When I received the email recruiting students for women’s rugby at my college, I was instantly curious. I liked trying out new things, but only if I knew I could actually succeed—which, I think, really didn’t mean I was trying something new.
Nonetheless, I read on. The email shouted out at me, “New players welcome! No experience necessary.” The logical side of me thought, “Hey, this could be easy. I can come into this knowing nothing and leave with a new skill set.”
One of my best friends wanted to join the women’s rugby team back home. She goes to Fordham University. She had been excited and I was excited—and scared—for her. She has broad shoulders and is generally a tough person, but, despite that, I felt like she would be literally crushed. I had heard crazy stories about rugby and seen my share of daunting clips of mangled bodies and players flinging other players around like they were rag dolls.
My best friend never joined the rugby team. After seeing the YouTube videos, her more than slightly strict mother wouldn’t have it. Clubs and athletic practices were late at night and her mother was concerned about her mouth’s survival against the angry opposing team (she had had braces at the time and now she is content with retainers).
After reading the email for the umpteenth time, hunting for hidden messages prohibiting a person like me with no experience with the rough sport from joining the team, I hastily added the meeting date and time to my phone’s calendar and my planner. I was jittery with excitement and fear. I spent the day telling all my friends that I joined. The majority of them were dubious as to my ability to succeed in such a rough sport. One of my friends, whom I do not see as often as I had last semester because she spent a good majority of her waking hours with her significant other, blatantly said she didn’t believe in me.
Well, she didn’t say that (I tend to be dramatic too).
She had actually said, “You? Joining rugby? But . . . you’re so skinny. I mean, I wanted to join, but I have no time. You’re so . . . skinny. They’re going to crush you.”
That didn’t help my nerves at all. It caused me to genuinely be upset. I knew there was some logic to her repetitive acknowledgement that I was a thin person. But who cared? This is college—the place to experiment, explore and grow. Sure, it seemed foolish to experiment with my skinny, frail body, but who cared?
When I told my best friend that I decided to join women’s rugby three weeks ago, she was happy for me, but I could tell she was jealous or slightly hurt in some way. I couldn’t place the emotion, but I knew there was something off about her voice. I felt bad. Maybe she would live vicariously through me.
I had gotten the email on Sunday afternoon and the following Tuesday was the first meet. To say I was fearful and panicky was an understatement. I went to the informational meeting Monday night. I had arrived late with one of my good friends at my college. She was concerned for me, but, I suppose, was light-hearted about it. Maybe she did believe in me. And I was thankful for that. However, she refused to join the team.
“I will kill someone with my big butt,” she said, and I laughed with her.
The meeting was short and a lot of the experienced players tried to convince the new members that they weren’t experienced as we might have thought they were.
“I, like literally learned from watching YouTube videos,” said one senior player with her dirty blond hair up in a raggedy side ponytail.
“It won’t make sense until you’re physically playing out in the field,” added another short-haired girl after they tried to explain the rules and steps to an average 80-minute game.
After the meeting, I realized my former residential assistant and a friend of hers were joining the team too. I was happy that I had another friend with me on the team. I tended to be very shy when I met new people or found myself in situations far beyond my comfort zone.
Playing rugby for the first time with a group of seemingly friendly, stocky college girls was definitely more than a couple feet out of my comfort zone.
That Tuesday I found myself distracted during my two classes for the day. I daydreamed about my skinny limbs snapping after being tackled and my barely-there muscles dwindling and quaking as I tried to push against a stronger opponent.
My friend joined the team as well. Nonetheless, I was jealous of her body type: much thicker and meatier, although she was just about my height. She and I met up at 8 o’clock outside the gym’s parking lot and we were able to ride with one of players in her car toward the field house.
To make matters worse, while we were practicing, the men’s rugby team would practice on the other half of the gymnasium. How lovely, I thought. Not only would I be willingly approaching my imminent injury, but I would also be facing humiliation in front of athletic men I tended to see every day on campus while working or on my way to class.
As soon as everyone arrived at the field house and 8:15 rolled around, one of the captains led us through a series of stretches. I could deal with that. I had been on my track team in high school and elementary school. I had worked out on my own during the summer and I liked stretching. It was kind of like yoga, sans the “ohms” and soporific deep breaths.
We started to do what is called Indian runs (why it is called an Indian run is beyond me), which entailed our running in two lines around the track that wrapped around the gym and tossing a larger, more awkward version of a football behind us. That was the key—you could never toss the ball forward; that was an illegal pass in rugby.
That was definitely odd for me because the last sport I played in a group setting was flag football. I kept tossing the awkwardly shaped ball sideways and forward while I felt like a lot of the players shot me looks and muttered obscenities under their breaths. I could hear my brain making their thoughts worse and that worried me. I watched the players ahead of me with meticulous effort. With smooth grace, the experienced players tossed the ball back and forth, almost causing my eyes to bounce side to side with scary speed.
When I got the ball again, I tossed it fairly well behind me to a girl with a colorful tank top, and one of the players told me, “Great job.”
One could say I was giddy.
When the last person on the line got the ball, they had to sprint to the front of the line (if they ran through the middle, they had to call out “middle” to warn the other players they were coming through) and hand off the ball to the player in the front of the line. And the cycle started again for another few laps around the track.
Then, the captain broke us up into groups and we practiced tossing the ball between each other within our groups. Again, I watched as the adept players coolly chucked the ball toward and up and over other girls. Once, an overweight black-haired girl kicked the ball up high in the air and a willowy player caught it with a majestic leap.
I grew self-conscious through practice until 9:45, despite my few good throws and murmured approvals from the old players. At the end of practice, however, I felt like I belonged to something special and private. We huddled in a circle after discussing Thursday’s practice and gathered our hands in the middle, shouting “Plattsburgh” on three. It didn’t seem largely significant, but I thought I was in a much less satanic version of a cult. I was joining a team and we were a family.
Or maybe, as my crazy imagination had thought, we were auditioning and they would drop the dead weight later on and change the days of practice so we horrible players wouldn’t come to practice.
That, lucky for me, was not the case. On Thursday, My friend and I waited at 8 o’clock outside the gym’s parking lot and were picked up by a short-haired player. She was friendly and played country music in her small car. We started practicing again and I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t perfect. No one was. And that was okay. I was learning something new and I was bound to make more than a few mistakes.
By the third week of practice, I started to actually feel part of the team. We were a band of sisters not only tossing an awkwardly shaped ball toward one another, but we had jokes. We jokingly cussed at each other. We tackled each other, not in hatred or vain, but guidance. We helped each other get stronger and I think that was the main point of rugby. I figured that was why you always had to stay behind your teammate who had the ball. You had to back her up. You had to support her, physically and mentally, as she charged down the field toward her opponents.