Or maybe I was thinking that my life could only get worse from there. That would be my final day in Philadelphia, the final day of a journey that I put blood, sweat and tears into. The final day of the 2013 Collegiate Rugby Championship.
For the past two years, I have been privileged to play rugby for the University of Florida. It’s a club sport. We aren’t afforded our own trainers, nutritionists, expensive gear and training facilities.
In the regular season, we practice three times a week surrounded by the Swamp. My teammates and I are often joined at Hume Field by fire ants and the occasional roaming gator. We don’t have scholarships. Our coaches are unpaid. What we do have is a love for a game that’s slowly but surely making its mark in America.
I played football for two years in high school. I’ve always loved the physicality that football demands. If you ever thought you were a bad ass hitting another guy with full pads on, wait until you step on the rugby pitch.
Where football doesn’t demand discipline or proper tackling technique, rugby is every bit the opposite. Shoulder charges and blocking are illegal. You have to wrap up properly, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe. Some of the hardest hits in any sport come in rugby. In my short playing career, I’ve seen broken legs and noses. I’ve watched my teammate go back on the field after having his face streaming in blood. I’ve heard the crack of shoulders separating.
And I love every second of it.
Rugby may not be America’s sport, but it’s quickly becoming a staple. And events like the CRC are the perfect medium to give Americans a taste of a sport that features some of the best athletes in the world.
When most people first hear about rugby, they think of soccer. Let me tell you, that’s an unfair comparison. While the substitution rules are similar and you can kick the ball, no one associates soccer with physicality and scoring. In rugby, those two elements make the game exciting. I’ve been around sports since I was 4 or 5, and the best athletes I’ve been around have been rugby players.
These guys are some of the grittiest, toughest badasses you’ll come across. And they aren’t afraid to knock a couple brews back after a match, either.
There are two distinct styles of rugby, each requiring a particular set of skills. For most of my career, I played 15s. Each team has 15 players—eight forwards (the biggest, strongest guys on the team) and seven backs (a mix of speed and ball skills). There are two 40-minute halves and the game is slower, but more physical. During my time at UF, I mostly played second row, but also dabbled with flanker. Those positions require both strength and speed, as well as great tackling ability.
While 15s rugby has been around forever and is how most guys get started, sevens is a whole other beast. And if the sport is ever going to gain a following in the U.S., sevens is it.
As opposed to 15s, sevens is shorter, quicker and more intense. There are only seven players on each team and the halves last just seven minutes. However, the field is the same size, requiring players to cover more ground. By the same token, there’s more room to run, and the athletes who play sevens are some of the most explosive in the game.
Most players who play my position in 15s don’t play sevens. Often guys in the pack, particularly the props, hooker and second row, don’t have the speed or ball skills to play sevens. However, my roommate and I, who started at second row all year, made it our mission to get in shape to play sevens.
Training for the CRC became a 24-hour mission for the Gators. As one of 20 teams invited to an all-expense paid tournament, we didn’t take the opportunity lightly. We began training five days a week and played tournaments on the weekends. We attended boot camp sessions, watched film, ate and hydrated properly and worked on our skills.
There were many trying times in conditioning sessions where we wanted to quit. But pushing yourself beyond those limits is the difference between settling and greatness.
Only 12 players made the final roster, and with over 20 trying out, I felt extremely proud of everyone who earned one of those coveted spots. In Philly, we played four games. The tournament got off to a rough start with a 34-0 loss to Delaware, a team that narrowly beat us at last year’s CRC.
However, the next day we responded by playing tough against the eventual runner-up, Life University. Though we lost, we came out firing against a varsity program that trains every day and recruits players from around the world. That showing in front of our alumni who traveled to support us gave us a ton of confidence in our next showing.
The pinnacle of the tournament came Saturday evening. We took on the University of Texas in a match-up that was later televised on NBC Sports. The Longhorns are a solid squad, but we finally put it together and dominated. It was by far my best showing of the tournament, and the feeling of making a huge tackle in front of thousands of fans was something I’ll never forget.
In fact, the only feeling that surpassed that was leaping into the stands with all our alumni as we celebrated our victory.
One of the unique aspects of rugby is the brotherhood it fosters. You’re not just joining a team. You’re joining a lifestyle.
Before I ever stepped foot on a rugby pitch, I hadn’t made many new friends in college. But by the time the CRC was over, which marked the end of my two-year career with the Gators, I had made countless memories and found a group of guys who have my back.
We all come from different backgrounds, have different interests and are at different points in our lives. But no matter our differences, we share a lifelong bond of brotherhood in the UFRFC.
For athletes who don’t go on to play college football or have always wanted to be part of a team, rugby is the perfect beginning. I only say that because there’s no end to your rugby career. It’s a lifestyle, a bond, a brotherhood that will always give back to you what you put in it.