Brotherhood of the Dented Heads

By Jay Atkinson (Men's Health, September, 2002)

Brutal action. World travel. Lifelong friendships War? No, rugby

AS THE SKY DARKENS, WE'RE SPREAD OUT across our goal line, waiting for their forwards to attack. The referee marks the spot, and they run a fake to the right, freezing our defense. Then their biggest player -- roughly half my age and twice my size -- charges straight at me, as the scrum-half flips him the ball. I'd yell "Help" but it's considered bad form in rugby. Instead, as the behemoth hurtles forward, I bite down on my mouthpiece, lower my center of gravity, and step into the gap.

I am 44 years old. Family and friends think I should quit playing rugby, that it's too dangerous for a man of my vintage. They're not exactly wrong. I've known two guys who ended up in wheelchairs. Before every game, I kneel down, make the sign of the cross, and whisper, "Dear Lord, please keep me, my teammates, and our opponents free from injury."

But I'm not quitting. Over the past 25 years I've played in approximately 450 matches, including various league championships, spring and summer tournaments, and tours to the British Isles, Australia, and South America. Sure, I've had torn cartilage in my knee, a broken cheekbone and eye socket, a detached retina, cracked ribs, compressed disks in my neck, a ruptured hamstring, root canals in every one of my front teeth. But I've also had 36,000 minutes when I was never bored or listless: an entire month of invigorating, heart-in-your-throat competition. The game of rugby has seen me through lost friendships, thwarted ambitions in love and work, the premature death of both of my parents. You can't get that playing tennis. I'm a rugby player. I go wherever men like to bang heads.

Right now, the head banging is in Independence Park, a vast complex of athletic fields 5 miles east of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Amid the stench of oil refineries and the blare of zydeco music, I'm competing in the annual Mardi Gras Rugby Festival, as part of the Vandals, a team assembled by my old friend Frank Baker, who a couple of times each year summons ruggers from respectable jobs as lawyers and teachers to do battle. That's how I got here, in midlife, with a very large man bearing down on me.

I step forward, drop my shoulder, and try to get underneath his chest. But he's running low, and the broad blade of his shoulder strikes the top of my head, glances off, and crashes into my left side, throwing an electric charge from my jawbone down the length of my spine. The sky turns black, and I land on my head in the end goal. One of my teammates comes over, yanks me to my feet, and offers one word of consolation.

"Physics" he says.

IF ALL SPORTS ARE REALLY ABOUT WAR, then rugby is an 18th-century epic of bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting. On an expanded football field without any yard lines, the teams line up facing each other like infantrymen wearing cleated boots. Much of rugby's appeal is that it's so unlike the rest of everyday life. Being in a scrum, particularly right in the middle -- at hooker, where I play -- is nothing like driving my 7-year-old son to school or tossing crackers into a shopping cart. When the referee shouts, "Ready. En-gage!" and 16 men collide with the thump of bone on bone, ordinary concerns vanish in the midst of all that heaving and pushing. Playing rugby is an extrasensory form of life, where every blade of grass is individuated, and things off the field -- family problems, business worries, even one's own sense of mortality -- seem caught in amber. The joy of risk crowds out the dread.

But for all the adrenaline, the deeper attraction of rugby is its brotherhood. A rugby team is a tribe. When we gather -- from Tennessee and New Hampshire and Florida -- we talk in a shorthand that outsiders are never privy to. We taunt each other in an obscene and colorful language designed to hide the second-most-important reason we play the game: to earn the respect of our teammates.

Sure, it may be that in our pasts we have, now and then, let other people down, maybe even women and kids. But when you handle the difficult moments that fall under your jurisdiction, when your personal link in the rugby chain holds up under pressure, it's a sort of redemption. We play for each other.

For 13 years, I've trusted life and limb to two longtime teammates from New Hampshire. Butch McCarthy, 61 and 275 pounds, is a former Plymouth State All-Academic Conference in football who lives by the credo "high intensity, short duration." Like-sized Fred Roedel played football and rugby at Norwich University and has the on-field temperament of an enraged moose. They play the position called prop, and one of their assignments is to protect the hooker, especially if he's 59, 163 pounds, like me. In the scrums we hang on to each other and squeeze until our fingernails bleed.

Our first match in the festival is against a team of buzz-cut Navy flyers from Pensacola, Florida. They kick off, and the onrushing Pensacola boys hit the breakdown and we all go down in a heap. In rugby, the area surrounding you is exaggeratedly clear, absent of sound, and slow moving like syrup. Outside that circle everything is blurred, whipping past at incredible speeds. The game moves with the quickness of thought, the ball spun from player to player, suddenly appearing in your hands. Decisions are made on the crest of an instant - -run with it, pass it, take a tackle, or go to the ground. The first few scrums are tight and breathless; all I really think about is doing my job, executing the skills I've acquired. In the rest of my life, my role is a little uncertain; but here in the maelstrom, I know exactly what's expected of me. Out here, I always know who I am.

Right near the end of the hall I get crushed. My neck feels as if it's been cranked downward a few notches. Then, a few minutes later, I get whacked in the head with somebody's boot when I'm rucking the ball from a pileup. Sinking to one knee, I ask for a minute of injury time. Fred Roedel comes over and asks if I'm all right. I try to jangle my neck loose, and then sling my arms over my props' shoulders, preparing for the scrum. My heart is hammering, my breath is shallow and fast. I lean hard against Butch's hip, the two packs slam together, and the ball comes skittering into the tunnel. I strike with my right foot, heeling it toward the back of our scrum. We drive over and Fred says, "Good job, hooker." That's the payoff.

We end up losing to the Navy boys 34-23 and get bumped into the consolation bracket. In the next game we defeat a team from Oklahoma City by a satisfying 37-0, but I further telescope my neck and have to come out. After the match, I limp over to the medical tent and ask a physical therapist to examine my injuries. I feel a sharp pinching sensation behind my left ear. "Take some aspirin and ice it" she says.

That night it's time for kangaroo court, where your rugby intimates zero in on your weaknesses for the entertainment of the assembled. In rugby no man is innocent; one man is accused of ironing his jersey between matches. Another is mocked for being thrown out of a game just minutes into his Vandals debut. I nurse a can of beer and worry about my neck. These days I train hard for months and play in only four or five tournaments a year. The last thing I want to do is watch my teammates from the sidelines. After the court session, I go back to my room, click on an old Steve McQueen movie with an ice pack on my neck, and pray for a fast recovery.

The next morning, we gather in the lobby for the drive out to the athletic fields. When we hear gospel music coming from a conference room, a couple of us investigate. A powerful-looking man from the Christian Inter-Faith Ministry greets us, shakes our hands, and welcomes us inside. A drum kit stands at one end of the hall, flanked by an organ and three female singers in their Sunday best. White-gloved ladies are swaying back and forth with their arms raised, and a man who looks 7 feet tall is clapping like thunder. They're singing the Lord's Prayer, and the organist punctuates the hymn with cries of, "Thank you, Lord!"

Following any passion will often move you off the beaten tracks of life. And the come-hither of rugby has led me to great moments in exotic places. As the conference room erupts in amens and the vocalists hold the last note, I flash on a few such moments -- drinking a local intoxicant called kava in the Fiji Islands, and hurtling through darkened streets, on my way to a match behind the fortified walls at the North of Ireland Rugby and Cricket Club in Belfast. And I remember a close, hard-fought game versus Belgrano in Argentina, with a great open-air barbecue to follow and pitchers of local red wine. I say my own amen to the fellowship and mutual respect that are the true hallmarks of our sport.

I feel better after stretching. I tell Baker that I'm able to play. He draws us into a circle. "The Vandals have never entered a tournament without winning a piece of hardware" he says. "Let's get that plate."

The referee blows his whistle, and we run onto the field and line up to take the kickoff from the Lafayette Rhineaux. After giving up a fluke try in the opening minute, it's clear we're going to win. For several minutes, everything we do turns to gold: swift, beautiful scrums, clean pickups, and hard running into the gaps. I sprint from one joyous breakdown to the next, digging the ball out like a gopher, and in the continuous, switchback manner of good rugby, Marc Murray of Amoskeag scores three tries in succession. Walking back to midfield, gnarly-eared John Solomon slings his arm around my neck, and Bill Bishop comes alongside and grins like a matinee idol.

"That's the stuff," says Bishop.

People say money is ultimately without value, because you can't take it with you. You can't take peak experiences with you either, but that misses the point of having them in the first place. My life as an itinerant athlete and writer who has amassed no fortune, purchased no real estate, and contributed little to the civic good has been viewed by some as a tragedy of lost potential. But few wage slaves have whooped with their all-star teammates after a last-second victory over the Quebec provincial side, or scored a try in the Mexico City stadium where the long jumper Bob Beamon set a world record. Once I entered a pub in Dublin accompanied by a pretty Clondalkin girl, and the doorman tipped his hat and said, "That's the Rose of Tralee you've got there, lad" The next day, as I jogged past the grandstand, little kids stuck out scraps of paper, clamoring for my autograph. It's the creation of these memories that keeps me playing the sport. Rugby is about experiencing what few people ever will; it's about the blood fraternity of guys who stick their necks out for each other.

On this chilly afternoon in Louisiana, we defeat the Rhineaux 48-14. At the final whistle, the Vandals all crowd around and we muss each other's hair. We lean in, making a bouquet of fists, and give three cheers for Lafayette and three for the referee. I feel like a barnstorming ace with a jutting chin and razor-sharp cleats, living on porridge and stout.

WE HATE career advice like "work harder" and "work smarter." But we found some inspiring phrases in the rugby scrum, the brutal pack in which your guys link up and start shoving theirs.

NEVER TAKE A SCRUM OFF "If you just ran 80 yards, it's tempting to get in the pack and lean on your mates," says our man Jay Atkinson. "But if even one man coasts, your side gets beaten." Every meeting, every e-mail matters. Go hard. "It's an 80-minute game. Play for 79 and you're finished."

DON'T GET LULLED BY THE CALM "From a distance, a scrum can look static," says Atkinson, "but that's just because your eight neutralizes their eight." Inside the scrum is a tumult. Always assume there's office ferment, that behind the scenes there's a whole lotta gouging going on.

PACK A PAIR "On the field, smaller ruggers can compensate with courage and temerity," says Atkinson, "just like entrepreneurs who are battling giants." Back before Bill Gates was Richie Rich, the guy made forceful decisions that smacked of stones. "Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it," according to the 18th-century German brain Goethe.