Tuesday, May 5, 2009

BYU Rugby Beats Cal 25 - 22 To Win The National Championship

This is a pretty long one. And it's pretty personal, but I feel like saying it. So you're gonna have to indulge me a little, here.

On Saturday, BYU won the Rugby National Championship. I'm going to pause for a little while that sinks in. Actually, I've been letting it sink in for the last couple of days and I still find myself walking around all day, grinning like an idiot.

This is massive.

This is the culmination of a struggle that has lasted for almost thirty years. Up until five years ago, BYU was unable to compete for a national championship. For over twenty years, the Collegiate National Championship (which is not associated with the NCAA but is its own inbred entity) held its title game as well as other qualifying playoff games on Sunday. The BYU athletic department has a strict policy of not competing on Sunday for obvious religious reasons. And so, we were frozen out. I played for the Y for five years and in that span, we lost a total of four games and won probably close to a hundred. In 2003, Air Force won the National Championship. We beat Air Force by 40 that year. And yet, due to the obviously (intentionally?) unfair scheduling, we were excluded from competing for a National Title.

However, we did play one playoff game during my time as a player. It was a bold, defiant move by our coach David Smyth, that set the foundation of the change that would come years later.

My involvement with BYU rugby began ten years ago in January, 1999. I had just gotten off my mission and lived with my older brother Alan in Provo. It was a really crappy time in my life. Returning home from a mission is always a weird transition. Even though you've been looking forward to it for the last two years, you just don't really know what to do with yourself. I went from having a meaningful purpose and a ton of good friends that knew me well and understood me to being very much alone. And it's one thing to feel alone in a crowd (we've all been there) but it's another thing to feel alone in a crowd full of goofy, dorky, cheesy, happy, denim shorts wearing, ever smiling BYU students. (Don't know who those guys are, but they fit the bill. Yes, those are IBC root beer bottles.) It's a strange brand of alienation.

You see, BYU is like no other place on the planet. It is an island without water. Now that's not a bad thing. But there is an adjustment period for any new student that needs to be accounted for. There is a certain segment of people that check into Helaman Halls their freshman year and fit in perfectly in this unique world. Like a foot sliding into a well worn shoe. And since this world is like no other place on the planet, that means that these people who instantly find a home here are people who have never fit in anywhere else before.

Meanwhile, the rest of us (non nerds) need about six months of awkward confusion to adjust to the crazy little subtleties of this strange place where people ride unicycles for no good reason, and spar in their medieval costumes by the library. And where girls go out of their way to dress themselves up to be ridiculously hot (in that overly made up, phony sense that I don't really love, but I'll take it) but then stare daggers at you like you're a registered sex offender if you get caught looking their way.  Or maybe that was just me. It is essential that you find like minded people, who can appreciate the absurdity that surrounds you. And really, all I need to be happy is four or five good friends that understand and appreciate my paradoxical ways and 20,000 people to make fun of.

 BYU is perfect for that.

Now if I'm telling this story, I need to include this next part, even though it is a downer. Added to the standard "get off the mission, get released, get your classes, buy normal clothes, go to school, make a few friends, summon the courage to ask out that one cute girl but then puss out and never actually do it" kind of BYU student anxiety, there was also the harsh reality that at this exact time my little brother was dying.

Yeah. Total downer, right?

I've written about Cam before. He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer about two years previous and after all the chemo and radiation and bone marrow transplants, the cancer had at this time spread to his brain stem. This completely paralyzed him with the exception of his eyelids and the right corner of his mouth. In mid January, the doctors sent him home with enough IV fluids to last him about a week because he wasn't going to need anymore than that. So everyday, I would come home from my stupid general ed classes with the expectation that there would be a message on the phone telling me and Al that Cam had died. Like I said, it was a crappy time.

Well, a week came and went and Cam just stuck around. And then a month came and went, and instead of dying, Cam started to get the feeling back in his arms and legs. And then one day, he started talking again. By May, he was almost walking. He ended up living long enough to go to his senior prom, graduate high school, have his 18th birthday and be ordained an Elder. He died in August of that year, after living ten months longer than anyone else who had been diagnosed with his particular kind of cancer. As horrible as the circumstances were over those months, each day was filled with genuine joy that truly felt like a miracle.

But that January sucked.

Throughout this time, I was playing on BYU's Rugby team. I had played rugby in high school, where I learned the very basics of the game, but I didn't really understand the sport until I played for BYU. A daily two hour practice session was the exact therapy I needed at this point in my life. We would spend the last 45 minutes or so at the end of every practice and scrimmage. I was a freshman, so I played on the 2nds team as we provided opposition to the starters. The tackling, the hitting, the violence and the physical exhaustion was the perfect release for the powerless rage that I had quietly concealed throughout my day. Running till my lungs burned on Steeler Field in West Provo on frozen grass as the winter sky turned dark purple was the only place I really felt like I belonged throughout that entire semester.

Early in January, we had a road trip to Tuscon and Tempe to play U of A and ASU. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had been named to the travel team. One of twenty players out of about fifty. I never really considered myself to be a very good athlete. I'm tall with a pretty large frame, but I'm also slow, clumsy and generally nonathletic. I never had any high school delusions of playing college football anywhere and my friends still make fun of my complete absence of pectoral muscles and my propensity to throw a ball like a nine year old girl. (Seriously, I can't hit the cut off man in softball. It's pathetic.) But here I found myself wearing a dark blue track suit that said "BYU Rugby" on it, with a matching blue travel bag, boarding an airplane with 20 other guys dressed the same all of which was sponsored by the university I had always loved. Why? Because I was a real life college athlete. I can't tell you how good that felt. Now, rugby was pretty low on the totem pole of the BYU athletic department and I was quite aware of that. But it still felt good. And that was a time when I really needed a reason to feel good.

As the season progressed, I worked my way into the starting lineup as a lock, along side my older brother who was a starting flanker. This was the only time we had ever played on the same team in any sport. I got in better and better shape and realized that unlike high school, I had a pretty good physical advantage over most of the opposing players. Instead of being the 6'5'', 180 pound beanpole (nicknamed Gumbi) that I was in high school, I had filled out to a trim 230. It turned out, that I was a pretty good. Again, this sort of validation was something I really needed at the time.

The starting lineup for this '99 team was mostly made up of seniors that had played together for a long time. As such, they were damn good. The forward pack (Myself, Jared McInelly, Vinny Rowe, Heath Ewyer, Brent Callister, Dave Maughn, Alan Westenskow and Brian Clegg) and the backline (Jeff Bradshaw, Glenn Hubert, Sean Brown, Lincoln Nadauld, Eric Oh, John Blaser and Dave Wheeler) of that team was really something to behold. I always felt privileged to have played along side them. About every two weeks, we would go on a road trip. In addition to Arizona, we went to Denver, San Diego, San Fransisco and Seattle where we would play various teams, beat the crap out of them, have a great time and continue to build the reputation of BYU rugby.

Now as I explained earlier, we were all very aware that the finals were played on Sunday and that was the way it had always been. All the wins, all the great play was really somewhat futile. Every year, BYU would lodge a formal complaint and every year we would receive the same disingenuous response from USA Rugby. "What do you mean we don't let you compete? We invite you to the tournament every year and you refuse to play. It's not us, it's you." So, given the strength of this particular team, our coach David Smyth (a jolly Irishman) decided to call their bluff. That year, when we were "invited" to the round of 16, we accepted. We then made it perfectly clear that if we were to win our first round game against Arizona (a team we beat by 30 earlier in the year) which was held on Saturday, we would pull a Chariots of Fire and forfeit the round of 8 game that was scheduled for that next Sunday. This was our act of defiance. Our collective middle finger to an organization that preferred that we just go away.

I remember very well that April, having to miss the bus we chartered to drive to Colorado Springs because I had a final that I couldn't reschedule. So I drove out the night before the game with my dad to the Air Force Academy, where the tournament was being held. On the morning of the game, there was three inches of fresh snow on the ground and two games that were scheduled to be played on that field before ours. This meant that by the time we kicked off, there was about an inch of standing water on the field.

When we beat Arizona a few months earlier, we had done so with the speed and agility of our backline. That advantage was pretty much nullified by the field conditions. If you were to try to place a strategic grubber kick, instead of the ball bouncing back up into your arms, it would just lay there dead in a puddle on the field. So it became a forwards game. A sloppy, muddy, brutal forwards game of short runs, endless tackling and tons of scrums. For a tight five forward like myself, this game was very physically demanding.

After 80 minutes of slow, hard play, the game ended in a tie. I don't remember the score. But it was low. So we went to a 20 minute overtime. They scored a try early. But we answered with one just before the end of OT. This sent us to a second twenty minute overtime. This one ended without a score from either team. So we then went to a third overtime of sudden death. If we were to lose this game, we lose our chance to make any kind of meaningful statement. Any leverage we may have had would have been lost. Our case of " we're a top rugby team that is denied a chance to compete" simply turns into "we're a team that lost to Arizona". We wouldn't make a ripple.

And at the moment, it appeared that the rugby cupboards were pretty bare for BYU. I think 11 of the 15 starters were graduating that year and there was no way to know at the time if we would ever get that caliber of team back. (We did restock, in a big way. Kimball Kjar, Pierre Fourie, Salesi Sika, Taylor Nadauld, Ned Stearns, Kalum Nordstrom, John Blaser, Jared Kirkwood, Mike Myers, Mike Poelman, Cam Coop, Chris Miller, Kevin Vest to name a very few.) But at this moment, it felt like it was now or never. If we lose this game then nothing will ever change.

I had been playing for about 130 straight minutes. I don't know that I have ever been that exhausted in my life. Arizona had a scrum about 30 meters out of our end zone, perfect position to set up a game winning drop goal. As I was in the middle of that scrum (the 500th of that game) driving with freezing cold, noodle legs, I heard cheering. I pull my head up and see our scrum half, Jeff Bradshaw running 70 meters for the game winning try. He had picked off the pass to the Arizona fly half. My brother Alan, was right beside him in support. The Arizona defense collapsed in exhaustion and we won the game.

Knowing that this was the best victory we could expect, we celebrated hard. This victory was well earned. A lot of guys would line up on the goal line, sprint and belly slide in the mud. That was the last thing I wanted to do at the time.

Smyth approach the coach of Army (our scheduled opponent for the Sunday's game) and asked if they would like to play on Monday instead. As expected, they were happy to take the free trip to the final four so they politely refused. We showered, got on the bus and drove home, forfeiting the next day's game.

This stirred up a huge storm in the USA Rugby front office. They then passed a rule that stated if a team has no intention of playing the games they are assigned, they cannot go to the tournament, which officially banned BYU from competing for a national title.

Years later, this very rule would be the basis on which BYU would threaten to file a lawsuit claiming an unconstitutional rule that discriminates against a team for practicing their religion. The NCAA has a rule in place allowing BYU to schedule non-Sunday playoff games for this reason. USA Rugby finally conceded in 2005, rescheduling the tournament to a Friday / Saturday format.

Since then, BYU has been to the final four every year. We have lost in the finals the last three years. But it wasn't until last Saturday, after coming back from a 12 point second half deficit, when Shawn Davies kicked the go ahead penalty kick with less than two minutes remaining that BYU finally realized its dream. We had won the National Title.

I helped coach BYU for the two years previous to this one, so I know most of the guys on this team. Steve St Pierre, Sam Thorely, Dan Paul, Vito Qaqa, Viliami Vimahi, Dylan Lubbe, Manti and Mikey Su'a, Shawn Davies (again, to name a very few), it couldn't have happened to a better bunch of guys. And I also couldn't be happier for the hundreds of BYU rugby players that never had the chance, who now get to enjoy this as their vicarious championship.

It's been a long time coming.

After we beat Arizona, Alan and I drove back to Provo with our dad in his green Acura. I remember driving I-70 through the Colorado Rockies listening to The Beatles' White Album on a sunny, brilliant day. I remember getting intermittent cell coverage on one of those big, 1999, flip cell phones and talking to my brother Cam, who had just recently regained the ability to speak as we drove through Vale. We talked about the White Album, actually. He could hear it playing in the car. It was one of his favorite records. And I remember arriving back in Provo and pulling into our apartment on condo row, feeling that I was going to survive the "adjustment phase" of BYU just fine and end up having a great time there. I remember feeling for the first time in a very long time, that life really is good.

The fact is, playing rugby that winter semester of '99 played a huge part in surviving a very painful period of my life. It prevented me from sitting in my apartment alone thinking about how unfair it was that my 17 year old brother was struggling to live. Or how stupid everyone around me was. You never want to be that guy. It was the coaches, team mates, my brother Al and the game itself that bailed me out of a life of isolated bitterness. But even more than that, it was being part of a cause. And there's probably a better way to put that. But there was great satisfaction in being a part of changing things for the better, even if I didn't personally get to enjoy the benefits of that change. At the time it felt like we were fighting the good fight. That's totally cheesy, I know. But it's true.

Now, winning that game against Arizona was a small part of what occurred to get the format changed. David Smyth, Kimball Kjar and Justen Nadauld are the real heroes behind the rule change. And certainly, it was the tenacity and the massive balls of the guys playing last Saturday that won the Title. But I am convinced that without the team of 1999, there would be no National Championship in 2009.

Congratulations fellas. We finally did it.


Gregg said...

Congrads to BYU.

Heath said...

What’s a meter?

Wait to go Cougs!

Earth Sign Mama said...

Awesome story--well written--make THIS rugby story into a movie, dude!!

FoxyJ said...

Great post! And now I know why I have an irrational love for BYU, because I am a total nerd. At least I never made my own chain mail like one of roommates did.

cool_guy said...

Excellent post - thank you.

Jared McInelly said...

great write up. This really needs to be a book. Thanks man. That season will always be a highlight for me.