The game of rugby was born at a small boarding school in England. These young boys grew up and took the game with them, spreading it around the world, or at least anywhere in the world that at one time saw a concentration of former English school boys. This game remained a game till it hit New Zealand. There it became an art.
The United States was well established as its own country by the time rugby was invented, but American Universities like Harvard and Princeton were still fashioning themselves in the image of places like Cambridge and Oxford. All of those schools, especially the American one’s, played rugby. Over time the American version morphed a bit, we started blocking players who weren’t carrying the ball, stopped play after each tackle, and finally, the move that forever swept American’s away from rugby, the forward pass was made legal.
Rugby became football and Americans fell into a deep passionate love with gridiron. It started in the ivy league schools of the East Coast, spread to schools nationwide, and then, mostly in the Midwest, the game went professional. Those early days of the NFL are forever in our memory as black and white images of games being played on frozen fields in places like Green Bay, Cleveland, and Chicago. Soldier Field in Chicago, home of Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears, is a living temple dedicated to the memory of the early days of football and the steel toughened game we love.
I love both games. They are cousins. Birthed of the same parents but reared oceans apart, they tell the same story in different languages, and as the language of rugby goes, the New Zealand All Blacks are Shakespeare. The Americans who still play the game are more like Steinbeck.
They flow with flourishes of color and beauty. We are straight forward, dusty and plodding. I like Steinbeck but watching the Grapes of Wrath performed is not Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reading either is fun, but New Zealand performs. They embody beauty. The Americans travel dirt roads toward California scrounging for a better life.
New Zealand rarely plays against the American national team (Eagles). When they do meet, it isn’t in America. Every time they have met, New Zealand has won. Handily.
But sometimes legends do meet, Washington knew Jefferson, Socrates and Plato, and then Soldier Field and the All Blacks. The match was attended by 60,000 people, the largest crowd in American rugby history, and I was there. Me and every other rugby fan in the States. Every thick chested, Guinness drinking, tree trunk legged American sat in the frozen stands and got wobbly kneed when the Kiwis did the haka.
The score was as predicted- Shakespeare plays never have new endings, but the performance is always worth watching. Seeing it live…