I was sitting at my desk minding my own business when I went on facebook and learned that a friend had died. I haven’t sorted this out yet. He was right at my age. We played rugby together back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. I haven’t seen him in almost 40 years. I think we were facebook friends and some of my other rugby buddies have kept up with him.
He apparently died unexpectedly of a heart attack while doing the biking part of a triathlon. We played the same position, but on opposite sides of the scrum; he more effectively than me. He was a great athlete, a star, with great instincts for the game. A good guy, too, who loved life.
I wonder if it’s odd that I would even take much notice of his passing, having not interacted with him in so long, but suddenly I’m mentally back on the pitch with my friends inside that buzz of anticipation immediately before kick-off, preferably with a temp of about 40 degrees and rain. So maybe this is what it is I’m feeling: Not just the loss of a friend, but the loss of youth, too. About rugby, I wrote this in my memoir:
I’m sixty years old, but I’m still drawn to rugby as if by a sci-fi tractor beam. For years I couldn’t stand on the sidelines and just watch, it was too painful. I’d want to be on the pitch myself. So when I gave it up, I stayed away from even watching rugby, for more than 20 years. . . .
[Rugby] unmasks, more than creates, a primordial grit which I cannot, try as I might, express in mere words. Rugby feels atavistic. It creates, from the opening whistle, an ultimate warfare bond with one’s tribe. Every one of your teammates is magnified in your imagining during the 80 minutes of contest, and you are one with them, body and mind. . . .
Those of us taken with the sport in those days were pirates, outlaws, the scourge of civilized society, and the sport we played seemed to say so, . . . [There was] the idea that we’re loosed here to do our worst but at the end of the match we reaffirm our comradeship in this – I hesitate to call it “sport,” it’s so much more – this gut-level barbarian yawp of kinsmanship not just with our mates but with our opponents, together with them howling at the moon in uncluttered, unconstrained manly camaraderie. Forgive my florid prose.
This felt like freedom, I’m not sure why. But I’ve not experienced anything like it since. As I write this, I haven’t played a match in almost thirty years. And yet I hunger for it, like I imagine a sober alcoholic hungers for a drink. There is a deep longing, there, but it must remain unrequited because this body progresses to an end. My God, there must be rugby in heaven.
Rest in peace, friend.