What, So We’re a RUGBY Family Now?

UPDATE: A revised and condensed version of this sportsy meditation on sonship and daddery appeared at the on-line long-form sportswriting site The Classical on November 26, 2014. I still like the sprawling ME-ness of this piece, but the tighter form @Classical has lots to recommend it, too, even apart from costing you less time!

The thunder began at 5:45 a.m. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy was in it. (Spoiler alert: this time, he did not flood the bathroom.) I tried to imagine myself back into dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13: Size 11 hooves rattle the beams as a herd of buffalo thunder manfully to the kitchen. (Wow, I think. Half an hour from bed to breakfast. He’s getting faster!) It didn’t look like dreamland was an option, but after a few more rumbles of downstairs thunder, I heard the sonic boom of the front door banging shut. 6:45! Wow the second. He’s going to be early for practice! What had gotten into my son?

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

I’d thought that I might get out of bed and bike over to see Thunderhoof and His Flailing Limbs on the high school rugby pitch for his 7:30 workout. Meanwhile, I continued doing what a tired old coot-of-sporting-colours does when sleep is hopeless: I thought about basketball. Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. Back in Canada, I’m a wanna-be hoops guru again. I’m reading and noting, observing practices and networking, and obsessing over possibilities and plans, to say nothing of all the technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. (Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn.) I want to blame Thunder Bunny the Rugby Boy for my broken sleep, but his crashing about only punctuates my sentence of wakefulness. Besides, going to rugger practice with him might be <yawn> fun.

6:56: Groan. May as well get up and go. Maybe I’ll also get some writing done if I get out of here.

7:02 Dressed, heading for a quick bite and my bike, and the front door bangs open. “Forgot my sports bag. Don’t worry, I’ll catch the next bus. Where’re you going?” Um, thought I’d go to rugby practice. I waved dramatically as I biked by his perch on a bus stop bench, and arrived here at Lisgar Collegiate by 7:25. He came sheepishly strolling along at 7:35, and the good/bad news for this crusty old coach was that he wasn’t actually late, as things didn’t get started ‘til nearly 10 minutes later. I’ll have to have a talk with these coaches… After all, I’ve seen Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in Invictus, that story of South African apartheid and the Rugby Cure (ha! Not yet, not quite), and listen, I once taught a semester at a high school where the girls rugby squad was really good, and I think I’ve seen part of a game on TV once. Yes.

Here's the green field of rugby dreams, and the Hogwartsian school my son attends.

Here’s the green field of rugby dreams, and the Hogwartsian school my son attends.

No. Don’t worry, I won’t and I didn’t. I’m just getting to know these teacher/coaches, and this game, and while it’s a tough, fast and fascinating sport, the best part of it for me is that I care a little less wrenchingly than I normally do. It was probably hockey that I lived for first, the little dude stuck in goal for the Sutherland Street Olympics. Baseball was an early love, too, and I had my first caught fly-ball and base hit by the time I was, what, seven? (And I still miss the Expos.) My family had seasons tickets for the Tiger-Cats, a CFL football team, and my brother had taught me to punt, pass and catch while I was still in primary school. We were also the only family in my little hockey-and-ball town, as far as I knew, that had a hoop and backboard in the driveway – my five-years-bigger bro had a brief roundball flirtation – but I didn’t pay much attention to that goal until I had soured on being a puck magnet, a target, that is to say, a hockey goalie, and started going to early morning ninth-grade basketball practices.

My lad hasn’t been much for sports, and the only ones he knows at all are basketball, natch, and soccer(football), that world sport that we never played on Sutherland Street. But now, I’m watching him, at the same age, learning how to do that crazy rugby in-bounds thingy where teammates lift a player high in the air to catch, what is it called, a lineout? Maybe that’s it. (Pity we can’t do that in basketball!) And as I write he’s learning how to form a scrum and, the older varsity dudes (mercifully) having gone to the other half to do their own higher-powered scrimmaging, he and the other grade 9s are learning how to play this rugged, fast-moving game with less fear of being broken. I’m fascinated, delighted to see my frisky colt out learning a sport in which his old man definitely doesn’t know better. He digs that part of the deal with a really big shovel.

Yes, a lineout. I don't get it, exactly, but I love it anyway. This is what pros look like.

Yes, a lineout. I don’t get it, exactly, but I love it anyway. This is what pros look like.

He’s starting to like the game, and when I get to watch, or hear his bemused and witty summaries of another day of athletic mystery, I get to like him. I couldn’t stop grinning the first September morning when we biked together and he joined – with only a little prodding, honest! – the new Rugby Sevens squad at his school. (It’s a faster, less physically dogged modification of the basic 15-man game, and that’s all I think I know.) The kid’s 14, which can be reason enough for aggravation, but the transition to life back in Canada has had its challenges. His lethargic, laconic response to parental anxiety over cleaning, painting, municipal and other administrivial issues, oh, and finding work, well, this was only one of the sharp stones on our path. Our father-son bridge has been seared a few times, but on that first dewy-bright morning, the scorch-marks hardly showed at all. My heart felt wider. Thunder Bunny tried so HARD. He had no idea what he was doing – we’d watched, in preparation, 2.5 minutes of highlights from the Canadian national team’s loss to England in the finals of this summer’s Women’s World Cup over a frantically spooned bowl of granola – but he kept his long and gawky limbs going madly, his face was red and quizzical but eager, and his floppy locks bounced and blew.

They did long-stepping forward lunges. He couldn’t, really, as his coltish legs shivered and staggered. “Okay, guys, we’re going for a score now,” coach Ruff barked before a running and passing drill. (Yes, one of the mentors is Mister Ruff. Supply your own punchline.) Over supper that night, Ponyboy told his Mum and me this story, and shyly grinned as he admitted that he didn’t know how to score in rugby. “Why’d you stop? Go, go, go!” shouted Mr. Ruff when he dropped the ball. Doesn’t the play stop if you missed a pass? Thunderhooves wondered, and I reminded him that this was a football rule related to a forward pass. Rugby doesn’t have a forward pass, and it’s not North American football: this game rarely stops for anything. Oh.  In their second practice – yup, I biked over again, wasn’t going to miss that quirky athletic showcase! – Ruff and Grills (yes, that is the other coach’s real name) added a little contact, having the lads shoulder into a pad held by a senior player. I grew up playing tackle football in the town square, and played four years of high school ball, so when my sports-inexperienced, book-loving, video-gaming son tiptoed into his baptism of let’s-get-physical fire, I had to laugh. I muted any signals of scorn. Laugh, old man. Tackling isn’t genetic. This is brilliant. Caution isn’t a sin, y’know. I caught a goofy half-grin on my young charger’s reddening face, one that I interpreted as a combination of Help, I dunno whatta do! and I think I’m gona die! and Hey this is kinda cool!

One night at supper, his frustration was amusing. “Tackling is so hard! I can sorta hang on to the guy, but I can’t make him go down.” After another practice, though, he was excited at a new feat of athleticism. Coach Dad leaned forward to listen to his son’s latest exploit. “I was running, and I slipped a bit, and there was this huge puddle on the field, and I was like wearing my new Adidas sweatshirt and I didn’t wanna get it dirty on the first day, so I like threw my hands down and did this sorta semi-cartwheel thingy and landed on my feet again and didn’t get any mud on my shirt!” To each his own sports highlights, I guess. I hoped he wasn’t carrying the ball when he had this (apparently newborn) spasm of higher laundry consciousness. When I came to think, I didn’t actually care that much whether he’d dropped the pumpkin to save his shirt. He pulled off a physical feat he hadn’t thought himself capable of, and isn’t that a big part of the thrill and the value of sport? And hey, it’s only rugby…  

There are outbursts of loudness, sudden messes, emotional extremity and inexplicable decision-making in our house, part of life with a bright and hasty teenaged boy. In rugby, it’s reversed: he’s the recipient and the object of constant chaos. Especially the first few workouts, stuff just happened: balls came his way without warning, bodies careened and bumped, and the flow of play suddenly reversed or stopped or accelerated in ways that were utterly surprising to him.

When I went this morning, for the first time in a couple of weeks, it was fun to see his progress. He’s running more fluidly, partly because of improving fitness but also since he has a growing idea of which direction he should be heading. Still, he’s every inch (all 72 of ‘em) a ninth-grader: after practice, he caught me before I biked off, handing me an envelope we’d given him a week ago.

“Dad, Mr. Ruff doesn’t want this and you gotta give it to Mr. Grills ‘cause he does the uniform stuff and we have a tournament today and you gotta fill out the permission form so I can play or maybe be a backup I dunno so I won’t be home for supper so yeah talk to Mr. Ruff seeyalater.” I grinned. Easy for you to say. I went looking for the coaches. Signed the injury waiver forms. Got the money to the man with the shorts and those tremendous high-and-stripey rugger socks. His cleats are really more for soccer, but they’re (accidentally) in school colours. I hope to catch him in colour later on this afternoon on my way to another basketball coaching clinic.

So, at least for a little while, I guess we are a rug-ged bunch. My thunder-footed Rugby Boy is green as grass-stains, and while I still have basketball hopes for the lad, I’m tickled pink that he’s making friends with a fine new game.

Not the world game that basketball and soccer are, but much more global than football!

Not the world game that basketball and soccer are, but much more global than football!

Comment (1)

  1. Carol E.

    Although I haven’t a clue about sports, I love to see your son through a Dad’s eyes. 🙂

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