’ leadership was hard to deny.  Despite being smaller, and honestly a bit softer than a lot of the other players, he was a force to be reckoned with on and off the field.  At one rugby drink-up (a post-game tradition) he climbed three stories up into a tree and refused to come down until we brought him a beer to funnel – which I delivered from out an attic window.  As we approached center field for our first playoff game, he introduced himself to the other team’s captain by grabbing a large handful of mud, pulling a worm from it, and popping it in his mouth.  He chewed it slowly, talking with his mouth full of dirt and slime, until swallowing the whole mess in one big gulp as he shook hands with his opponent.

Carlos was crazy.  And I loved it.

In retrospect, it was Carlos’ willingness to lose a fight that made me like him so much.  He was there for anyone that needed it, throwing himself into the fight for the sake of his friends no matter how many punches it meant he’d have to eat.  To be fair, we all had that mentality, but again, it was the intensity and drive Carlos exhibited that made him impressive.  He wasn’t reluctant to get hit, he seemed to revel in it.

Old Man Fitness: Superstition, fitness and the power of belief

Read Next: Old Man Fitness: Superstition, fitness and the power of belief

The line between making a tackle and starting a Happy Gilmore-style fight can get blurry at times.

A year or so later, I’d join the Marines and excel at boot camp.  It wasn’t until we began doing martial arts training and pugil sticks that I came to appreciate the introduction rugby gave me to being a Marine.  Without coaches, it was up to us to subject ourselves to miserable conditioning.  Without a team of referees breaking up fights, it was up to us to look out for ourselves… and to take our lumps when we had to.  Playing low-level college rugby is like throwing a ball into an MMA fight, and like at boot camp, people are less concerned with who won than they are with how hard you’re willing to work in the meantime.

Our success that year led to Southern Vermont bringing the rugby team on as an official varsity sport – and I returned season after season to play in what we lovingly referred to as the “alumni bowl,” where us old guys strap on our cleats and take on the current year’s varsity team.  A few years ago, I was even selected as part of our unified team to represent Southern Vermont at the CanAm, an annual tournament that pits American teams against Canadian ones.

Years of injuries have curbed my ability to play rugby anymore – but not before providing me with a fair amount of stories.  I once had my eyelid torn open from left to right during a game, allowing me to see even with my eyes closed.  In one snowy game, a goal line stand kept the opposing team from scoring, but left me unconscious.  I woke up in a hospital, suffering from hypothermia a little while later – rugby has no stoppages in play for injuries, so it apparently took the team a bit to realize I needed help.

Once the swelling went down, it was clear that my modeling career was over before it ever started.

My best friend, who I eventually drafted onto our team by convincing him to leave his college further north, continued to play regularly until he fractured his eye socket and broke his neck two years ago.  My favorite part of that story, however, is that he finished the game before seeking medical attention.

Rugby can teach you about teamwork, or camaraderie (I could write a whole book about the songs and traditions the sport carries with it), but for me – it was about learning to let go of the fears that keep you from hurting yourself.  Sure, you’re gonna get hurt… but you’ll heal up and live to fight another day.

In the type of life I’ve pursued over the years, that lesson has been more important than any of the others.

I’m not sure if I’d ever have joined the Corps were it not for first playing Rugby with Marines – but I know for sure I wouldn’t have been as good at it.  Mental toughness is a learned skill, one that diminishes when left unused, and as tough as I like to pretend to be, rugby is invariably tougher.

I’d like to thank all the guys I’ve gotten to play against and alongside over the years.  For all the injuries we’ve given and received, we always come together after the game to hug it out, sing a few songs, and rejoice in the camaraderie of the sport.  Rugby may have made me tougher, but it also helped build some of the strongest and most long-lasting friendships of my life.

And only ruggers could make me, at 6 feet and 230 pounds, look like such a tiny man.  It’s also worth mentioning that the tall guy to the right of me in the picture is Matt Perry – who underwent surgery on his broken neck to regain movement in his right arm, and is currently working hard toward trying to get back in the game.

Not even rugby can teach that kind of toughness; he clearly brought plenty of his own.