Never say the words “I used to.” Go out there and show ’em you’ve still got it.
I can’t remember why I did it. “We had a guy try it last year. Broke his arm the first day.” “I should be okay,” I said, with wobbly confidence. “Your funeral.” He laughed as I walked toward the pitch.
My first rugby game was in 1987. I scored a try and broke someone’s nose. Like the coach said, It’s not a question of whether or not you get hurt. It’s how often and how bad. He was right. Concussions, hairline fractures, bruises, cuts, an Ozzy of blood. I’d never been hurt badly enough to see a doctor, even though I refused to wear a mouthguard. I wasn’t trying to be macho. I just couldn’t be bothered, and it’s hard to breathe with a hunk of ethylene-vinyl acetate in your mouth.
That was a long time ago. Now I was 40; a middle-aged poetry professor with an exercise regimen of Pilates, yoga, and a little running. No weights, no contact sports. Sure, my core was strong, my balance was impressive, and my chi was off the charts. But was that going to protect me from a 300-pound prop? Aside from a little touch-rugby in Brooklyn, I hadn’t played in 15 years. I’d recently been in a neighborhood street fight with baseball bats and table-legs. Maybe that would be enough.
I was living in Dubai. There were no other Americans on the team. It was mostly Fijians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Brits, and then me…Yankee Doodle Andy.
A couple of young Australians asked if I wanted to warm up. We stretched, jogged, passed the ball around. There were a lot of things running through my head. Why didn’t my wife stop me? I’m too old for this. These guys are 18-19-20. What’s wrong with me? Why did I wear my Willie Nelson t-shirt?
It took a moment to realize that everyone was staring at me. I’d drifted off. I was holding the ball. Thankfully I’d caught it, but two of my fingers were badly jammed.
I threw the ball, which triggered a festival of pain. I wanted to get out of there and go home. This was going to be hard enough without a preexisting condition.
A whistle. We trotted over to Coach. I should have slipped away. No one would’ve noticed if I slipped away right then, but for some reason, I stayed. It might’ve been the heat. Even at dusk, it was well over 110°. Hard to think straight under these conditions. The air was thick and heavy. It felt like I was chewing a dozen mouthguards. When I inhaled, hot air burned my nose.
Scrimmage. I started slow, letting the others guys make tackles. I didn’t run my hardest. I avoided rucks and mauls.
I didn’t drop the ball or do anything noticeably stupid. Feeling confident, I decided to push myself harder. When the ball appeared in my hands, I didn’t pass. I sprinted full-on. Hamstrings and quads were pliable, resilient, responsive. My ACLs didn’t rip like phonebooks in a strongman competition. I was as quick as anyone out there, even the young guys. I made a few tackles. Shoulder didn’t pop out. Rotator cuff wasn’t crying.
We assembled for a tackling drill. I was lined up against Marwan, a Syrian built like a Kia Soul—wider than he was tall, with a perfectly square shaved head. I didn’t think it would be possible to take him down. 70 men were staring at me. Someone commented on the size discrepancy. I was wearing running shoes. Hadn’t gotten around to buying cleats. Bad move. My feet had no purchase on the turf, slick with sweat and condensation.
Marwan took the ball and faced me, 20 meters away. I bent down and dug in. The whistle blew. I ran as fast as possible, straight at his gut. Tackling had never been my strong suit. Now I couldn’t even remember what a tackle was supposed to look like, much less execute one.
All I remember is the sound. It was like driving a small car into a large block of limestone. Muffled, dull, without echo. When I opened my eyes, Marwan was underneath me. He’d dropped the ball. I got up. Marwan did not. He was cradling his head, cursing in Arabic.
“Nice one,” someone said. A pair of Fijians, who spoke neither Arabic nor English, slapped me on the back.
A huge man had been watching from the sidelines. He looked like Chewbacca’s big brother. He walked over and joined us, stripping off his sweatshirt and track pants. He was wearing a Super Bowl ring. I felt queasy.
Somehow, I made it to the end of practice without incident. I attribute this to good luck and staying as far away from Super Bowl Guy as possible.
The Rugby Club had four pitches, a gym, two restaurants and a spacious glassed-in bar. Happy and relaxed now, I went to the bar for a pint.
Coach joined me. “How’d it feel?” He’d been a trainer for the English national team. I wondered what he was doing here.
“Not bad. It’s been a while.
“Well, you need a kit. You’re starting Saturday.”
I hadn’t actually decided whether or not I was going to continue. A kit? Where do you even buy rugby shorts in Dubai?
“The Sevens are coming up,” Coach said. “You’ve played?”
Sevens is a form of rugby with two seven-minute halves and seven players on the field, as opposed to 45-minute halves and 15 players. This may seem negligible, but 14 minutes of relentless sprinting, hitting and getting hit feels like a long time. Especially when you’ve got half the players covering a standard-size pitch.
“What tournament is it?” I asked.
Coach looked at me as if I were stupid, or American. “The Dubai Sevens.”
Suddenly, things were starting to make sense. The Dubai Sevens was one of the biggest and most prestigious rugby events in the world. There were professional divisions, men’s clubs, women, children. People came from all over the world. The tournament had its own stadium. I’d joined the team as a lark. I wanted to keep fit, meet people, try something new. I thought it would be a nice, friendly challenge, but it was much more than that. I was in a Division II Men’s Club—serious business for a poetry professor.