A love letter to a game that means so much to me.
By Tony Buttacavoli C’82
Drew University, 1978. A letter arrives two weeks before the start of freshman year. It starts, “Have you heard of rugby?” It’s a quick primer on the game, and the club at Drew; a recruiting pitch to the incoming frosh class. The part I like immediately is that it is completely student run, i.e. no coaches. The students train themselves, under the direction of democratically elected captains. After high school, I was done with the petty fascism of organized athletics; no more coaches for me.
When I arrived on campus and joined the club, I found the reality exceeded the hype. The Drew Rugby Football Club (DRFC), which had been around since the mid ’60s, was a thriving institution and a cornerstone of social life at dear old Drew. Ahhh, Drew, no Greeks, no big-time athletics: it was up to rugby to fill this yawning vacuum, and we endeavored mightily to do so. We were like a big extended family, a circus tent—come one, come all. I loved the fact that all were welcome, that the only thing that mattered was a willingness to be part of the tribe. We had guys who made practice maybe once in a blue moon, yet were vital parts of our singing side during the after-party, aka “the Third Half,” and had committed every rugby song to memory. Even if we did not prevail on the pitch that weekend, no matter: we were assured of victory when we sang and raved the other side into submission.
We prevailed against powerhouses like Rutgers, Columbia, Fordham and St. John’s, schools many, many times our size. We were definitely punching above our weight class, toiling and bonding together in epic battles on the pitch. Drew was considered one of the finest rugby clubs at the college level during the 1970s and ’80s.
It was only natural that friendships founded under such shared endeavor, both of victory and defeat, while coming of age and spending summers together raving in the city and down the shore, would endure. The closest and dearest friends in my life are my DRFC teammates. We have stood up for each other at our weddings and are godfathers to each other’s children. We are family.
Every year the family attempts to have a reunion, hence the annual alumni match at Homecoming each fall. We want to pass on to the gentlemen and ladies of the current club a sense of the club’s history and joyous past. We want to tell them of Charlie Havea, a Tongan prince and Drew student, who was a patron saint of the club in the mid-1970s. We want them to know about Bill Bernhard C’82, who was probably the best rugger Drew ever produced and who played for the official U.S. rugby team, the Eagles, in the ’80s. We want to keep this wonderful thing alive and thriving.
Some of us still play the game, some of us are extremely retired, but no matter—it still lives within us. We join together not to live in the past, but to celebrate it, to create new and lasting memories in the here and now and, with God’s grace, carry this DRFC thing forward into the hearts and minds of future generations.
For the uninitiated, the object of the game is for you and 15 teammates to move a large oblong ball up the field and over your opposition’s try (goal) line or through his goalposts. You may advance the ball by kicking, running, and/or lateral passing. You must stop the opposing side from doing the same by the application of bone-crushing tackles. This goes on for 80 minutes, with a half-time inserted so everybody can catch their breath. Afterwards, we all shake hands, tend to our wounded, drink libations and sing songs in a hoary, beloved ritual known as the “Third Half.”
There are no pads, just those black cotton shorts, a jersey, cleats and aforementioned oblong ball. We play rain or shine, occasionally in snow. According to something I read not long ago, only 200,000 people play rugby in the whole of the United States. We are a tiny demographic. Tiny, but tenacious. For us, rugby isn’t just a game; it’s a way of looking at life.
—Drew Magazine, Winter 2009