July 7, 2020
If you had asked me when I committed to Amherst what I thought one of my favorite experiences would be, “rugby” would have been the farthest answer from my mind. My athletic background was in crew – I had rowed for six years before coming to Amherst, and arrived fully expecting to continue in that sport.
It was little more than pure luck that I ended up on the rugby team. At the club fair at the beginning of my first semester, a bunch of guys had essentially shouted at me until I came over to talk to them, then they convinced me to give them my email. Then they emailed me pretty much every day until I relented and showed up – completely unprepared – for one practice. At that practice I ran around for an hour and a half, having absolutely no clue what I was doing, but I ended up having so much fun that, on a whim, I decided to toss out my six years of experience with crew and join rugby at Amherst.
It was a steep learning curve. Our first game was less than two weeks after my first practice; I played for 60 minutes of the standard 80-minute match, with only two thoughts in my head: “don’t get a penalty” and “try not to die.” It turned out that those two thoughts were enough, as we were able to take the win that match, and we put up a pretty solid showing for the remainder of the season as well. But one of the most bitter defeats we had was against our rival, Williams College. Giving up the jerseys we bet on each rivalry match and learning that this was only the latest in a seven-season losing streak against Williams put a pretty big dent in my satisfaction with the season.
We entered the wintertime, when training is more self-driven and fitness-focused, with this rivalry defeat weighing heavily. Compounding the sheer number of consecutive losses was the fact that our then-captain, Patrick, who had been instrumental in rebuilding the team after it had nearly disappeared from lack of interest, would be graduating at the end of the spring; he had never won a Williams jersey. We all hit winter training looking ahead to our next – and Patrick’s final – match against Williams at the end of the spring.
The spring started with a 7s series, a smaller-team, faster-paced version of the traditional 15s rugby. Because you’re playing with half as many people per side, 7s requires each person to play every position, and it helped me develop more skill and insight into everything that goes on in a rugby match. But after the 7s series, our whole focus returned to preparing for our 15s match against Williams. We had hoped for a scrimmage with another school beforehand to get back into the rhythm of 15s, but it had to be cancelled because of weather; the big game would be our first, only, and truest test.
We ended our last practice with a pre-match Xavier, a tradition consisting of a lot of hollering, running around, and beating of chests to work up some adrenaline the evening before a game. The next morning at our team breakfast, the anticipation was palpable. We had done the workouts, we had practiced the plays, we had done everything we could; now it was time to execute.
Coach Hoffman was waiting for us on the field, and our opponents arrived as we started our warm-ups. The last match had been hard-fought on both sides, and no one expected any less from the trial to come. When the starting whistle blew, both teams charged at each other full speed and collided like a thunderclap.
We won possession and hammered and hammered away at their line until, all of a sudden, we were on the board; five minutes in and we had scored five points, converted to seven with a kick. We were as shocked as anyone else.
Then we scored again at ten minutes; five more points. It was suddenly a game far different from what anyone had expected.
Those 80 minutes were among the most intense of my life; we hit them, they hit us, and we went back and forth for the entire match. One of the few moments I can remember clearly – the rest are blurred together by the adrenaline – was the instant I saw a gap in our line, and the Williams captain was about to get through it; he charged, I charged, and I took him down. After that hit, I couldn’t feel my shoulder for the rest of the day, but, man, that thud was still one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve experienced.
When our scrum half kicked the ball out to end the match and the referee blew the final whistle, our sideline – usually small, but in this particular event augmented by alumni back to watch the rivalry match and spectators from a soccer game that had just wrapped up who had taken an interest in our match – exploded. A rugby alum who at the time was also my supervisor as a tour guide gave me a bear hug. Coach Hoffman rushed the field with one of his kids in each arm, yelling like a lunatic. We had won in spectacular fashion; snapping a Williams win streak, at home, in a 24-0 shutout. And Patrick got the Williams jersey he so deserved, weeks before graduating.
I could go on about rugby for days. I could talk about our undefeated regular season that became a dark-horse run to the finals last fall, ending in a second-place finish no one could have predicted; I could talk about how serving on the team’s executive board has helped me grow as a person and as a leader; I could talk about how my rugby family has helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life, academically and personally. Every single person on the team – Patrick, Coach Hoffman, and countless others – has been a mentor and a friend. Both my Amherst experience and my life would be so much the lesser without these fine people as part of them. And to think it all happened on a whim just goes to show the irreplicable, irreplaceable magic of random chances that can fall into your lap at Amherst.
ACRFC after the championship finals in fall 2019.