The following is one man’s story of his relationship with rugby.
I certainly thought rugby would always be there, man, how wrong you can be.
As a player back in the 80’s I definitely thought I would always be a part of rugby and the Surrey Beavers. I actually told people if I ever died driving my Cadillac or on a rugby field, I would have died doing one of the two things I loved most and I was to be celebrated and not mourned. What a goof.
Much to my surprise I did eventually burn out at age 30 after approximately 15 years and some success at the Summer Games, Juniors, at the Second Division level back in the old 3 division days, and I had a good run in the old First Division. When I retired I walked away from my lifestyle and my social network completely, cold turkey. There was a ‘now what?’ moment in my life. Being a rugby player was my self identity, if I wasn’t a rugby player anymore, who am I? With my first born being 5 months old, I guess I would start by being, Dad? I felt that now that I was responsible for someone else, I would need to be responsible. I focused on what I considered my career, but was really just a series of mediocre jobs that I thought were building toward something. I was paying my dues. Even then, I would drop by on one Saturday a season and touch base. It would provide a bit of schoedenfroid when the club wasn’t winning without me. Rugby was still there.
40 years old, it was time for a reckoning. I was working harder than ever. I had reluctantly started coaching my kids in their sports, which ran concurrently with rugby. My time apart from the game, I never thought I would ever quit, was greater. When I retired, from rugby I was 30 years old and a very fit 235 pounds, within a year after not changing my calorie intake I was 315 pounds. I have recently seen pictures of myself from those days, damn! I think I wore grey sweatpants for the better part of 6 years. I was unrecognizable. I had to get fit again. I got fit enough to consider a comeback, however with 3 kids now I was being pulled in even more directions. The comeback never happened. I knew rugby would be there.
Finally my kids would graduate high school and each would quit their community based sports. Suddenly I had so much time on my hands what would I do? My weight climbed up again to about 280 and I was 50 years old. I never thought I would ever be 50 years old, I had no plan for this. I found my way back to the running track and worked my way up to 30 minute runs, I was feeling pretty good about myself. My wife, Linda, who had never played soccer as a child decided to play over 30 ladies soccer. I would go to all the games and next thing I knew I was coaching a ladies over 30 soccer team. About this time my nephew, Andrew McIntyre, began playing rugby for Richmond and I found myself going to more rugby games. The wheels started to turn. If my wife could start a sport she was unfamiliar with at age 50, then certainty her inspiration could see me return to a sport I used to be pretty good at, now at age 50. The logic was clear to me, what could go wrong, it would be perfect. With the blessing of Kevin Taylor, I returned to training. None of the current players had any idea who this old fucker. I was learning the game all over again, it changed so much in the 20 years I was away. I ran with the 3rd Division and did my best. This was gonna work. I started to plan my formal return to action. Then my opportunity appeared, The Gobbler, a Thanksgiving tournament I had the honour to be on the winning Beaver team twice when it was a First Division Elite Invitational tournament. It’s now a ‘social’ tournament, but I knew the Saturday night barn dance would have many players hung over on Sunday morning. That would be my window, against a bunch of fucked up young guys, it seemed perfect. There were to be 2 play off games early Sunday to qualify for the final. Both teams we were to play no showed and we won by forfeit, one of them may have been a boat race even. So after a long morning of waiting, my first rugby game in 20 years would be the Gobbler Final. It seemed, early on in the game, that no one knew what to expect from this old guy, I wasn’t getting any touches on the ball, until I intercepted a pass to a teammate on a penalty play. I made contact and a ruck, it was good. I found myself with a huge smile in every scrum, I felt at home, this was familiar. At another point, I would find myself in a one on one ball battle, the other player went to the deck & I got a penalty for not releasing, a new offence in that season’s laws. Took a penalty, check. Moments later in a ruck an opposition player sealed off the ball by laying over it, I attempted to clean up the ruck by lifting this guy off the ball. Apparently he took offence when my forearm inadvertently went across his Adam’s Apple and I began lifting. Effectively enough he leaped up off the ruck and went directly for my immobile completely stuck left knee, and caught me on the outside of the knee. I tried to fall back and take the load off my leg all the while swinging for his head with both fists on my way to the ground. I missed every punch and narrowly avoided a complete knee blow out. My lateral mobility is still fucked. After everything settled down there I was in a side bar with the referee and the guy who just tried to cripple me. I was incredulous. Getting a talk to from the ref, check. I was well on my way to a Rugby Bingo, or one step closer to the Rugby version of the Gordie Howe hat trick (goal,assist,fight). The game played out with its 20 minute halves. When it was over it was the longest 40 minutes of my life to that point. The next day was a stat holiday, and a great thing that it was, as I felt like I was in a car accident, where the car I was in was totalled and it felt like the ambulance was symbolically in was also totalled. I never hurt that much ever. I went on to play a half in some 5 or 6, 3rd Division games. Until a torn Achilles’ tendon in one of those games ended the dream. Midlife crisis, check. Within weeks I was diagnosed with leukaemia, I guess that was that. Bingo!
Coming into the next season my nephew, Andrew, who was playing for Richmond came to accept his birth right and join the Beavers. I got healthy enough to be able to run and started to train again, planning on playing in the Beaver Breast Cancer game as my final rugby game ever. There is an expression about best laid plans.... I was at training one night and before practice I was pushing the scrum machine by myself when I felt a pop in my lower back, I knew it was bad. I nursed my back til the pain went away. I wanted some game time before the big home date coming up and what was on the calendar, The Gobbler, perfect. I showed up early I stretched things I forgot I had. I was looking forward to playing second row with my nephew. The senior players honoured me by making me the captain for the game, which I hadn’t done since QE High School in 1982. There was a torrential down pour this day and we had 14 players. After 5 minutes we got our 15th player. After 6 minutes we had our first big scrum, I gave it everything I had and my back popped again, I couldn’t straighten up and running wasn’t good. I wanted out but then we’d be short again. I would hang in till someone else came. A few minutes later the other team was on offence and my opposite man had the ball, I closed up on defence and the guy passed the ball. I let down my guard as I wasn’t going to have to make a tackle, and the other guy didn’t, he drove his shoulder into my sternum, now my ribs were fucked. I had to draw the line at two injuries and come out of the game. I gestured to Kevin Taylor that I needed a sub, he gestured we had no one. I begged my way out and left with both teams at 14 players. I ended my comeback at age 51 with three long term injuries. A fourth Gobbler championship was not in the books either. On a follow up note the rib injury I sustained actually fixed a mid back issue I had for the last 20 years, which was also caused by a rugby rib injury. Weird huh, so it wasn’t a total write off. I still didn’t miss a practice that season and was asked to join the coaching staff. Rugby was there for me. I wanted to be there with the same passion I felt as a player. I was back.
You don’t often get a chance to smell the roses as we go, I didn’t realize how much I had missed the game and the club. Sports and coaching were now keeping me busier than my kids sports ever did. I had rugby on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I had soccer on Wednesday & Sunday, sport 5 days a week and loving it. I had my routine set. Then just after the Rugby 7s, COVID-19 threw the unhittable curveball. Unthinkably rugby stopped, everything stopped. Except of course, loved ones passed, that went on.
I realized how much things were interconnected. As a rule I have had a pretty shitty beard, so I only shaved once a week, on Saturday mornings before rugby. No rugby means I didn’t really have a reason to shave. I found myself going for longer periods and not caring. I grew a really shitty beard and didn’t mind wearing a mask in public that covered it up, so there was another reason I didn’t have to shave. Things progressed and regressed from there. As the calendar passed and the usual Beaver event dates passed by we saw our Breast Cancer fundraiser, Christmas carolling, the Beaver Banquet, and 2 Alumni Days cancelled. I often think of the players from my day and before that, that I just don’t see regularly, except for these rugby events. I miss those guys, ok - some I don’t - they know who they are. When I was an active player rugby was my life. The game was immortal, the players changed, the game itself changed, but Father Time remained undefeated. We take our turn to play when it’s our time, all too soon we pass on the torch to the next generation as it was passed to us.
Rugby was always there, until it wasn’t. The players have lost a season that they don’t get back. Some players who were on the verge of retirement had their last season taken away. The world still has greater challenges ahead that are surely more important than rugby. I certainly never thought the world would ever shut down the way it has, taking with it many of the things we love (sport, travel, family, friends, not necessarily in that order). The world will rebound and reopen we will return to our normal lives, when we do will you find yourself taking things for granted? I know that for myself, over the last 6 years, I have had enough events and occurrences in my life that give me the appreciation of the things and moments that sometimes we don’t stop to recognize. I know I will never again take rugby for granted.
Just trying to capture the spirit of the thing.....