I’m still not really sure how I ended up on the King’s rugby team.
I was a skinny, awkward and, most crucially, unathletic freshman with no prior interest or experience in rugby. I liked playing sports, sure, but that had never meant I could play them well.
I was the only player to go scoreless for the whole season on my middle school basketball team. I recorded a single goal in nine years of house league hockey. In baseball my infield throws always hopped to first. At least when I tossed a football it would spiral – sideways, that is.
I played the sports I enjoyed whenever I could, but I never had any illusions about making a college team.
And then I actually got to college. My roommate was joining the rugby team. My friend in my frosh group was joining the rugby team. His roommate was joining the rugby team. And they all told me the rugby team was a walk-on, meaning it offered roster spots to anyone who wanted to play.
So before I knew it, I was walking down University Avenue in a crowd of fellow first years as the rugby team captains led us to our first practice. It was held at St. Francis Field at the intersection of Robie and Inglis. Of course, those names are familiar to me now.
But back then, my first full day as a university student, the 10-minute journey seemed endless. The closest thing I had to running shoes at the time were low-cut Nike skateboard shoes I wore daily, hardly ideal for the quick cuts and power runs of rugby.
So my feet were squished into my roommate’s extra pair of running shoes, which he had generously loaned to me. It was a nice gesture, but his shoes were three sizes too small for me and only added a physical aspect to my emotional discomfort.
Finally we reached the field, where the rest of the team was already warming up. Looking around, I wondered why I was there. Not just what had driven me to sign up for this, but why they wanted me.
I was smaller, slower, and less athletic than every incumbent athlete assembled there. How would a kid with no experience or skill in rugby be able to help? I didn’t know, but I was both excited and nervous to find out.
The next two months were a whirlwind. I went to class, met new people, and enjoyed the freedom of university for the first time. And every weekday from 5 to 7 p.m., I practiced with the rugby team. Those two hours were unfortunately the same two hours that King’s residence served dinner every night, leaving us rookies to take care of our own meals. But we didn’t care; we were part of the team.
Each practice followed a routine. We started with stretches and a gruelling workout, spent the bulk of the time on drills, and usually finished with a scrimmage. We went all out every practice because, as our coaches constantly reminded us, since we weren’t the biggest team we had to be in the best shape. And because of those practices, we were.
A friend of mine from high school joined the team about a week into the season. He knew that he wasn’t as big or strong as the other players, but said his stamina was very good. Two days later the whole team went on a long run – my friend was among the last to finish. Our props, generally the biggest position on a rugby team, could keep up with other teams’ wings, usually the quickest. Our wings ran circles around everyone.
One of those wings was my roommate. He had a late birthday, so he was only 17 years old for that season. When he got room on the field, he was gone. There were two separate games in that season where he scored three tries, putting the moves on guys five years his senior, his small feet stopping and starting with astounding agility, and then beating them downfield, his legs pumping powerfully.
Each time he made one of his spectacular runs we would stand together along the sideline screaming, “he’s the fastest kid alive!”, echoing Seth Rogen’s line from Superbad. He had been playing rugby for years and had the skill to match his experience, so the coaches recognized his talent immediately. He was regular starter on the team, along with a few other rookies.
Of course, not all of us rookies were so talented. Most of us couldn’t contribute on the field, at least not during games, so we had to find other ways to make a difference. At first, it was hard for us to find our place. We would bumble through practice, slowing down the drills and clogging up the scrimmages.
Some of the older players privately complained to the coaches about us. I only know about this because the coaches gathered us together after practice one day and told us. Then they announced that everybody who attended practice was part of the team, regardless of skill level, and it was time to make everyone feel welcome. That speech did a lot to integrate us into the team, but what really brought us closer was finding our roles, winning, and celebrating together.
Our usefulness began to show during practices a week or two into the season, once we started doing drills in formation. The starters would line up to run plays and we lined up opposite them, simulating the other team. In previous years, when the team had been smaller, the starters would run drills against empty space.
Being able to run their plays against real people was an invaluable advantage that we provided, even if our defensive pressure wasn’t quite up to the standards of their usual opponents. Our presence at practice must have benefitted the starters, because when it came to game time they performed with the kind of execution and chemistry that’s difficult to attain from running against air.
As we won more and more, we also grew closer and closer as a team. At first us rookies had mostly stuck to ourselves, but with each passing week we were making more and more friends. I started the season too shy to speak to anyone I didn’t know, but by the end of it I was talking to everyone about anything.
The bond between our team as a whole was strong, but the bond that the rookies made with each other was special. We started spending all of our time together outside of practice, and five of us even decided to live together the next year.
When I graduated after four years at King’s, the rookies from the rugby team were all among my closest friends. There’s a certain kind of relationship you forge with teammates, whether they’re teammates in sport, work, school, or something else. The consistency and routine of practice, the natural camaraderie, the shared experiences – all of these aspects are conducive to lasting and powerful friendships.
We ended up winning the championship that year, and it was incredible, but it is the relationships I made with my teammates that I will always remember.
To those of you entering your first year of university, keep your mind open to something new and unexpected. It doesn’t have to be the rugby team, or any team for that matter. It doesn’t have to be something social or something that makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be anything at all, of course.
But there might be something out there that surprises you, something that you don’t even know exists yet, something that adds to your university experience for the better. And if that something presents itself to you, be prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.
For me, it was joining the King’s rugby team. I’m still not really sure how I ended up on it. But I will always be grateful that I did.