Heavy toll strikes at rugby's soul

By Owen Slot

(From the Daily Telegraph, 7 October 2001)



SEAN LUGANO played his last game of rugby on Sept 8. He was a "feisty, charismatic scrum-half, a great leader," says Mike Tolkin, the coach of his club, the New York Athletic Club, "and one of the key players that got us last year to the national championship final." In that last game, against their oldest rivals, the New York Rugby Club, "Sean was being belted all around the park but he just hung in there, as he always would".


After the game, the NYAC retired as ever to Rathbone's, the bar in uptown Manhattan that Lugano

ran with his brother, John, and where Lugano would enjoy his role as host, "always with a big smile". And it is there that the NYAC - those who survived Sept 11 - have been meeting regularly ever since.


Lugano was one of three members of the club, including the president, who were lost to the New York terrorist attack. E-mails and letters of condolence have been arriving in numbers from around the world ever since - from Henley RFC and Blackrock College, to name just two, says Tolkin - an example of the rugby community spreading its international tentacles.


Other examples regularly surfaced before any of this happened. Mark Ludvigsen, the president and stalwart second-row forward, received about a dozen e-mails a week from around the globe, from players coming to work in New York and asking to join. It was this way that they recruited two former Oxford University captains.


"Mark was a great personality, the public face of the club," says Tolkin. No one has even begun to think about how to fill the space that he, too, has left behind.


The third NYAC player to die was Brent Woodall. "One of the best athletes we ever had," says Tolkin. Woodall was a tight-end American footballer of note, he came close to playing major league baseball, he was 6ft 4in "and he could really move". And the wife he leaves behind is pregnant with their first child.


"They were all the same type of guys," says Tolkin. "The words at the memorials are almost the same: all great, outgoing, friendly amazing people. They really were, it's not just words."


Numerically, the NYAC was thus the rugby club worst hit on Sept 11, though the terrorist attacks claimed, in total, 16 talented American rugby players. Their names and achievements in the game are listed in the current edition of Rugby, the American magazine that is a bible to the fledgling sport.


When one of their widows was contacted by the magazine, she responded that her husband would be delighted to have made it into its pages. Other New York rugby players are proudly acquainted with the story that emanated from the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania, that the posse that attempted to overpower the terrorists included two players from the west coast. [Articles here and here. - Wes]


Despite being such a small sport in the United States, it is perhaps not surprising that rugby took such a toll. American rugby players tend to be of the well-schooled middle class, the sort who would graduate naturally into the finance industry.


Yet this, by no means, is reflected in the trappings of their sport. "These rugby clubs are based in bars, they don't have clubhouses," says Ed Hagerty, editor of Rugby. "The players change in their cars on the side of pitches. It's not easy or convenient to play rugby here and that makes it somewhat exotic. Once you've played it here, there's a connection."


And those connections have proved strong. A proliferation of memorial services have focused the

sadness of the last four weeks, "but from 10 days after it all happened," says Tolkin, "everyone - the NYAC boys - were together every night and that made it a lot easier."


Tolkin, himself, has had a considerable amount of grief to deal with. Besides coaching NYAC, he has been coaching Xavier High School for the 11 years since he started there as a teacher. Xavier lost 12 alumni in the World Trade Centre and Lugano was one of three who had played on Tolkin's team. "It feels strange," says Tolkin, "I coached Sean in the first game he ever played and also in his last."


The day dawned yesterday when NYAC would play for the first time without him. Their return to the game had been taken in careful steps, two weeks were completely missed and three games cancelled before a meeting was held to decide the way ahead. "It was unanimous," says

Tolkin. "Everyone wanted to get back. There's no use just sitting around, you'd just wallow deeper and deeper."


So they started in Central Park with a short, light game of touch rugby and built up gradually until

yesterday, a game on their home ground against Boston Irish. Some bagpipes played before kick-off; on the backs of their shirts, NYAC had stitched the names of their late team-mates alongside a mini Stars and Stripes. And no one was in any doubt as to where they'd be drinking afterwards.


There is, without doubt, a considerable amount of therapy to be had from the company of teammates and clearing and cleansing the mind on the field of play. Yet not everyone has yet managed to lace up their boots again.


Last Wednesday, Finbar Carrig, 26, also from Xavier, rejoined his New York Rugby Club teammates at training for the first time. In the three weeks after Sept 11, he explained, he had been to seven memorial services and missed others when they had clashed.


"But I knew I had to get down here," he said, nodding at the pitch (a football pitch) under floodlights. "I knew I had to do something with myself and here, at least, gets you away from it all for a couple of hours."


With Carrig present, pretty much all the club were now accounted for, bar Kevin Burke - "the life and soul" as his team-mates described him, "always wants to let everyone know that he's there" - whose brother, Matt, was another of the dead. No one was sure exactly when they would see Kevin in a rugby context again, though they would certainly be seeing him at the bar of the Town Crier later that night.


Kevin had given a eulogy at his brother's memorial four days previously and was in place at the Town Crier because the barman, another rugby man, had declared that that night's taking would be going towards a fund set up in Matt's name.


But rugby was a challenge that he suspected might still be beyond him. "I know I should go, but I'm not ready to yet," he explained. "I mean, I was still having trouble shaving and brushing my teeth last week." One day, if he woke up sober in the morning, he said he felt he might go, but there haven't apparently been many sober mornings.


"I still don't think I've come anywhere near to feeling the depth of the impact yet," he said. And in

that, it seemed, he was speaking for everyone.