Tal Bachman: Two Centuries of Rugby, Part II

Get caught up by reading Part I here.

I’d made my initial dive into rugby some months earlier. Devastated by events I’d tried my best to prevent, I couldn’t stop ruminating over my recent past. Like having a hunk of rusty rebar jammed into your leg, it was hard to think of anything else.

But as I alluded to last time, somewhere within, rugby felt like the answer. Why, I had no idea. It didn’t seem to make any sense. I’d never played before. I didn’t know the rules. I was a musician who relied on his hands, and I could easily break one or both playing the world’s most violent sport.

I also had no cardio fitness, had never gotten into weightlifting, and certainly lacked physical strength. In terms of musculature, I was somewhere between Alice Cooper and David Bowie,1972. And I didn’t know anyone who played. On top of all that, the thought of playing terrified me: no pads, no helmets, stampeding goons smashing into me, or me into them, at full speed…it had to be brutal. Maybe permanently maiming. Or worse.

And yet, something inside me said just shut up and do it. Keep moving ahead with this. So I did.

A week or so later, I found out that a few locals held weekly drop-in touch rugby sessions at a local pitch. You have to start somewhere, I thought. And this was the only entry point I’d discovered so far. So I made up my mind to go.

The following Friday, I threw on shorts, cleats, and a T-shirt, and drove over to the rugby pitch. I fully intended to join in. Yet the moment I saw all those guys I didn’t know chatting and tossing a ball around, acute anxiety paralyzed me. They’re all friends. I don’t know any of them. Hugely awkward social situation. No idea how to play whatever simplified game they’ll be playing—or even if I’m physically able to play it. I’ll embarrass myself. I don’t know if I can handle yet another failure. Et cetera.

I sat in the car for ten minutes trying to will myself into getting out. I failed. I drove home to my now empty house, embarrassed by my weakness.

Over the next seven days, I psyched myself up for a second attempt. On the day, I drove over again. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon in late summer. This time, after a few minutes, I managed to get out and walk over. It was awkward, but at least I’d gotten that far. I approached and nodded. They nodded back.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey”, they said back. Then, after a minute, one of them said, “Let’s play”.

We divided up into two teams, and tried to advance the ball across the opponent’s line by running and passing (laterally or backwards). A “tackle” was a two-hand touch.

To my relief, all went well enough the first few minutes. I caught a few passes, put steps on a few guys, made yardage, passed to another guy, and so on. But then, something happened that gave me my first inkling of why, maybe, it actually did make sense for me to enter that strange, unfamiliar world.

What happened was, as I was running around, my mind lapsed back into default rumination. The painful recent past returned. And the nightmarish present. Scene after scene—over just a few milliseconds—zipped through my head. Each scene stung more than the one before. The destruction was complete, stupid, pointless, needless. Destruction for destruction’s sake. With no thought for how it would affect our innoceTHWACK!

In a flash I was on the ground seeing stars. In full flight, one of the guy’s elbows had caught me in the head and knocked me down. We were playing touch, not tackle, but it was still a bunch of stampeding wildebeests with flailing limbs. If you didn’t pay attention every single moment—and by “pay attention”, I mean maintain a bifurcated consciousness which combines 360° awareness with intense, narrow focus on what’s immediately in front of and around you—you might well catch an errant elbow or shoulder to the face, or maybe a knee to the groin, or foot to the shin. That’s what had just happened to me. I lost focus for a split-second, and as a result, I got rocked. It hurt.

And this is when the light bulb went on. I lose focus for one second, I get elbow-hammered in the head. Therefore, I cannot lose focus. I cannot think about one single other thing while I am here, except this game, and how I can best help us win. During the game, nothing exists outside the game. There is only instant-to-instant integration within, processing, acting upon, light-speed floods of sensory data, through touch, sight, sound. Mental lapse equals instant physical pain. I’m now rat in a B.F. Skinner psychology experiment—mistake = zap. So there can be no mental lapse. And because there can be no mental lapse during the game, I am free from everything else. Like all the depressing, infuriating, heartbreaking stuff. It simply no longer exists, while I’m here.

Over the next couple of years, as I rebuilt, friends would sometimes say things like “You might benefit from meditation”; “You should try (insert substance): weed/mushrooms/antidepressants”; “You should come to church with us”; “I have a great counselor you should visit”.

What they didn’t understand was that rugby was the meditation. It was the counselor. It was the antidepressant and church service. But not just for me—for all the guys, in their own ways. It wasn’t only the game play itself, although that was a big part of it. It was all the things that uniquely come along with rugby—things that only the initiated know (and which I’ll describe in a future piece).

And this brings me back to the peculiar, raucous game the newly-hired headmaster, Thomas Arnold, observed when he first arrived at Rugby School in 1828. The game then wasn’t the finished product. But during his tenure, the basic dynamics of play established themselves into a distinctly recognizable prototype of the modern sport.

But so did all the other extra aspects of the endeavor, about which more later. Together, these interlocking, mutually amplifying aspects of rugby, even at that incipient Arnoldian stage, made rugby far more than a mere game. This was so true, that unlike students of other private schools of time (which often had their own unique in-house games), Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School students did not want to—or could not—stop playing it even after graduation. Students at Eton played their in-house “Wall Game” while still at school—but they didn’t graduate and form “Wall Game” leagues afterward all over the place. Neither did students from Harrow, Winchester, and other private schools, with their own in-house games.

But Headmaster Arnold’s graduates did. No sooner did they arrive at Oxford, Cambridge, Ireland, Scotland, or anywhere else, than they began to seek out other Rugby graduates just to keep playing. But not just play: to build temples and form congregational armies, sing hymns and say prayers, go to war and annihilate and rescue and sacrifice and mourn and rejoice and survive and thrive and enter blood brotherhood and commune with the newly-discovered gods (so to speak) of another realm.

That will sound risibly hyperbolic to the uninitiated. But every full initiate will know what I mean. I’ll try to explain it concretely for non-initiates next time.

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