Wednesday, September 16, 2009


"I don't care who's on the other team", barked S, in his Australian accent. Twenty guys, including me, surrounded him in the locker room. "We gotta (expletive deleted) smash them, hammer them. I want to play on the Premier squad. We have to win this! LET'S (expletive deleted) SMASH THEM! Put your hands in - CW on three - one, two, three, CW!!!"

That was loud, I thought. And...uh...kind of violent. I don't think I belong here...

What was I doing there? It was a question I'd asked myself many times - like when I was at practice a couple of weeks before, and R., the coach, had told us to pick up the man next to us and run fifteen metres, then jump on his back while he carried us back, and then made us do it non-stop for four excruciating five minute segments. Or when, at the same practice, we had to do sequences of push-ups with our same partners lying on our backs. Holy Mother of Gawd what am I doing...?, I began thinking.

But there never really was a clear answer. My best guess was some unconscious, primal need for risk, challenge, danger...some need for overcoming (the Überwindung of Nietzsche). But again, it was a guess. The truth was that I was in the throes of another ultimately inexplicable obsession over which I seemed to have no control, and even though I often felt out of place, never having played rugby before, I couldn't stop.

Anyway, back to the locker room.

I walked out into the blazing sunlight - it was about 85 degrees Farenheit - all suited and taped up for a game which I now realized I had no business playing in. This was last Saturday.

See...A few days earlier, I had gotten an email from the team manager inviting me to come down to the club training and intra-squad game day. It sounded like a good way to get some more fitness in, and more importantly, to get some game time in a fairly friendly atmosphere. After all, it was just an intra-squad scrimmage, playing against all the guys I'd see around the clubhouse, or at touch.

So I showed up at 10:00 AM, and casually passed a ball around with a couple of guys. Then L., the coach, called everyone in, and explained that we were about to do two hours of intensive fitness testing so as to help the coaches evaluate who would play on the top team (the Premier team), and who would be relegated to the team below (the First Division). I didn't even start on the Third Division team last spring, and was nowhere near competing for a slot on even the First Division team, let alone the Premier team.

But I was standing there in my shorts and T-shirt, and I couldn't just leave without looking like a dweeb ten minutes after showing up. So...I decided to try to do all the fitness drills. They included things like sprinting five metres, dropping and doing two push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing four push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing eight push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing sixteen push-ups, sprinting ten metres, dropping and doing two sit-ups, then four, then eight, etc., then a series of squats, etc., for twelve minutes. L. made sure to tell us, after twelve minutes of gasping and gagging, that the rugby league team he helped coach in Australia had been able to do that without any problems at all (thanks). We then moved on to a quick agility, passing, and defensive drill (three on two, then the two without the ball turn around and defend against the next three, etc.).

One of the drills I did step aside for, only because the other guys were familiar with it, and I wasn't, and it looked sort of confusing. By the time I'd figured out the choreography of it, L. had stopped it and we'd moved on.

In any case, we drilled for two hours and then ate lunch, with the recent Springboks versus All-Blacks game playing on the big screen while we ate. And then, around 2 PM, everyone started to get ready for the game.

Well...what I had thought was going to be a friendly intra-squad season-opening warm-up game, in fact turned out to be yet another assessment by the coaches: the Premier squad to play against arch-rivals James Bay next week would be selected based on game performance. So instead of a friendly game, it was an all-out war, the club split in half, each man fighting for a shot at glory, potentially a spot on the national team, and if that, potentially a pro career.

"Hey, uh, R.", I said. "I'm not sure I really belong in this game...I'm not competing for a spot on either team, and I don't really want to get killed". R. said he understood and that he wouldn't put me in.

I'll be honest - there is really no other way to describe what I felt other than fear. Never having played until recently, it still seems foreign...and I felt afraid I'd do something stupid. I felt afraid I might do something to lose the game. I felt afraid of being crushed by some jacked-up lunatic (some of the boys are over three hundred pounds, and some of them have played for the national team and are amazing players). Even deeper than that, I think, is still simply the idea of me, a lifelong musician, even playing the sport. It is just hard to get used to, in a strange sort of way.

But, I watched throughout the first half...and the more I watched, the more the obsession rose within me, until by half-time, I couldn't stop myself. For some reason, I had to.

"R. - I want to go in". What the hell, I rationalized to myself. You only live once.

R. looked surprised. "Okay man. Go in at right wing".

And that is how I wound up playing the whole second half in a game I had no business being in, in any way. And as it happened, it was a total blast.

Just a few seconds after the half started, a guy carrying the ball broke three tackles and hit the gap between myself and the outside-centre, slipping behind me. There was now only eight metres between him and the try line. I whirled around and gave chase, managing to catch his jersey with my finger; and if you can believe it, I managed to stop the guy with just my middle finger and thumb long enough to pull him down, and thus save the try. I then jumped up, got back onside, by which time one of my teammates had completed the tackle and was on top of him, and formed a ruck with a second teammate, driving over. In a flash, the opposing team flooded the ruck trying to drive over us toward our try line, which was only now two metres behind us. I pushed hard and hyperextended my left leg, and ended up buried beneath probably eight guys, all pushing forward and thrashing like spawning salmon.

A penalty was then called ("not releasing"), with a quick break in play, and I must say, it boosted my confidence to hear S., the Australian who had issued the violent speech in the locker room, call out, "Great tackle, Tal!".

As it happened, I was in some pain by that time, but I couldn't stomach coming off the pitch only a minute after I'd gone on. It would have looked completely pathetic. So I took a deep breath and vowed to stay on as long as I could. After a few minutes, my ligament settled down and I felt okay (the next day, Sunday, I could hardly move!).

I got a few carries, one of which brought me face to face with E., a gigantic Pacific Islander (yes, he tackled me). I offloaded and play continued.

I didn't do anything really great - no big hits or anything, no tries, with the try-saving tackle as the only thing approaching an actual contribution - but it was a great thrill to have overcome my initial reluctance, and just get on...There is really no feeling like being in the thick of things on the pitch, bodies flying everywhere, people shouting, giants charging at you, everything depending on split-second decision-making.

That night, we all met at the clubhouse to celebrate. I had a few nice chats with the guys, and also was met with the cry of "Buffalo!" on one occasion, which I was mystified by, until SA said that anyone caught holding his beer in his right hand would arouse such a cry, and the penalty was to drink the beer all at once. Since I'd had no idea, I requested a reprieve. But when I got caught a few minutes later again, I did the sporting thing and finished my beer off.


Kathryn said...

I don't know if this story was meant to be an inspirational one, but that is how I took it. I could totally understand why you wouldn't want to play but then you went in anyway! That was the 180 I didn't expect. Good, good for you.

E said...

Such athletic prowess from a musician? Who'd have thought?!
I now have the sudden urge to get back on the basketball court.. It's been YEARS since I've endured the rewarding struggle of my body being tested and slammed in the heat of battle. I would love to think a little less and just act. "Bad knees? Who cares?! Let's play!" I should say. I need some of that Tal spirit!

ginamarie said...

Was it your alter-ego "Action Man" whispering to you to go in? :)

For some reason this post reminded me of some of those old stories. I often find myself doing reality checks about what I can do - I fell hard on my tailbone in my twenties and had a couple good lock ups of the back since then...

But I can't tell you how many dreams, daydreams, I have about a part of me that just wants to break out and just kick so much ass...whether in an athletic, martial, or industrious capacity.

You really are a good writer. Thought I heard you were writing a book somewhere?

Jewelz said...

Great post again. Overcoming fear has been an issue with me. I fractured my T-12 and L-3 vertabrae in a skiing accident in 1994. I was 21, and it haunts me that I did not get back at it right away. I wish I had. I think you will inspire many with this experience.

rachael chatoor said...

lol, How sporting of you.

Excellent,inspiring post.

Anonymous said...

hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

ginamarie said...

jus'passing by.....:)