Several months ago, through an unlikely series of introductions that all began from something written on this very blog years ago, it was asked if I might be interested in playing rugby. I replied with a vehement ‘yes’, and then just the following weekend was rolling out of bed for practice at my namesake Busse Forest Nature Preserve. Up until this point in my life, the complete lack of terrestrial athletic success that I had had had had me questioning whether this sporting endeavor would be any different; I possessed understanding for neither the rules nor nature of the game. 4 months on I’m still far from knowing much, but that hasn’t stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the sport and contributing the team’s success.
This team, as the name would suggest, is rooted in the Japanese community that cycles through the area. Most members have only been on for a year or so, but all have got a passion for the sport that in some cases spans several decades – we’ve got a sexagenarian on the team with no fear of jumping into the fray. My first practices felt good because on a basic level I was finally getting some much needed exercise, and especially because this was another opportunity to try something new.
After only a month it was time to play in my first match, this time against the Chicago Lawyers. I honestly had little idea what I was to be doing out there, and was especially thrown when instead of playing the forward position as I had been practicing, they put me in as a wing. Wings tends to be similar to baseball’s left field – they don’t see a great deal of action, and there aren’t too many ways for the novice to fail the rest of the team. My primary responsibilities were to 1) destroy anyone in my area with the ball and 2) go full on Forest Gump should it ever somehow wind up in my hands. There were some other roles like sweeping that we had practiced as well, but the bar determining my success for this game was pretty low. I had no qualms with this and was certainly excited just to get some game experience.
In the end we lost a close and well fought game, but it was not without personal triumphs. In a moment of unlikely greatness, the ball was pitched all the way down the line a la textbook rugby and into my hands where the only job left was to just run straight and make what I could of it. There were probably only 15 meters to the try line, which I covered before being taken out. I was ear to ear, and the team loved it too. There was actually another instance in which I plowed through a group of people and put the ball down in the end zone (something you need to do for it to count), but the ref missed it.
There is such blithe satisfaction that comes from playing this brutish game of team endeavor, knowing that every opposing member will wreck you if you aren’t fast/strong/good enough. The heightened sense of vulnerability thanks to the lack of pads only adds to this. Most satisfying for me though, I actually have worth out there on the pitch. I can hold my own swimming in a pool, but that skill set has never transferred into making tangible contributions on land. Here though in this realm, my stout build and rippling musculature offer a distinct advantage. Here is a group shot of the two teams after the match.
One of the pleasures of rugby is the mentality that opposing teams have once the match is over – ‘we all play for the same sport’. Convention holds that the hosting team arrange an location for both teams to go socialize. At their team bar, the match MVPs and standout rookies were announced by each team’s captain. I was named ours for the latter, and thus had to defend our honor by racing my counterpart to the bottom of a Guinness pint, which I did.
On another weekend, we entered into the Rugby 7s Tournament at the Scottish Highland Games. Brother Parker came in to play, and my parents came to watch. Our three matches throughout the day didn’t quite have the result we were looking for, but I did manage another try for our team – one of only a handful scored by us that day. These 7s matches unfortunately involved a good deal of running around and excessively brief halves, but was still good fun. The teams that won it all were clearly on another level, so there were no hard feelings. This picture of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ spawned great internet notoriety.
The season will continue on in the fall, and should offer numerous opportunities to give and take a pummeling. Things reach an apex in early November, when we will compete in Los Angeles against each of the other US based Japanese Teams for the Japan Cup. No matter our degree of success as a team, getting to know each of these guys has been fantastic. It has truly defined and enhanced my Chicago experience thus far.