September 16, 2018

Rugby Memories: The 60’s

We were a rag-tag group of athletes on an all-male campus without a football team and thirsting for contact… of multiple kinds.

Rugby proved to be part of the answer.

Our beloved Coach, Dr. John Kenyon, was the major inspiration for the program. He was a wild and wooly Scotsman who taught Experimental Psychology and who has now sadly become lost in the mists of time. When we were planning our 50th Rugby Reunion back in 2012 and 2013, I was deputized to try and find the good doctor but came up empty. A puckish friend suggested that I hire an actor to play Kenyon and have him show up to the event drunk and unruly. Neat idea. Maybe I should have done it.

The actor Malachy McCourt (his brother, Frank McCourt, wrote Angela’s Ashes) used to referee many of our games. We looked forward to that because Malachy was also Master of the Revels at the compulsory rugby party after each game. He knew every salacious rugby song in the book and some that weren’t. He showed up – ancient but upright – at our 50th Reunion and sang The Parting Glass. Now that was a moment.

Doug Ciacci was our Captain and his memory remains strong among his former teammates. A former All-State running back at New Britain High School, he was arguably the best player on the eastern seaboard in 1963 – 1965 and a force of nature. Doug was fated to die in a motorcycle accident in 1967 but is today enshrined in Fairfield’s Athletic Hall of Fame and by an athletic scholarship fund in his name that the university uses to recruit the best student ruggers it can.

We went to our first Seven-A-Side tournament in the fall of 1963. It was held at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and the set-up was that your team played until it lost a match. We cruised through six games before losing in the finals to the legendary Columbia Old Blue squad, made up largely of veterans of the Lion’s 1961 Ivy League Championship Football team. Doug got kicked out of that game for being feisty with the ref (it’s a British game after all) and our chances for victory quickly eroded. Despite our disappointment, we had finished 2nd out of 39 teams entered. Not bad for our first year!

Years later, I worked at Pepsi with Harry Hersh, who had played on that Old Blue team in that same tournament. One of our associates asked Harry is he’d remembered me. “Nah,’ he said, “he was always laying face down in the mud.”
Harry’s line reminds me of the time I found myself facedown in a puddle under a pile of bodies during a game in a rainy Charles River Park in Boston. “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m going to drown in a rugby game!”

The memories pile up: Dan Gatti breaking his nose on the goalpost at Brown; the Harvard Business School scrum-half punching one of our props; separating one of my ribs against Old Blue (it only hurt when I laughed), Doug Ciacci and Al Sullivan running other teams ragged, The Gimp, The Crow, Big Mike Kelly and Little Mike Kelly, walking down to the practice field on golden fall afternoons.

And then, I look at the team photo on my wall, taken in the spring of 1964 and count those that have left us behind: Doug Ciacci, John Bender, Jay Kirwin, Ricky Fuller, Jack Ploehn, John Sullivan, John Swanhaus.

The Greek roots of the English word “nostalgia” were “homecoming” and “ache,” suggesting that memories of the past bring mixed emotions…a kind of sweet sadness.

That sums it up for me.