Learning The Secret Of Rugby, Nine Concussions Later

I once drank so much weight-gain powder that I couldn't go 40 minutes without peeing. I was an intern in San Francisco, trying to play rugby with the big boys, and working part time clearing tables. Whoever designed Mass XXX surely did not intend for it to provide 50 percent of my daily calories, usually alongside three eggs cooked in oil, misfired chicken parm, and a tuna sandwich. So if I had a long BART trip ahead, I would have to sneak into the tunnel to pee before my train had arrived; at the internship I must've looked pathologically afraid of work because of how often I left my computer and strolled to the toilet past rows of silent, typing editors—the office walk of shame.



That was how seriously I took rugby. Most mornings I lifted weights, threw passes off the ground at a wall, then ran windsprints up hills, and three days a week I trained with some of the best rugby players in the country. (At one point I whored in with a Monday/Wednesday team as well, and spent the preseason training five days a week, if you counted Saturday games.)

I was a writer, too, but it was hard to decide how hard to write or how hard to play: I underslept and didn't own a TV—I couldn't squeeze much more into my day. At least some weekends I joined my new, career-bound friends to drink and hit on Harvard's newest crop of naively cynical
 consultants.



This fall, I covered the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand (along with current Deadspinner and former college rugger Dave Shireley). There, we were whipsawed between similar impulses. Do we enjoy a Rugby World Cup while we're in our 20s, or do we write like motherfuckers since we found someone dumb enough to publish us? Do we play or work? And then we heard about the press match. Every World Cup, after the quarterfinals, the press corps converges in one city. To celebrate, the Southern Hemisphere press and the Northern Hemisphere press play a rugby match. Apparently it's a hell of an event—the previous World Cup, word had it, an Argentine flanker tackled guys while hopping around on one leg. Like, he had only one leg. And he was a good rugby player, too, considering.


We might skip a post-match party to write; we might skip writing to go backpacking. But nothing would make us miss the press match. We would play in that game, Dave and I. We would play like motherfuckers.



* * *

Head injuries forced me to retire from rugby in 2009. By my ninth "official" concussion—official only in the sense that nine is how many times I recall losing consciousness from a blow to the head—it seemed as if every time I had recovered from one concussion, I'd get another. The last hit was bad. I called my girlfriend to ask her what we'd had for breakfast, because I couldn't remember the morning, and she texted me from Honduras, where she'd been for two weeks. I assumed I had shared New Year's with her, when it turned out I had been with family in Alaska. I was missing at least a month. I read my diary and discovered a previous concussion I didn't even remember. The entry bitched about how staring at the computer screen still gave me headaches. That's one of the worst parts of heard injuries—that sense of wasted time. You always feel as if you're missing something, or as if some higher form of productivity lies just out of reach.



The last concussion was bad. I called my girlfriend to ask her what we'd had for breakfast, because I couldn't remember the morning, and she texted me from Honduras, where she'd been for two weeks.



I once got knocked out in a hockey tournament in Kansas, and I wasn't allowed to sleep, read, or watch TV, which last two activities gave me headaches anyway, so I wandered around frosted-ass Wichita all by my lonesome while my teammates slept in the motel. I borrowed DJ headphones because loud sounds felt like a chisel to my skull. I saw some dead grass, some highway overpasses, and I surveyed the dishes in a Chinese buffet as if it were a fucking museum. Wasted time.



Seeing international rugby up close in New Zealand was more frustrating than I had expected. All these international scrum-halves were my size. Well, thicker, but I could have chugged more milkshakes. Fly-half Aaron Cruden came out to talk about his first World Cup match for the All Blacks and everyone held voice recorders under his nose. A Google search says he's 6 feet tall, but I know a roster height when I see one. In high school hockey they listed our heights on programs, and it was probably a decade before I remembered I wasn't actually 5-foot-10.

Anyway, someone joked with Aaron about the huge dudes he was tackling. "You just have to chop low," he said, and I had to turn and walk away. Guys like Cruden rewrite the story I had told myself. Lack of size hadn't held me back. The problem was that I just hadn't logged enough experience.

Experience means something a little different to a tactical decision-maker. It's not about learning to overcome fear or doubt; it's about finally hearing what the doubts you've been suppressing are trying to say—you're too small to try and break that tackle; your wing isn't fast enough to beat theirs; you shouldn't charge back out on the pitch with your head ringing like church bells on Easter Sunday. It's about subverting your limitations instead of smashing against them. Get the tackler out of position with a pass. Force the fullback to go deep with a kick. You have to nurture your sense of treachery. There's merit in playing as if you were invincible, but athletic genius lies in seeing the difference between difficult and impossible. I never learned that lesson.



* * *



I watched the quarterfinals in Auckland. The Eden Park media center has one giant, glass wall behind the west goalposts. I spent most of the second half of the All Blacks vs. Argentina game on that end of the field, as did the All Blacks and the Pumas' defense, which made stand after stand on the two-meter line. I stood there with my mouth agape, fogging the glass.

Afterward, journalists poured back in for free tea and frantic typing. I hung out with John Taylor. He wouldn't play in the press match because he was 30 years past his Wales days, and former England hooker and BBC color guy Brian Moore wasn't playing, either, presumably because his Achilles would explode, but some other men sounded down. I was actively recruiting Northern Hemisphere journalists. The Northern Hemisphere had never won, and rumor had it that the Southern team already had signed up twice as many players. I kept striking up conversations with stocky writers, and then casually asking their hometown. Serbia? Let me tell you something …



We traveled cheaply. Dave slept with his secret foreign quasi-girlfriend in Auckland, and I wasn't about to spend $50 on a room. After the game I stuffed myself with free media center meat pies, brushed my teeth in the bathroom, and grabbed my sleeping bag. They let you write at Eden Park only for so long. I snuck into a fancy hotel lobby around 2 a.m. There was a private rugby party, I think Argentine, so I sipped a Steinlager and typed on my laptop. When I started nodding off, I visited the Grand Hotel, shouted "¡Vamos Pumas!" to some fans who were stumbling out, and, having thus established kinship with paying guests, I checked my laptop bag with the clerk. The trick is to assume you belong, and also to treat the dude like a human. Tipping helps.



That night, I slept in a tree in a park, with a ninja's eye view on the drunks below. When my paranoia about the police woke me, I nestled into a construction area out of sight. I probably could have rustled up a hostel or woken our friends in the suburbs, but sometimes you need to remind yourself what you're capable of. It's what I love about rugby: Every Saturday, you fight a contest in which the true test of grit lies in the inches of the rucks and half-seconds of a sprint. You force your lungs to burn, push your shoulder into those ribs a little harder than your ligaments would like. Rugby can always absorb more pain. Every weekend you find out how much you're willing to give. You have an occasion to rise to.

After the last U.S. game, Dave and I drank with the team, mostly Tim Usasz, one of their scrum-halves. Uzi is even shorter than Aaron Cruden. Against Australia, he broke the line, sprinted for 20 meters, offloaded for 10 more, and set up one of the best tries of America's tournament. "You gotta go hard," he said. "Go hard and enjoy." We adopted this as our motto.



Dave and I jogged down to rugby pitches and we ran sprints and practiced passes. We did lunges and pull-ups on jungle gyms. We did 10 pushups for every beer we drank. Because the Northern Hemisphere had never won, we could train as hard as we liked without looking like dicks. It recalled a story. At one point, we shared drinks with Frano Botica, a former All Black who later played in Europe. Frano said that he and the other New Zealanders on the team used to propose contests with their French teammates: Do pull-ups with your legs at a 90-degree angle, say. They pretended it was a spur-of-the-moment idea, but they had practiced in secret, so that no matter what, a Kiwi would win. If the French started to master it, the Kiwis would invent a new skill. It was an odd sort of psychological warfare. They worked hard so they could pretend, terrifyingly, not to have worked at all.

Botica was one of the best fly-halves in the world in the 1980s, when the All Blacks dominated, but he almost never stepped onto the pitch. He was backing up Grant Fox. Fox holds the All Blacks records that Dan Carter, the highest-scoring rugby player of all time, hasn't yet broken.



And here's the thing: Botica was arguably a better fly-half. Fox's inability to score tries was a running joke, as was his poor tackling. Botica was a more creative distributor, a better tackler, and skilled with the ball in hand. He just couldn't kick. Kicking is teachable, creativity less so. If Botica had just dedicated time to mastering the boot, he might be an All Black legend. And although we mostly discussed the World Cup, professionalism, and kids these days, Dave steered Botica toward the past. Why hadn't he started? Frano dropped his guard for one narrow moment of self-reflection: "I didn't know better," he said. "I didn't know better, but I did." We all hear a voice whisper, "If you want it bad enough, you can have it." There's only one way to know if the voice is a liar.



* * *



The press match took place at Ponsonby, the biggest rugby club in New Zealand, with 56 teams, beautiful locker rooms, and, in the bar, a museum of rugby artifacts going all the way back to a jersey from the 1905 All Blacks. I arrived hours before kickoff, which, yes, is perhaps pathetic when you're preparing to go up against tubby writers and cameramen who hardly know the game, but Uzi had set the tone: You go hard or don't bother.

Learning The Secret Of Rugby, Nine Concussions Later



Across the pitch, the Southern players sounded Australian, acted cocky, and looked large. Our fullback and wing were short Japanese radio reporters.



We scored two tries in the first half. Both teams subbed fresh players for the second, but Paul Morgan, our handsome English player-coach (and editor of Rugby World magazine), told me to play the whole game. The Japanese backs were fantastic, and an Italian correspondent from Sky TV was superb. The one-legged Argentine played for us this year, too (the Southern roster was full, remember). We kept breaking the line and advancing. Dave won rucks all by himself. "Bloodlust" best describes his playing style. He cheap-shotted a South African friend of his, apologized profusely, and then flattened an Australian TV anchor into the soft New Zealand grass. Dave concussed himself partway through, and I made him leave the field for a breather. He returned later, to smash up against his limitations again. Later, he would tell me he couldn't remember the second half.



I ran far slower than I once did, and I shouted less. I'd forgotten how to lead with my voice, but my passes made it clear enough where I wanted us to attack. My newfound calmness served us well. When the final whistle trilled, it was 34-0, Northern Hemisphere.



"Shit," said Paul. "This means they're going to try hard next time."



Blood stained my jersey and trickled down my lip. Dave looked woozy. He took it easy on the beers. We showered and walked 20 feet from the lockers to the bar (New Zealand!) and drank with players and spectators. The room crackled with conversation. Dave introduced me to the South African he'd hit late. We relaxed, with nothing to prove, and we sank into the joy of hard-earned soreness.

Photos of the Colin Elsey Shield match by Andy Cowie/Colorsport