"A game played by fewer than fifteen a side, at least half of whom should be totally unfit." - Michael Green
I'm headed to Charlotte, and late, very, very late, speeding like I haven't since I was 19 and convinced that an '87 Ford Escort came standard with a cloaking device. It did have one, but like all American cars made between 1980 and 1995 it was a rolling box full of awful and therefore the device, like the radio, had long since burned out and become totally useless.
On the way up, there aren't the usual two to three police cruisers stuffed into nooks and crannies along the interstate. It may be too hot even for the police: it's 97 according to the dash display, and the disturbing part is as I move up north on I-85, it's getting hotter. Either Charlotte is hotter than Atlanta for the first time ever, or I am heading directly into the remnant heat of a freshly detonated nuclear bomb.
Relevant to the image of getting blown sky-high: I'm going to play rugby, and am going to die.
Avery plays for the Charlotte Barbarians, a D-III club team at the Matrix level in their region. He used to play for Charlotte's second division rugby team, but being both a functioning adult and functional rugby player at even that level is a near impossibility. The team works out twice a week. They practice two other days. They lift weights after full-contact practices. They spend weekends traveling all over the Eastern seaboard playing matches. There's drinking, and maintaining the clubhouse (which has its own bar), and numerous other obligations keeping you occupied for ever non-paying minute of your day.
Avery has a girlfriend, a job, and a knee with two ligaments only recently healed from a sideways blindside hit the prior spring. He plays for the Barbarians now because having one day off a week from rugby wasn't enough to have a life outside of playing rugby. He eyes my gray basketball-length shorts with suspicion.
"You're gonna need some shorts. Real shorts."
"Well, no, you're just...yeah, nut-huggers. You'll love them."
I put on the shorts.
My legs are bioluminescent from the knee up. The shorts stop at mid-thigh, a length unseen on me since elementary school (that's if you don't count that drag party in college, but I'm not. Since I was wearing a skirt over them. Don't judge me.)
"Do you have cleats?"
This is a great question. I have spent my life trying every athletic pursuit you can do without actually having to embarrass yourself in front of others. I've run. I've lifted weights in the corner of numerous gyms of varying price and quality. I do Crossfit, or more appropriately, Crossfit does me on a regular basis. I'm still fat, but not totally unfit.
Yet "Do you have cleats?" is a sorting question, a divider of people who play sports from non-sport playing people. If you have cleats, you did, at one time, use them in the pursuit of getting better at a game played with others. The others watched you play the game, and did not laugh out loud at your efforts (too much). You bought these shoes because you thought it would be necessary to gouge out earth in the name of better traction in making a play. The very purchase implies you consider yourself capable of making a play.
I have not owned a pair of cleats since I was six years old. Even then it may have been a false assumption, and that's when soccer equalled 20 kindergarteners kicking each other in the shins around one untouched soccer ball.
"No, I don't have cleats."
"That's fine. As long as you have your mouthpiece." I do have a mouthpiece. It is in a drawer in Atlanta, 240 miles away.
"In my time, I've had my knee out, broken my collarbone, had my nose smashed, a rib broken, lost a few teeth, and ricked my back; but as soon as I get a bit of bad luck I'm going to quit the game." - J. W. Robinson
Caleb is the player-coach of the Barbarians. He stands about 5'10", and I'm guessing he weighs 230 pounds thanks to a muscular frame and a compact beer belly. A bone-white line runs in a half-circle from one ear to another across his skull. It's a scar meridian cut there by surgeons who peeled back part of his face and inserted a metal plate after a rugby head injury. Caleb wears a padded rugby helmet, a thin plush condom for the head that passes for protection here.
Avery's got a six inch flesh-zipper over his collarbone, and is putting on a knee brace on the bleachers. I make a mental note that those who play rugby end up getting scars, or what might be more flatteringly called "organic abstract tattoos." The guys who show up for Barbarians practice do inevitably wear quite a bit of organic abstract tattoo work.
The field is half-shaded by a close treeline. I would notice how hot it is but the sun is setting and Avery is in front of me explaining a litany of basics I assume must be memorized or face the pain of horrible rugby death. Don't leave your feet to tackle. Don't tackle high. Try to pass accurately and communicate. Stay behind your man, around three yards back and three yards out. Space out, and help out a man in the grip of a tackle. Keep a narrow gate.
I know what none of this means, and pull out the idiot's best friend: nodding. We trot up and down the field, passing the ball back and forth. The one thing about rugby that isn't intimidating is the ball: oval, nubbly to the touch, it has the feel of a perfectly engineered ball for its sport, almost begging to be carried. If an American football is a squirrely piece of leather begging to be fumbled, a rugby ball is a good-tempered snuggler, easy to kick, pass, or carry without fumbling.
Chris is taking pictures and video. "Man this looks like fun."
"Wait until he lights me up on a tackle. You might change your mind."
Avery grins and nods. "Oh, that'll happen."
I grit my teeth and miss my mouthpiece, which unlike me is in a cool, dry place, and will not be involved in any collisions today.
"I prefer rugby to soccer. I enjoy the violence in rugby, except when they start biting each other's ears off." - Elizabeth Taylor (1972)
Rugby players come in varying degrees of shape. In full 15-man rugby union games, specialization creates different physiques. Forwards are the hulking guys in the scrum, while backs are the lighter guys not concerned with headbutting en masse with the nasty dudes who like breaking beer bottles over their heads. Rugby league, a faster 13-man variant of the game, whittles down the body a bit more, while rugby sevens--a spread-out, seven-man variation of the game--is generally regarded as one of the most grueling team sports in the world, with conditioning demands that would make an American football player blow out a lung. Think soccer cardio with football contact and basketball's hand-eye coordination, and you are approaching a sense of what rugby sevens involves.
The Barbarians play rugby sevens in the summer, and therefore are all sneakily fit no matter how much beer weight they carry. Drills start, and everyone begins moving and moving fast. We run in diagonal lines up and down the field, passing the ball back and fourth in groups of four. I'm on the end, so the beginning of each run when I start it hiccups to life.
I am a mule running among horses, and have the matching hooves for hands. Several times the line stutters and comes to a complete stop as the very snuggly ball clanks off my hands and onto the grass. Damn your treacherous ass, snuggly rugby ball. I thought we had an agreement.
"We'll...we'll have to work on ball skills," Avery says.
I had my fears reversed: I should have been terrified of the running, not the contact. Hitting and getting hit is exhilarating: you either like it or you don't, and I'm firmly in the camp that when given the choice between making an actual skill move (passing the ball, juking someone) or simply trying to clobber someone will always opt for brute force.
In the tackling drills, Avery lines up on the other side of a line of cones separating us. We run as defender and ball carrier on parallel lines. At one point, I'm supposed to cross the line and "engage" Avery. "Engaging" in my case means lumbering into Avery, who wraps up, plants, and buries me like a somnambulent hog before stripping the ball and running off into the horizon.
"How was that?"
"Not bad." Later my elbow would swell up, but it's unfair to blame Avery. It could have happened when I was spun to the ground on a tackle in four-on-fours, or hit in rucking drills, or when I fell on my ass after getting completely flatfooted defending two men at the same time. It could have happened when I played defender on line drills and actually brought someone down, and not just on the pity tackle Avery let me have in return for his potato sack slam earlier.
The same could be said for the mysterious and painful bruise on my inner right knee, or the weird arthritic pain in my left knee that had me looking up "symptoms of lupus" five days later (it's not and never is lupus). Rugby's pace is relentless. Football players who transition to sevens say it takes a year or two to get up to speed on conditioning. At my current level of fitness, it would take me five years, an army of trainers, massage therapists, steroids, more steroids, endless vials of human growth hormone, several hours of exercise a day, and grafts of fast-twitch muscle fibers onto my body just to get up to speed, much less play a competent, coordinated game. Methamphetamines would be required before the game, and heavy narcotics afterward.
That might be an impossibility, especially if you take time to think during a game. Thinking is dangerous. Scott, a 30-plus-year-old player who played all-time for both sides and had stunning endurance, watched as I defended a scissors move to perfection, staying put on the rugby equivalent of a reverse, keeping contain, and staying with my man.
This happened the way good plays happen for terrible athletes: completely by accident, and without thought. Scott stopped the play and explained what I had done, why it was good, and how that move is properly defended, both because he wanted to encourage the new guy, and because I think deep down he suspected I did it completely on accident.
He was right. On the next play the offense ran the scissors, and I thought about the proper technique, the right angle, the assignment I was supposed to pick up, and the ball ran past me as I overplayed the ball, followed the fake, and with my brain screaming at my body watched the man with the ball streak through the gap. Hitting wasn't a problem, but thinking in rugby evidently was.
After biting Sean Fitzpatrick's ear: "For an 18-month suspension, I feel I probably should have torn it off. Then at least I could say, 'Look, I've returned to South Africa with the guy's ear.'" - Johan le Roux
Ear removal is part of rugby. They can be ripped off, or bitten, or beaten until they crinkle into scarred cauliflowers on the sides of players heads. Knees can be knocked sideways. Heads can and are split open. Shoulders shatter. Testicles are yanked, squeezed, and occasionally exposed to open air after errant cleats find vulnerable man-purses. John Hopoate, a Tongan winger who played in Australia, once served a suspension after multiple players testified to his amateur proctology in the scrum.
As we run four on fours for ten minutes each, how this happens becomes clear. Different games form different relationships. Baseball is isolating, with each player locked onto their own little island in an irregular circuit the ball bounces around randomly. Football is an organized and violent committee meeting where everyone has specific assigned and highly specialized tasks. Basketball and soccer can be just as much about the players' personal relationships with each other as their individual skills.
The best way to describe even the beer league rugby I'm playing here: romping. This is pure romp, just a hair above Calvinball in its simple rules, free-flowing, messy, and extremely close and loud at every angle. Toughness aside, you don't notice it because it's simply too fun and hectic to bother with little things like severed limbs and bleeding wounds, and by the time you notice it's time to go to the bar, have a beer, and talk about the awesome severed limb you just lost, and how you're going to have to staple it on later.
Even after completely flatfooting a play on defense and ass-planting..
...it's go go go because the play picks up even with my dignity sitting in a smoking pile on the field. Avery is in my ear on offense yelling "BALL BALL BALL BALL BALL BALL" like a mantra to my right until I have to pitch it to him. I spin out of one tackle and into another and hear my shirt rip in the process, the tackler fully wrapped around my waist and cantilevering me to the ground. Neither of us wait: the ball is out, the play continues, and we both have to chase the high socks and flickering white ball bouncing between players down the field.
It's so fun I scarcely notice the heat, or the score of small injuries, nicks, scrapes, and cuts. They end practice with a drill just for me--a pad drill simulating the ruck, ostensibly, but what we find out after practice was Caleb's way of making sure I got enough contact in on the day. (He went up to Chris during the break and said "We got a drill to make sure your boy gets properly hit even though it's practice." He then gave an evil smile, and ran his thumb across his throat like it was a knife.*)
Perhaps I was a bit tentative on the actual carrying-the-ball-part. At one point you have to drop, and unlike the springy layout of me teammates, I fell to the ground like a corpse dropped from a plane.
The finishing runs were a bit more graceful, since all I had to do was stand there, hold a pad, and get blasted off my feet into the air.
A note to Caleb: I can still feel it a week later, so mission accomplished. Note the smile there, though: that's the smile of a man genuinely pleased to hit and be hit, since something deep inside some men requires physical violence to achieve joy. If rugby is a brute's game played by gentlemen, it's because somewhere inside each gentleman is the need to be that brute, if for only 40 minutes at a time. I'll play it again happily just as soon as I get a new set of knees, available from Autozone for $44.95 each and installed on site.
*He did not actually do this, but he may as well have.
A very special thanks to the Charlotte Barbarians for allowing a couple of internet writers to invade their practice for this piece. Although we suspect they didn't mind having some fresh meat to tenderize.