MY TURN -  Dan Holden

The Ruck, the Maul and the Joy of Surviving it all

(The Oregonian 02/12/04)

"I think I'd 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, "That's cool, Dad."

My wise and worldly 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, was not that impressed: "You'll 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 -- it's 9-1-1, so don't call me." Barb, on more than one occasion, has driven me to the emergency room for torn ligaments and broken fingers, albeit all non-rugby-related injuries.

Admittedly, it did sound crazy for a 45-year-old man to take up a sport most guys gave up 10 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 call it a midlife crisis, it doesn't 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 I'm an idiot, get in line. My younger brother thinks I'm nuts. My best friend, a banker down in Stockton, Calif., 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 I'll break a hip. Even my golf buddies at work lectured me endlessly about making such a stupid decision.

All except 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, a.k.a. the Jesters. What a suitable name. The other option was the Portland Pigs. But who wants to tell people he is 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 wasn't 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 idiom. It did take me some time to explain that "ruck" isn't a bad word -- although bad words often emanate from a ruck -- and that a "maul" isn't a place where you can buy cool shoes.

At the heart of all this is the desire for my daughters to remember me as the dad who wasn't afraid to try crazy things, not just the guy who scoops up dog doo and fixes the toilets.

The first few Jester practices were a real eye-opener. I quickly realized I was no longer fast -- I'm 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 the guys were a lot bigger than I was. I could really use that extra 25 pounds now.

Not only bigger, but also younger. I expected that. No one really bothered with me during the first practice. Finally, a younger fellow named Michael strolled over to introduce himself. He had a cherubic face on a large head that sat on an even larger body. Michael was easily a biscuit over 300 pounds and stood at least 6-foot-4.

He told me not to be discouraged if the guys didn't introduce themselves right away. For every five guys who try out, four don't come back, he explained. 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 wasn't 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 they'd just step over my lifeless body anyway. At a recent 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.

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 Jesters' home field in West Linn. I had been promised at least 20 minutes of playing time, but ended up playing the entire game. Eighty . . . very long . . . minutes.

Partway into the second half, I asked the Jesters coach if there were any subs available. He smiled broadly, looked at the sidelines and said with a laugh, "You don't see anyone waiting to come in, do you?!"

So I gutted out the rest of the game and had a ball.

If you are suffering from a middle-aged complex and decide to follow in my footsteps, take my advice and don't be timid. Just make sure you have good medical insurance and then find a very understanding physical therapist. Another lecture you won't need.

 Dan Holden lives in Wilsonville.

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