With the Rugby World Cup Finals coming up this weekend, I dusted off an early post highlighting my own illustrious rugby career.
Lately I’ve had an overwhelming urge to perform some ridiculous feat of validation while the equipment, my equipment, is still capable of delivering the goods. I can only imagine it’s an instinctive thing meant to thin the herd, this middle-age compulsion to test myself by, say, entering the Ironman Triathlon or traversing the Hindu Kush in flip-flops.
Well, probably not the Ironman, seeing as how I don’t run. Not can’t, just don’t. Not since high school, anyway. I should explain…
Having neither the physique nor the disposition for sports back then, I spent my days marching in the band and avoiding those who wanted nothing more than to treat me to an atomic wedgie. Being short and sarcastic was a bad combination.
Everything was fine until the year when, inexplicably, I signed up for a semester of Combative Sports rather than Soccer, Interpretive Dance or any of the other safe-haven gym classes populated by my fellow band mates. Most likely it was an attempt to improve my meager standing in the hierarchy of the high school jungle, where cheerleaders and their ilk were assumed to give it up for the guys who could dish out an ass-kicking as opposed to those receiving one.
Our class was a gathering of jocks who actually enjoyed this sort of stuff, greasers who saw it as an open invitation from the public education system to pound the bejesus out of someone with relative impunity, and two or three other hapless milquetoasts like myself. One of the football coaches would be our mentor, a good ol’ boy whose fuse matched his abbreviated stature. Bobby Dilday always wore blue gym shorts with white tube socks regardless of the weather (or occasion) and showed unabashed favoritism toward his players during class, apparently unaware that they called him “dildo” behind his back. Not that he was much better. In fact, it was well known that names confounded the man, and mine proved to be particularly vexing. After several creative permutations he settled on “Yankee Doodle” when he wasn’t simply referring to me as “that little son-of-a-bitch.”
Over the course of the semester we took a turn at boxing, wrestling and even some of the eastern disciplines, although Coach made no bones about his dislike for these “Asian gyrations,” claiming they were no match for a well-placed haymaker. The man’s true love, however, was rugby – the sport of Satan, football for the criminally insane – and we played at every opportunity. No pads, no helmets, just a crooked athletic supporter and a field full of a band geek’s sworn enemies. Rules, as such, seemed to have little bearing on what actually transpired on the field. “I wanna see BLOOOOD,” Coach would scream from the sidelines while his minions hurtled headlong into one another, trying their best to comply. Most believed that a high body count was the only gauge of a successful match.
It was apparent from the start that rugby players required bulk and speed above all else, both of which I lacked in great quantities. As sheer survival tactics then, the prudent thing was to avoid direct contact with a steam-rolling ball carrier or charging defender since neither would hesitate to deliver a blow capable of producing a closed-head injury. The trick was staying close enough to the action so as to appear to be involved in the play. This required lots of expertly timed ‘near-miss’ lunges or jumping into the fracas as last-man-on-the-pile. Ball handling was out of the question, a kamikaze mission reserved for those with more gonads than sense.
And then, one chilly autumn day, greatness was thrust upon me. I had once again managed to elude serious damage by scurrying around on the perimeter of play for most of the game. Another ten minutes and I would be home free. The opposing team was in control (if there is such a thing in rugby) and sweeping to the far side of the field, so I pulled up short with a few of the other stragglers to watch the impending havoc. Sensing doom on all sides, the ball carrier cut back in the opposite direction just as the squads collided, leaving behind a mass of broken humanity the likes of which had not been seen since Lee retreated from Gettysburg. A stocky fullback at home on the gridiron, his footfalls shook the earth as he slipped the grasp of lesser foes.
I became aware of those around me starting to backpedal or drop to the ground, writhing from phantom injuries. Within a few strides the juggernaut had crossed the width of the field and was bearing down on me, now the only man left to beat due to my slow reaction time. A collective groan went up from my teammates as they realized all was lost – their last defensive hope rested on the shoulders of a spindly musician whose main concern was how to keep from breaking his glasses. The runner, arrogantly confident of his ability to crush me underfoot, accelerated toward impact rather than merely sidestep past me. And if not for a loose piece of sod that betrayed his footing at the last possible instant, I would have been little more than bug viscera on the windshield of victory. Instead, he went crashing to the ground in a spray of dirt and grass not three feet away. The ball squirted free, arced gracefully through the crisp, blue sky and fell neatly into my hands.
The moment provided me with a profound appreciation for the phrase “scared shitless.” That fear propelled me forward as much as the strangled cries of players from both teams stunned by the sudden turn of events. As I mentioned, physical activity had never been high on my list of priorities, but now seventy yards of open playing field lay between me and the sanctuary of the end zone. It also occurred to me that running and fleeing were two completely different things, and I scrambled for the far goal post with the urgency of a man losing control of his sphincter. And all the while, above the rising clamor, Coach bellowed his approval from the bench, one half-pint to another.
“LOOKIT THAT LI’L SON-OF-A-BITCH RUUUUN! WAAAHH-HOOOO! LOOKIT THAT LI’L SON-OF-A-BITCH…”
By now most of the rival troops had gathered themselves and were in thunderous pursuit of the little son-of-a-bitch leading them on a merry chase. Though already a full ten yards out in front, the head start provided me only scant comfort. Barely five feet tall, with the gait of a chain-gang convict, I was no match for these sinewy thoroughbreds weaned on football and track, and the gap narrowed with every step. It boiled down to nothing more than a simple footrace, a function of speed and mathematics. How long before runner A, gaining ground at an exponential rate, overtakes and decapitates runner B, with the expressed intent of defecating down the resulting hole C?
With oxygen levels dwindling and adrenaline on the rise, I attained an elevated state of consciousness just past mid-field. There came an eerie silence as the shouts of both teammates and opponents faded away. I no longer felt the burning rush of air at my throat or the stabs of pain shooting through my legs. Then the image of Mr. Spock and Doctor McCoy appeared before me in a vision, the two of them seated on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, viewing my predicament much the way they had observed the epic struggle between Kirk and the Gorn on that forsaken asteroid. Fists, tree limbs, even giant boulders dropped from great heights had proven useless against the plodding lizard-beast, so Kirk hurriedly assembled the makings of a primitive firearm from raw materials scattered conveniently about the landscape.
As Jim mixed together the ingredients for gunpowder and I crossed the twenty yard line, our respective adversaries closing in, a solicitous Bones asked “Can he do it, Spock?”
“If he has the time, doctor,” the Vulcan responded as coolly as ever, one eyebrow hoisted speculatively. “If he has the time.” Indeed.
These were my last cognitive recollections. The events that ensued were reconstructed from several eyewitness accounts and subsequent locker-room mythology. I was told of a heroic yet ultimately futile last-ditch sprint as the lead pursuer, arm cocked, pulled within range of his target. There followed an unintelligible sound heard just at the point of convergence – band geek lore records it as a final, defiant curse directed at my towering foe, referencing the consumption of human excrement. Then came a crashing blow to the side of the head, a vicious yet masterful stroke that separated me from the ball, my senses and my protective equipment. Worst of all, it pulverized my glasses. Pieced back together afterward with tape and chicken wire, they dashed any trace of virility I had hoped to foster.
I’ve never run since – at least not with any real purpose – except maybe if a bee was chasing me. So much for the Ironman…guess I’ll be dropping you a postcard from the Khyber Pass instead.