My prevaricating over the decision about whether or not to make a rugby playing comeback at the age of 42 (or 43, as I’ll be soon after the season starts in September) is starting to look a little pathetic. Not only have there been players daft enough to continue playing into their nineties, but I’m now consistently finding evidence of players who in fact didn’t take up the game at all until they were in their forties.
One such lunatic is Wes Clark, who not only didn’t begin playing until he was 42, but also embraced the game with such passion that he is the author of the excellent eclectic website The Rugby Reader’s Review and well as being the webmaster for his club’s (Western Suburbs RFC) website.
Inspired by a Five Nations match between Wales and Ireland in March 1998 (really?!) having stumbled across it when TV channel surfing, by July that year he was attending players’ meetings at Western Suburbs and in August found himself at pre-season training:
“We ran around. We ran some more. We sprinted. We sprinted and touched the ground. We passed the ball around in that stylish underhanded lofting throw so characteristic of the game and ran while we did it. Then we ran some more. I haven't done any running in the last five years and the lack of it was apparent to me. Not only was I thoroughly knackered, but that big dinner I ate kept trying to make its way up my throat to exit. Sore? I should say. A whole new world of sore. Great expanding vistas of sore. My upper legs felt like lead after about an hour of this fare. Not a high grade of lead, either, but a wobbly sort of organic lead.”
You’d think that after that Wes might have been put off but no, in September he was still there, making his debut for the Western Suburbs Old Boys (or Veterans as we call them this side of the pond) in the second row. And that’s where he’s remained, turning out regularly for the SOBs and the B-side and becoming an indispensable club stalwart while contributing a huge amount of rugby content on the web. Even more remarkable is that Wes didn’t like, and so didn’t play, sport as a kid.
Another example, possibly even more inspirational, was highlighted by Blondie over at Saturday’s A Rugby Day yesterday. A 44 year old nurse from Minnesota with a heart condition and sleep apnoea, who was discharged from the Army Reserves on medical grounds, tells of how he decided to take up rugby in middle age:
“One night in February of 2006, I came across the Metropolis Rugby Football Club web site. It said that they had a group called "The Old Boys" and that players of all skill levels-even new people-were welcome. When I talked with my son Ian about this, he said ‘Dad, why don't you try it? You still work out and you have ALWAYS wanted to play. You really should try it.’... My wife told me ‘If you don't stop whining and just go and try playing, I'll beat you up myself!’ ”
His conclusion that “rugby took a middle aged guy who was on the fast track to depression, and it gave me my smile back” is pretty poignant and a reminder about what a great sport we have.
There are other examples – for instance the Boston Globe tells the story of how Dr. Thomas Durant was introduced to rugby at the age of 47 by his son, Steven, and how he then continued to play for the Boston Irish Wolfhounds club until he was 70, eventually playing in the same team as his son and his 15 year old grandson.
And as for comebacks, Rugby Readers Review features the account of Dan Holden who decided to make a comeback aged 45 after a 23 year absence from the game, despite the reaction from his 13 year old daughter. “You’ll get killed,” she said.
Dan describes his debut for ORSU Jesters against Oregon State University:
“I had been promised at least 20 minutes of playing time, but ended up playing the entire game. Eighty...very...long...minutes. Part way into the second half, I had asked the Jesters coach if there were any subs available. He smiled broadly, looked at the sidelines, and said with a laugh, ‘You don’t see anyone waiting to come in do you?!’ So I gutted out the rest of the game...and had a ball.”
In a follow up piece he also describes how much tougher things became:
"The Irish believe that to see a Banshee is to be forewarned of certain doom and destruction. In rugby, seeing a team that’s chalked full of large South Pacific Islanders will create the same feeling of dread. You know pain and death are coming, and there’s nothing you can do. And that’s exactly what happened. They proceeded to beat the stuffing out of us… On more than one occasion that afternoon I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, this was a very bad idea’.”
Dan describes however that the post match camaraderie between “two teams who loved the game and who just wanted to sit around and have a few beers” was what it was all about, and concludes “on those Sunday mornings when I can barely get out of bed – and I think I can’t possibly do this any longer, I remember my friends, the Jesters and the Tongans, and perhaps, just maybe, I can make it to one more game.”
He’s right. That’s what’s pulling me towards a decision to play again. It’s a heart over head thing I guess (obviously the rational thing to do would be to remain welded to the sidelines with beer in hand). Strangely, all of the above examples feature Americans and I must admit I haven’t heard of a Brit taking the game up in middle age. Perhaps we do our mid-life crises a bit differently over here, but I suspect that the reason is that by and large rugby isn’t (or hasn’t been) something that American kids play and so is taken up mostly when people get to college or later in life. Americans therefore choose to play rugby rather than get pushed into it as kids and are therefore that much more enthusiastic and passionate about the game (much like women who take up rugby over here).
And it’s my level of passion for the game that will eventually swing me one way or the other when I finally get off the fence and make a decision…