The Comeback: A middle-aged man responds to his critics

By Dan Holden

ďI think Iíd like to play rugby again," I blurted out to no one in particular, as I sat with my family at the dinner table a few months ago.

Stone cold silence was the response.

Then Kathleen, my 10-year old soccer star, broke the silence by saying with a grin, "Thatís cool, dad." 

My wise and worldly 13-year old, Rachel, was not impressed. "Youíll get killed."

I then turned to my wife, Barbara, waiting for her praise or condemnation. In her typical intellectual style, her response was stoic: "You know the number, itís 911; donít call me."

Barb, on more than one occasion, has driven me to the emergency room for torn ligaments and broken fingers, albeit non-rugby related injuries.

Admittedly, it did sound crazy for a 45-year old man to take up a sport most guys gave up ten years earlier. But I had the urge to give it a shot, just one last time, before I really am old (whenever that is). So call it a challenge, or a mid-life crisis, it doesnít bother me.

Some middle-aged baby-boomers buy red sports cars, have affairs, or get hair plugs - so what if I want to see if I can still take the knocks? And if you think Iím an idiot...get in line. My younger brother thinks Iím nuts. My best friend, a banker down in Stockton, said I must have a mental defect. My friend at NIKE wished me luck at "bone-breaking," and Serge, my former rugby teammate at Oregon State University, is certain Iíll break a hip.

Even my golf buddies at work lectured me endlessly about making such a stupid decision. All except for my friend, Andy, who said, "This is no surprise, you never do anything normal anyway."

After contacting two local rugby clubs, I chose to join the Oregon Rugby Sports Union (AKA the "Jesters"). What a suitable name. The other option was a club called the Portland Pigs. But who wants to tell people they are a pig? I get enough of that at home.
In preparation for trying out for the Jesters, I dropped 25 pounds, hit the weights hard, and worked on my endurance, which wasnít good when I was a young man.

I have tried to involve my daughters as to how the game is played, along with teaching them the peculiar rugby verbiage. It did take me some time to explain that "ruck" isnít a bad word (although bad words often emanate from a ruck) and that a "maul" isnít a place where you can buy really cool shoes. At the heart of this is the desire that my daughters will remember their Dad as someone who wasnít afraid to try crazy things, and not just the guy who does yard work and fixes the toilets.

The first few Jester practices were real eye-openers. I quickly realized I was no longer fast (Iím not sure I ever was) and that I had forgotten many of the nuances of the game since I last stepped onto a pitch 23 years ago. I also noticed that the guys were a lot bigger than I was (I could really have used that extra 25 pounds now). Not only bigger, but younger. I expected that.

No one really bothered with me during the first practice. Finally, a fellow named Michael strolled over to introduce himself. He had a cherubic face on a large head, which sat on an even larger body. Michael was a biscuit under 300 pounds, and stood at least 6í4".

He told me not to be discouraged if the guys donít introduce themselves right away. For every five guys who try out, four donít come back. He compared it to World War II. "No one wanted to get to know the rookies because they always got killed," he said with a smile.

I wasnít sure I was comfortable with the analogy, but I got the drift. After a few more practices, all of the guys, at one time or another, came over to introduce themselves. No one made any "old man" jokes, or offered to resuscitate me if I vapor-locked on the field. Frankly, I think theyíd just step over my lifeless body anyway.

At a night practice, one of the guys got smacked in the nose and was bleeding all over the place. "Hey, go bleed off the field," one of the older Jesters said with a smirk as he jogged by.

Well, I played, and survived, my first game in 23 years against my Alma Mater, Oregon State University, on a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon at the Jestersí home field in West Linn, Oregon. I had been promised at least 20 minutes of playing time, but ended up playing the entire game. Eighty...very...long...minutes.

Part way into the second half, I had asked the Jesters coach if there were any subs available. He smiled broadly, looked at the sidelines, and said with a laugh, "You donít see anyone waiting to come in do you?!" So I gutted out the rest of the game...and had a ball.

So if you are suffering from a middle-aged Walter Mitty complex, and decide to follow in my footsteps, take my advice. Donít be timid. Just make sure you have medical insurance, and then find a very understanding physical therapist.

Another lecture you wonít need.

Old-Boy Rugby Player Reflects and Recuperates


After a brief conversation with Sean Patterson, Sports Editor of the Wilsonville Spokesman, he asked if I would consider revisiting a column that was printed last month in The Oregonian regarding my self-confessed mid-life crises.For those of you who arenít familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell: at the young age of 45 I decided to join the Oregon Rugby Sports Union ďJestersĒ rugby club and play a sport that I left behind 23 years ago.The excuse I used was that other guys my age were buying sports cars and getting hair weaves, so why couldnít I play rugby again?It seemed quite logical to me.But then I still think Dingo boots will make a comebackÖ


Anyway, at the time I penned the piece, I was still riding high having survived a game against Oregon State University.I played the entire game and only suffered a black eye (which actually occurred during warm-ups).Elated with the fact that I kept up (barely) with kids half my age, I sat down and recorded my adventures, as well as how I originally broke the news to family and friends. The story also ran in Rugby Magazine, a New York publication subscribed to by only the most die-hard players and fans of the game.Since the story ran at the beginning of this month, Rugby Magazine has been inundated with e-mails from boomers who had done the very same thing, or worse yet, had contemplated retirementÖuntil they read my story.My experience up until that point had been extraordinary.I was convinced at the time that age was only a number Ė and nothing more.


You know whatís coming, donít you?


So now itís been about three months since I originally wrote the story.Thatís about 20 practices (including many hours of tackling drills) and four games.As it stands right now, I donít feel very well.In all honesty, if I wrote the story today it would probably be called, ďIt Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.Ē You might wonder what has tainted my initial elated view of this challenge of mine.Itís simple.Pain.Iím sore all the time.My shoulders crack and pop in the morning; my neck is stiff; I have bruises that have bruises; and after last weekís game I now have a hematoma on the inside of my thigh that looks like a crab nebula.Not to mention assorted scrapes and abrasions that makes my physical therapist cringe.It turned out the OSU game was a cake-walk compared to what lay ahead.


My next game was against the Portland Pigs, our only local rugby club rival.Less talented, but very physical, the Pigs harbored an old grudge from the days when they were the top dogs in the Northwest, but had now fallen to a Division III team.The game was brutal and had to be stopped a few times to curb tempers and quell fist-fights.The Jesters won both games.Compared to these games, the OSU match was an afternoon at Chuck E Cheeseís.


But in some strange quantum-leap way, the next game was even worse.After trouncing a Division III team, the Jesters were up against a Super League team from Seattle, the Old Puget Sound ďBeach.ĒThese guys were a division above the Jesters, and had almost no Caucasians.Whatís the big deal, you ask?No white guys?Well, in rugby thatís not a good sign.It usually means youíre up against foreigners who came charging out of the womb clutching a rugby ball.


Sure enough, this team was made up of Tongans, Samoans, and a few guys from the Fiji Islands.Yikes.The Irish believe that to see a Banshee is to be forewarned of certain doom and destruction.In rugby, seeing a team thatís chalked full of large South Pacific Islanders will create the same feeling of dread.You know pain and death are coming, and thereís nothing you can do.And thatís exactly what happened.They proceeded to beat the stuffing out of us.I was punched once, kicked twice, and Iím pretty sure one guy insulted my parentage.The nebula on my thigh was a gift from a big Tongan who stomped on me just for grins.On more than one occasion that afternoon I thought to myself, ďOh my, this was a very bad idea.Ē

When both games were finally over, and the scores were basically a zillion to nothing, we met up with the Beach players at the keg in front of the Jester clubhouse in West Linn.We swapped stories, joked about on-field encounters, talked about our families, and had a great time.All of the anger was gone, and what were left were two teams who loved the game and who just wanted to sit around and have a few beers.And thatís what itís all about for me.So on those Sunday mornings when I can barely get out of bed Ė and I think I canít possibly do this any longer, I remember my friends, the Jesters and the Tongans, and perhaps, just maybe, I can make it to one more game.††††††

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