By Jonathon Gatehouse (Maclean's - 6/3/2002)

Lying on the ground, deep beneath a pile of players fighting for a loose ball, I tried to convince myself it was only a sprain. Yes, the snapping sound -- something between a dry twig and a fresh celery stick -- was worrying, but the pain really wasn't that bad. Maybe I had twisted it, or torn ligaments. Once I got to the sidelines, I could ice the ankle, tape it, maybe come back and play the second half.

The swelling that greeted me once I got my cleat off put paid those notions, but I still managed to deny the obvious. Almost 24 hours later, I heeded my wife's insistence that I go to the emergency room. The doctor didn't wait for X-rays to make her diagnosis: "Oh yeah, that's broken."

My pride took the real hit. In 15 years of rugby, I had been hurt before, but never in such an inglorious manner -- crushed in the first five minutes of the first game of the pre-season. I faced a summer of dragging around on crutches, then hobbling in a walking cast, providing time to reflect on the message the bigger, younger opposition forward delivered when he drove me into the turf. I began to consider a dirty truth: at 33, I might be too old for this stuff.

Most people leave contact sports behind at the end of their school days. As their waistlines fill out, they graduate to more sedentary pastimes -- curling, yoga, golf. Even hockey gets turned down a notch. Bodychecking is a penalty in the rec league I play in, and if guys smash into the boards during our weekly pickup games, it's usually because they've tripped over their dragging tongues.

There were plenty of reasons to consider a graceful withdrawal from the field. I realized I'd reached an age where pro athletes turn into "wily veterans" and start thinking about a career in real estate. I've lost a couple of steps over the last few seasons, and the rugby pitch is getting longer and wider. For a while, I thought there might be something wrong with my technique when I jog in the hilly park by our house, until I realized it's the force of gravity on my increased mass. And -- perhaps even more painful -- my chest hair is turning grey.

Ninety minutes of tackling and being tackled each Saturday takes an increased toll. Some Sundays, it's all I can do to lift my arm off the couch and point the remote control. And bosses tend to frown on employees who arrive for work on Mondays with a black eye and cleat marks on their face. Then, there are subtle pressures at home. "I'm not coming to visit you when you wind up in hospital drooling on yourself," my wife is fond of warning.

The other side of the ledger was harder to fill out. I've never been sure how to answer when people ask why I play. Yes, it's good exercise, but there are easier ways to get a workout. "It's fun" elicits the sort of skeptical looks people reserve for fans of buzkashi, the headless goat polo that is the national sport of Afghanistan. I suppose in the end it's the same inexplicable payoff that drives mountain climbers and people who race cars: the combination of physical challenge and looming destruction clears the mind and pumps adrenaline. And truth be told, there is some deep, neolithic corner of our brains that still derives pleasure from opening a can of whoop-ass on an opponent.

Over the course of the winter, the ankle started feeling better. It now makes the same grinding noise as the other one (which I ripped to shreds a decade ago), but it seems to have regained most of its flexibility. I made it through hockey season without reinjuring it. As spring approached, I started to rationalize a rugby comeback. "I'm going to get fat," I told my wife, brushing off her suggestion there might be a relation between beer intake and waist size.

So a couple of weekends ago, I found myself on a football field at a Toronto high school, contemplating mortality and trying to stretch my hamstrings. The butterflies disappeared when I touched the ball, just as always. The tackles and rucks left the usual scrapes and bruises, but no permanent disfigurement. We won, 50-14.

After the game, I stood in the warm spring sunshine chatting with a friend, a fellow journalist, on the opposing team. He shattered his cheekbone and eye socket in a game a couple of years back -- four months before his wedding. "The scars were barely visible," he says. He's still married, still playing.

I sat and watched our first team (average age 23) play. They galloped the length of the field, chasing the ball and dishing out hits. One of our young, fast guys lunged across the goal line for a try, dragging two opponents on his back. Everyone cheered and laughed from the sidelines. I pulled out my chequebook and paid my annual dues.

Maybe just one more season.