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This Means More - Adam Hughes

I have always been painfully skinny. Not merely thin—skinny. Twenty years ago I was voted by my high school graduating classmates Most Likely to be Thinnest at Class Reunions. My high school nickname was Bones and I hated being skinny that adjective that inevitably accompanied it—weak. To go with my skinniness, I was also an only child of loving but overprotective parents. Even had contact sports been allowed, I would have naturally shied away from anything physically demanding. I was a timid kid, cerebral and bookish and sought to avoid unpleasantness and pain at all costs.

That tendency toward avoidance would persist well into adulthood. I’m thirty-nine now. I’ve worked a series of dead-end, paycheck jobs. I’m twice divorced. I live four hundred miles from my only child. I have type one diabetes that is only semi-controlled. I’m a great starter and generally a pretty poor finisher. Within writing I’ve published four collections of poetry but sold tens of copies and consistently failed to get anywhere with my writing. I had never done a dangerous thing as an adult and there very few, if any, things I’d started that I had seen through once they got difficult.

I found myself several years ago in a studio apartment without heat or air conditioning, alone and depressed, bartending in the evenings to make a little extra cash. A local rugby club, Blackwater RFC, used our bar as a hangout after practices. I had always been impressed with rugby, although I knew nothing about it. I knew nothing of rugby culture or its rules. Here in the States rugby is the most minority of sports. I’d always looked at rugby as many do—with awe and a realization that the people who play it are crazy, brave, and tough. I’d regularly chat with the rugby guys when they came in. One night they encouraged me to come out and train with them. I laughed and asked if they’d seen me—I was skinny as hell and certainly not what anyone would think of as a rugby player. They laughed and told me to come on out.

I thought about it that night. A lot. I thought about how I’d spent my whole life avoiding situations I’d find myself in if I played rugby. I thought about where my life had brought me—living in another state, going through another divorce, no money, few prospects, terrible self-discipline. Let’s do this.

That week I went out and I played rugby with an actual rugby team. In the days leading up to that first practice I’d actually ordered the book Rugby for Dummies off Amazon (actually book, not making that up). It helped a little but I was still pretty lost when we started playing. My sole reference point to rugby previously had been a virtually incomprehensible Play Station game from the mid-nineties. I was late the first night because I couldn’t find the way to the field. I could see it, but I’d gone in the wrong driveway at the local high school where we held our practices. There were fences between me and the field but I could see the guys doing what I assumed to be rugby things beneath the lights, the mist and steam of a cool January night giving everything the feeling of fantasy. 

Eventually I found the field and stumbled my way through that first practice. I stuck with it. I didn’t know if I would. There were practices that I skipped because I just got too scared. There were even practices I drove to that at the last minute I turned around and went home. Then the games came.

I was terrified. Truthfully, I still am. But I’ve stayed the course. A year and a half later I’m still a poor rugby player. But I’ve gotten better. The last game of my first season I scored for the first time. It was so amazing. I’m still there, still playing, still getting better, still being the old skinny guy. But I’m there.  

Another thing I discovered in rugby is something else I’ve always missed and desired. As an only child, and as a cerebral bookish loner, I’ve always longed for brotherhood, or family in some general way among peers. I found that, quite unexpectedly, in rugby. Rugby is unlike any social group I’ve ever been involved with. The camaraderie is unparalleled. Not only among my teammates, but among fellow ruggers I’ve played against, and even just random rugby players I meet in my daily life. There’s an instant connection, a very real “insider” feeling. We know what it takes to go eighty minutes against another team, what it takes to train, what it takes to offer your body up for the sake of the team, how it feels to hit and be hit. There’s in-born respect.

Rugby has taught me so much about myself. It’s cliché to even write that, but it’s true. I look forward to continuing to play as long as my body allows, and continuing to write about it even longer. For a guy who was lost and depressed, rugby quite literally saved my life. And everywhere I go in rugby, I hear similar stories. Because this means more.