I couldn’t help but study the knees of the guys at my table, discovering that most had the same surgical scars that I sport.
Long, straight and ugly lines on (somewhat) crooked old men. In some ways, those scars were our badges of honor and what still bonds us together. We were all former players for the South Bend Rugby Club, now part of the Michiana Rugby Football Club.
About 60 of us were there at M.R. Falcons celebrating the 50th anniversary of the club’s inception with current team players and friends/foes from old Fort Wayne teams.
A lot of my teammates from the 1970s were there. Most of them played longer and a lot better than I did, but I was the only one in attendance who had participated in the club’s very first game 50 years ago. Who would have guessed?
They made me stand up — which I still can do without too much effort— and they applauded that I was still around. Geez, I guess I’m a rugby relic.
Of course, the memories came flooding back. During our first practice back in the summer of 1973, we banged heads on a school playground. One guy said the neighborhood gave him the creeps and another player grabbed him by the shirt and said he lived just down the block. They were quickly separated and I figured this could be an interesting experience.
Our coach had the background but no longer the body for rugby. He waddled down the field and often didn’t get to his spot in the scrum in time. But he kept enough breath so he could yell out odd chants he apparently learned somewhere overseas or another planet. One of them was “Knock them into a cocked hat!” I still don’t know what that means.
At 150 pounds, I was probably the smallest guy on that first team and I couldn’t wait to put a “Give Blood, Play Rugby” bumper sticker on my car. I guess I was into it.
We lost our first game, 21-3, to another newly-formed team, the Chicago Griffins. Afterward, I pulled off my jersey to expose and a white shirt underneath. Ironically, that shirt was the same color as our opponents’ uniform.
“A great game out there,” a guy from another club yelled over to me.
“I was on the other team,” I admitted.
“Oooooh,’” he said, momentarily at a loss for words. “Well, good luck in finding some better players,” he finally added.
A few longtime friends — John Coriden and Paul Boehm — played in that game with me. And we did find some better players. I wouldn’t get to join them for another year, though. I had partially torn my ACL late in the game and finished off the job at our next practice. I underwent my first of five knee surgeries (but with the last four after my playing days).
I came back and played fairly regularly for three more years (when I wasn’t on duty with the Army Reserves or the Tribune.) Then I was more than happy to occasionally play for the “B” side for another few years as younger guys — Joe Menyhart at hooker and John Gibney at scrum half — developed into better players than I ever was.
South Bend ended up with some great players during my playing time. One of them was Larry DiNardo, a former All-American guard and football captain at Notre Dame, who once leaned down and threw up on my cleats at a game down at I.U. Eric Smithburn, who played internationally and later became a Notre Dame law professor and Marshall County judge, was another force.
The Menyhart brothers — all LaSalle High grads and mostly Purdue men — were the “first family of rugby” around here and all four of them were on hand last weekend. Tony played in England, Australia and New Zealand after college and was called “the Wall-bash Cannonball” — partly because of his Hoosier roots and mainly because he could run through a wall. Brother John played in about 400 games, mostly in Montana, and only had a broken nose or two to show for it.
Along with a lot of younger and current players, I got to embrace old teammates Dick Collins, Paul Igaz, Ed Dudka, Don Berger, Shawn Donlan, Chet Zawalich, Lonnie Wingett, Paul Boehm, Bill Kryder, John Gibney, Bob Smiecinski, Joe Chomyn and all the Menyharts — Joe, Larry, John and Tony. If any of these names invoke scary memories from your youth, I do apologize.
We also marked the passing of Bill Farrell, Eric Smithburn, Steve Rodick, Too Tall Banicki and Tim Silverberg.
The old saying goes “Rugby is a ruffians’ game played by gentlemen.” I’m thinking that is about 80 percent accurate.
There was a brotherhood out there on the pitch and we had a lot of fun together. I can honestly say I never had a rugby teammate who I didn’t like. That’s quite a testament since I can’t say that about any other group I have belonged to during my life Joe Menyhart, who started playing while still in high school and who now looks almost as old as I do, organized our 50th anniversary weekend and deftly recited “Why We Play the Game.” It is an ode to rugby written by Australian poet and former player Rupert McCall. Part of it follows:
When the battle scars have faded/And the truth becomes a lie/When the weekend smell of liniment/Could almost make you cry…
When the last ruck’s well behind you/And the man that ran now walks/It doesn’t matter who you are/The mirror sometimes talks…
Have a good hard look old son!/The melon’s not that great?/The snoz that takes a sharp turn sideways/Used to be dead straight
From the first time that you laced a boot/And tightened every stud/That virus known as ‘rugby’/Has been living in your blood
And as you stand there telling lies/Like it was yesterday old friend/You know that if you had the chance/You’d do it all again
You see – that’s the thing with rugby/It will always be the same/And that, I guarantee/Is why the hell you played the game!
Contact Bill at [email protected]