Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Literature of Journalism class were assigned to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Here’s what they found:
The New Paltz Men’s Rugby Team is observed by a student who sees how they handle practices, games, and navigating the loss of one of their own.
The ball is sacred and is known as “the egg.” Rule No. 1: Don’t drop the egg.
At practices, the room is filled with a booming voice. The voice is “Iggy’s.” He is one of the two team captains of the Men’s Rugby Team. Iggy has a men’s rugby tattoo on his upper thigh, right below the cutoff of his shorts. It is of a hawk decal. He is a respected member who has been playing rugby for a while, and most of the team listens to him. He takes the leadership role when Coach Dudz is not there.
Everyone on the team has nicknames. Gargoyle, Tiny, Church, Mo, Plumpy, Freak and Frenchie, just to name a few. The wrestling room reeks of stinky feet. I am sitting in the corner, not in the appropriate attire. I’m wearing jeans, boots, red lipstick and a fuzzy jacket. They’re wearing short shorts with spandex peeking out and have bare feet. Some of the men with longer hair push it back with headbands and hair ties. They start each practice with a warmup of 15 burpees, only if their running upstairs on the track went well. But, a couple of the guys dropped the rugby ball.
The egg was dropped four times, crashing against the track. Sweaty bodies jumped up and down into push up position 40 times, all because the egg fell.
The running lasted 30 minutes. On the upper level of the gym, nine guys ran at a quick pace and a few hurried to keep up. A collective echo from multiple members called out the guys who trickled in late. The late ones hopped on the end of the line as the pack rounded the corner. “Jump on the end, Einstein” and “Oh, you’re going to run in those?” poured out of their sweaty and panting mouths.
Rugby has a lot of rules. The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent. The game lasts 80 minutes and is broken down into two 40 minute halves with a short ten minute halftime. Church, a returning member on the team, explained to me that the rugby line is made up of a forward and back line. The forwards are usually the bigger guys and the back line consists of the faster ones. But the egg must be protected. It can never be passed forward, so the players have to run to the front with the ball. The other team has to stop them and tackle to get the ball back.
“Stinking up the lobby” and laughter was harmonized by many voices while taking off the sweaty athletic shoes. Some members are silent after they finish their run, while some are excited and full of adrenaline. Church sings Cardi B songs and the rest of the team laughs. In the bright wrestling room with fogged mirrors, one of the guys said, “It looks like a freaking sweat angel.” He was referring to the immense amount of sweat on the ground.
With the tackle drills, comments from the back line screamed, “I’m like one of those hogs you’re trying to wrestle.” But in between the brash and funny comments, the team was collectively encouraging each other to push harder and keep it up.
“Hands up, keep breathing!”
I thought I was doing a story about rugby, but there was something larger that unified the men. I could see it in the way they constantly supported one another.
It was clear that the members on the team really do have each other’s backs, even when they give each other lip every once in a while. Tiny hurt himself during one of the drills and fell over on his knee. Everyone stopped and a great silence hit. The boys gathered around him to make sure he was okay. He took a few minutes to stand up, and he made his way to the side mat by the wall to sit out. After a few drills he joined in again. The team welcomed him back with a round of applause.
Their game was in two weeks. The side angle tackle drills were pumping them up. Iggy said to Snowflake, “If you hit someone like that in the game, your new name is Blizzard.” Other new drills from Iggy made the guys challenge themselves. This drill required partners. Someone was in a pushup position and the other partner had to run around them to do a pushup with their arms on the other’s back. A taller, limber guy said, “It’s like musical chairs on crack.”
During the second week of practice, Church, Freak and I chattered by the track in one of the cubbies. They said that the other captain, Saidul hasn’t been to many practices. Church and Freak joked about how I came to about as many practices as the other captain did. Rugby’s budget is not big so they don’t have a coach at the moment because Saidul didn’t charter them to the school in time. Coach Dudz volunteers his time to the team even though he doesn’t get paid.
Outside the wrestling room, the routine of taking off shoes and “stink up the lobby” happened again. Inside, Church led the circle stretch. They do push ups, twisting arms and a downward dog stretch. One of the stretches caused one of the guys to yell out, “Church’s mom!” Everyone laughed and Church joined in on the joke. He was unphased by the comment and turned the joke around and used it to his power.
Game time. The team was versing US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and SUNY Oneonta today.
There are four ways to score points. It can be done as a try, conversion, penalty kick and drop goal. The Rules of Sport website explains rugby in bullet points. It is a hard game to understand without the knowledge of scoring.
Rules of Sport say:
- A try is “when a player places the ball down in their opponent’s dead ball area behind the goal. 5 points are awarded.”
- A conversion is a “free kick that the team is awarded after a try to earn 2 bonus points. A successful kick needs to pass between the upper posts and top bar on the goal.”
- A penalty kick will “gain a team 3 points and is awarded to a team when the opposing team causes an infringement.”
- A drop goal can “be kicked out of the hand as long as the ball bounces first and can earn a team 3 points.”
On the fields behind Esopus Hall, the boys hype themselves up. Church sent me a message before the game started and said, “I kind’ve have to get like super hyped up mentally, like weird before the game.” He had to focus.
Today was a round robin tournament consisting of USMMA, SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Oneonta. This game was in memory of Shanon Pasternak. Pasternak played on the team and passed recently. The men call him their brother. At the game the team will be collecting donations toward the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The first match was SUNY New Paltz versus USMMA. Then the winner would play Oneonta.
The New Paltz black jerseys with orange lines and blue accents were laying on the ground in two lines. Oneonta’s shirts were in a large circle and USMMA were wearing their jerseys while warming up. The ground was so muddy, an alumni’s crutches were sinking into the field. A loud growling chant echoed. The New Paltz men were in a large circle shuffling back and forth, which then transitioned into claps with players names and numbers. Iggy yelled the now familiar nicknames that I knew from practices.
Before the game started, the man in crutches yelled, “Who’s my little scrummy?” A call back to him said, “That’s my Dad!” A collective laughter joined in. I thought this was a little strange but then assumed it was an inside joke or term of the game.
The game begins with a kickoff from the center of the field. The crowd on the New Paltz side was filled with parents, girlfriends, supportive friends, alumni and other sports team members. Alumni and friends grouped together to make their cheers louder by pumping themselves up. Two mothers in lawn chairs held blankets close to their faces and chatted throughout most of the game. On Oneonta and USMMA’s side of the field opposite of New Paltz, fans cheered them on while young kids passed around a ball and ran after their muddy dogs. USMMA, looked strong with thick legs and a collective short stature. They kicked the ball off. Coach Dudz was the referee; he blew into his whistle to start the game off.
I was confused when the game initially began, because they were forming an almost mosh pit. The men were getting down in the mud and pushing hard against other bodies. I wondered if it hurt with all that pressure on them. The pyramid of men on the ground is officially termed a scrum. Scrumming is to get the possession of the ball. That’s why the man said the words, “little scrummy” in the beginning of the match. It made sense now.
I overheard one of the girls on the sideline say that the screams on the field from the players sounded like “war cries.” Other sideline fans had painted cardboard signs rooting for players like Mo. People screamed yes and no, multiple times. It sounded like a choir.
Pete, an alumni of the team, was designated to keep time of the game. He was glad to be back on the field and he gave a lot of hugs to the players and family members there. Pete was also yelling things that the team should keep an eye out for, like USMMA coming in on the left.
The defensive line inched up to the center line when the offensive was near the opponent’s goal. New Paltz screamed “ball, ball” over and again. Through the game, it felt like a long time with all the tackles and scrums happening. New Paltz lost the ball a few times. Then, USMMA scored 5 points in our zone. They kicked it off, and New Paltz advanced a few motions before getting tackled down again. New Paltz was down and it became more silent when the goal was scored. But, everyone pumped them right back up to maintain morale. Warren, a supporter of the team and a swimmer for the school said that Mrs. Fryer, a rugby mom, has been at almost every game for the past three years. I witnessed her hugging almost everyone she stood next to. When New Paltz had a short breakaway with the ball, she jumped up and down in excitement.
Rugby was rough. I didn’t know how much wear and tear went into the actual game. Practices were intense, but never got bloody. Someone fell after a tackle and sat in the field for a few seconds. Medic Jennifer Covias ran over to the hurt player. They swapped an alternative in for No. 13. He hobbled off the field and leaned on another player. Covias wrapped his knee on the sideline and he took an audience member’s lawn chair.
This was a game played with honor; the premature bruises probably felt painful. Men were constantly being picked up by team members from brash hits.
Sporadically through the second half of the game, a few men on the sideline went around to members in the crowd carrying a gallon sized bag of light blue bracelets that said, “Suicide Prevention. Out of the Darkness.” My gut twisted and I felt dizzy when one player approached me. I tore open my backpack to find $10. I asked myself if it was symbolic that this game was in memory of someone who committed suicide. Why was this the game I went to?
When I hear the word “suicide,” it always brings back a repressed memory. I never like to speak of it and I pretend it is not real, maybe because of the people around me in my hometown kept it hush, hush.
I couldn’t personally feel the rugby team’s pain about the player who committed suicide because I didn’t know Shanon. I knew only half of what they were feeling.
Church and Freak spoke with me in a quiet place about their teammate. I saw a glimpse of my younger brother and his baseball teammates in Church and Freak’s shared facial expressions. The vulnerable side opened up a bit. I secretly connected with them because they did not know my relationship with the silence of suicide in my family.
They were comfortable about speaking about him to me; I saw the shift in their faces as compared to the rough play in the games. The expression of their faces were calm and subdued. Shanon didn’t like to drink, so while all the rugby men socialized at bars, he didn’t experience those nights with the team.
“Shanon seemed super positive and a well handled member on the team with a super square head. It was unexpected,” Church said. He saw a Facebook post from a friend of Shanon’s hometown friend on the page. Church told Freak, and the rest of the team heard the announcement.
On the field, they told me that Shanon was an “animal.” Freak glowed when he said that Shanon was an excellent player who didn’t make mistakes on the field. Church and Freak gave Shanon an official nickname. He was the “Hebrew Hammer.”
The men on the team have talked about Shanon’s death and remember him as a great player. The team took it hard and the unexpectedness is. It didn’t change the dynamic on the field; however, it made everyone closer on an interpersonal level. “Every human has their limits,” Freak said. “[Shanon’s passing] made everyone more cautious and more aware, because anyone can be in that spot.”
This game was for him. The men said Shanon was watching from above.
New Paltz fought with their heart and used the tackles from practice but, the boys lost the match. They marched off the field covered head to toe in mud and blood. USMMA battled hard. I saw their bright bloody knees from a few steps away. Many of the players had wet stains of mud mixed with blood on their knees. Church had marks of mud on his face and the mud covered his blonde hair, brown.
After the loss, a rugby player’s girlfriend threw a bag of oranges over to the team. The oranges were split in half. Iggy said that it was time to get some juice back into them. Players joined their friends on the sideline to watch the next round of the other teams. Friends congratulated them on their efforts, and then the team ran off in a circle to talk about strategy for the next match.
At the game, they raised over $500 for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. I looked at suicide differently after hearing from Church and Freak and seeing the bond of the rugby men on the field and at practices. The conversation was completely in the dark for me when I was dealing with it. But, for them it allowed for more light to surface. The shadows of the unexpected disappeared a bit.
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