Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances


Saturday, April 05, 2003

About all I know about rugby is that my roommate as a freshman in college was a 210-pound football running back who decided to try rugby in the off-season. He started at fullback on the football team by the time he was a senior, but he came back from the one and only rugby game he ever played missing his front teeth. An opponent kicked them out.

So -- when I saw the Pacific Rugby Football Union had scheduled a regional playoff for WOMEN in Portland the other day, I thought I’d expand my horizons and go watch. I meandered over to Reed College to check out the third-place game between Reed and Western Washington and the championship contest between Chico State and Humboldt State.

I received a pretty good hint as to what was coming up (quite literally) within moments of my arrival. The Reed women, clad in navy blue shorts and shirts, and the red-wearing Western Washington team were tussling over the ball near the east sideline. The ball lay on a patch of muddy grass among several sets of feet while various players kicked, grabbed and poked at it. One of the red grabbers, a Western Washington woman who must have gone about 5-foot-3 and 180 pounds, with a bristly head of blonde buzzcut hair, suddenly staggered back from the crowd. She stopped, wobbled on her feet, bent over and vomited. A couple of yards away, play went on. The buzzcut blonde lurched toward the sideline, only to be assailed by shouts from both the opponents’ bench and her own teammates: “No, no! Stay on the field!" "You gotta play! You gotta play!" "Hang in there, Patsy!” Her macho stirred, the woman spun back to the fray. She kicked at the ball and chased it with everyone else as it bounced toward the middle of the field. She played on for two or three minutes before her coach sent in a sub and she trudged to the far sideline, where she flopped to the ground and and sucked greedily at a plastic water bottle.

Obviously, women’s rugby is not a sport for pansies. Hard to say what it is a sport for, exactly. Many of the players and the 50 or so spectators for the two games were of ambiguous gender, let alone sexual orientation. Three or four Reed players wore Mohawk haircuts. Several players and fans had short hair and flat chests, but walked like girls. Others were large and hairy and heavily muscled, but sported what appeared to be breasts. At one point, a big ol’ Western Washington player with a missing front tooth bellowed at her teammates: “Just get me the fucking ball!” Reminded me of my old roommate, only he was prettier.

The Reed Griffins (who the hell knew Reed had a name for athletic teams? I didn’t. But I do know a griffin is some kind of mythic monster, part eagle and part lion, because I read the Harry Potter books. Seems like Reed should go with a more appropriate name, though -- something like Fighting Aesthetes) won the third place game. At least, I think they did. They got the only score of the last thirty minutes when a beefy girl reeled off a long run to the end zone, and they marched from the field at game’s end belting out a victory song that sounded like surrounded British soldiers singing “Men of Harlech” to keep their spirits up as they await attack by thousands of Africans in the movie “Zulu.”

As the Reed team celebrated, I watched the competitors for the championship game get ready. One big Humboldt State girl shrugged into a pair of foam-rubber shoulder pads before donning her game jersey. Two or three players for each team tugged on foam rubber headgear that resembled World War I fighter-pilot helmets. Three Chico State girls slipped into ear muffs. Most inserted plastic mouthpieces to protect their teeth. One Humboldt State player, a slender, rather pretty, dark-haired girl, walked over to the team’s medicine case near my seat and taped up first her right wrist, and then her right shoulder just above a bright purple bruise that covered her whole biceps -- souvenirs of her first-round game the day before, I assumed. Girded for battle, they took to the field.

Rugby, it turns out, is a lot like American football, only with no blocking or forward passing, and very little protective gear. There is a lot of sprinting, tackling, jumping, pushing and shoving. The 15 players on each side get very sweaty and muddy. In the women’s game, most of the tackling looks more like rodeo bulldogging than vicious hitting, although the players, coaches and spectators recognize a shoulder delivered resoundingly to a gut when they see it and respond with loud cheers. Being bulldogged face first into muddy grass is no picnic, either, I gather.

The Chico and Humboldt teams -- who are neighborhood rivals, of sorts, since they come from the towns of Chico and Arcata in northern California -- were quicker and meaner than the teams in the third-place game, which probably accounts for why they were competing for the championship. Chico, in particular, seemed to have a few talented players.

Numbers 11 and 14 for Chico, a pair of slim blondes, were major hitters, for instance. At one point in the first half, 11 -- who was kind of cute, in a Meryl Streepy way -- took a shot in the belly that dropped her to the grass for ninety seconds or so. The game spun on around her, women kicking and shoving and yelling, as she lay curled in a ball, hands shielding her ears, gasping for air. Finally, she rose and rejoined the war. Five minutes later, she laid out a Humboldt player with the same kind of shot she had taken. Her teammates let out a whoop. She popped up and looked for someone else to hit. The girl had attitude. Reminded me of the old Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, who was nicknamed “The Assassin.”

The biggest star on the field, though, was number 8 for Chico. She was short, broad-shouldered and wore her dark hair in a tight French braid. Her legs were so stumpy and her shoulders were so wide, she looked like Taz, the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons. She ran fast and hit hard, and every time she touched the ball she was a threat to score. The Humboldt girls stood her off for most of the 40-minute first half, but just before the period ended she broke loose on a long run and then pitched back to a trailing teammate as she was being tackled and Chico scored a “try,” which is worth five points. A large person named Megan kicked a conversion through the goalposts, and the Lady Wildcats of Chico led the Lady Lumberjacks of Humboldt 7-zip at the break.

Early in the second half, Taz reversed roles and scored a “try” herself on a pitchback from a beefy red-haired teammate named Katie. Megan missed the conversion, but Chico had a 12 to 0 lead and proceeded to kill the rest of the half with a grind-it-out game that looked like Ohio State football in the days of Woody Hayes. This pleased the Lady Wildcats’ rooters, who seemed to outnumber everyone else in attendance and spent a lot of time bellowing “Chee-CO! Chee-CO!”

The game ended with Humboldt driving on the Chico one-meter line (or whatever the hell they call it in rugby), but the Lady Wildcats managed to preserve their shutout with a lot of shoving, slapping, tugging, grunting, sweating and a little outright hitting. I gave both teams a final round of applause and headed for my car, certain I’d seen enough senseless female brutality for one day.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Surfing the internet the other day, I saw mention of a church called The (John F.) Kennedy Worshippers, which made me decide I should start my own church. It will be called The Church of Ernest Hemingway & Sandy Koufax, in honor of two great holy men in human history.

In doctrine, the church will be a cross between Catholicism (Hemingway converted from Congregationalism in middle age because he thought Catholic Spain was way cool) and Judaism (Koufax is a Jew, and once provoked controversy by refusing to pitch in the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur). All members will be required to have neurotic attachments to their mothers, which they will analyze compulsively during weekly confession sessions with Church of EH&SK priests.

The church’s high holidays will be the second week of July, when The Running of the Bulls is held during the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, and the second week of February, when pitchers annually report to spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. Pilgrimages to both sites at those times will be appropriate for true believers.

Holy texts for members of the church will be “The Sun Also Rises,” Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical first novel, and “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy,” the biography by Jane Leavy.

Saints of the church, all of whom are discussed at length in the texts, will include Jake Barnes, Lady Duff Twysden, Walter Alston and Don Drysdale. Each member of the faithful will be allowed to adopt one of the saints as his or her spiritual sponsor and protector. Plastic statues of saints on car dashboards will be discouraged, however.

Grounds for excommunication will be writing, saying or suspecting that Ernest Hemingway and/or Sandy Koufax ever gave a thought to, let alone practiced, homosexuality.

Church artifacts will include the typewriter on which Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1939, and the baseball with which Koufax struck out Harvey Kuenn of the Chicago Cubs to end his perfect game, and fourth no-hitter, on Sept. 9, 1965.

Major prayers of the church will include: “Our nada, who art in nada, nada be thy name” and “Oh Lord, just get me two runs and I’ll do the rest.” Amen! Tell it! Praise Maxwell Perkins! Praise John Roseboro!

Music for services will be provided by castanets and jews harps. The two most prominent hymns will be “Amazing Grace” (telling the age-old story of how Grace Hemingway, Ernest’s mother, drove her husband to suicide) and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee (a heartfelt detailing of Sandy’s early career as a no-control fireballer with the Brooklyn Dodgers).

I, of course, will be pope, bishop, head priest, chief rabbi and cantor of this church. You may address me as Father Dave, or Dad Dave for short. (Okay, skip the jokes about my height.) I will launch missionary efforts on behalf of the church as soon as donations from supporters provide the necessary funding. Mail your checks to:

Father Dave
Church of Ernest Hemingway & Sandy Koufax
5555 Dodger Blvd.
Oak Park, IL 00000

Keep the faith.

As to some of those religious myths: Shiny black baseball shoes do NOT reflect up, and shotgun barrels do NOT taste like licorice.

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