This was the forced fun portion of the conference. Two hundred twenty something’s, one year into their first post college job, and there was an open bar. There was one other young man not drinking so I approached him. “So where did you go to school?” I asked. That is how we all started our conversations at these things.
“A little school called UVSC. You?”
“Really?” I asked, eyebrow cocked as best I could. “I spent a few years at USU, but finished at the U.”
His eyebrow cocked. We had established each other’s reason for not drinking without having to ask directly, but my newfound brother had a distant look that insinuated there was something more.
With just a bit of prodding he offered, “I played rugby against USU once. There was this reff…”
“His name is Nev Tuipolotu”, I answered. “He’s a good guy.”
With this, my sober friend’s jaw dropped open, and he asked, “You mean you were there?”
This UVSC alumnus was about six feet two, blonde haired, and had a movie star jaw. He was the one in the company we all admired, not for his look, but for his territory; he covered Hawaii. Upon establishing that we had in fact been collegiate competitors against each other, and shared a common historic event, he shared more.
“I was on the sidelines when things got really out of hand. I had just been watching,but when it got crazy, I started to run onto the field. This reff stepped in front of me, grabbed me by my collar, looked me in the eye, and said, “you will stay right where you are.” He held my gaze till I realized my feet were off the ground. He jogged off and I stayed put.”
I had never heard this little bit of the story before. I had never heard it told from the other team’s perspective at all. By now some others had gathered round and more explaining was in order.
We, Utah State University, were the hosts. This was to be a “friendly”, meaning the result would not be official, it was a practice game of sorts. Our coach grew up on the island of Tonga, had come to the States for an education, and then just stayed. He did not get paid to teach us the game, nor was he being paid to be the reff that day.
Our team, a rag-tag of frat boys, islanders, and general knuckleheads would win the games we were supposed to, lose the ones predicted, and accepted any request for a game extended. This Saturday’s contest came with no crowds, no police, and no ambulance. In this respect it was the same as all our other games. That soon changed.
Cia (Siy-uh), had just employed a common tactic of enforcing the rules of play by “raking”. In rugby it is illegal to hold on to the ball once you are tackled and it is additionally rude to lie on top of the ball while it is on the ground. Raking is using your metal cleated boots to encourage the opponent lying on the ball to stop doing so. Most reffs will allow this as long as you don’t rake one’s head, and offenders quickly learn to stop cheating. In this instance the rakee did not learn but got upset. He jumped to his feet, yelled choice words, and started for Cia. Wayne, a slender fellow with two gold teeth who spoke little English came quickly to Cia’s defense with a hard thrown right fist.
Nev, the reff, caught Wayne’s fist mid-air, placed his other hand on the other players chest, and prevented a tragedy.
This other player, this neophyte philistine, forgot himself for a regrettable moment, and punched Nev in the face. We were not unaccustomed to a scuffle here and there and most just sort of sorted themselves out. Someone would get thrown out of the game and we would finish a man down, or a couple of us would spend 5 minutes in the “sin bin” to cool down and then get cleaned up before the post game party. No big deal; till now. No one had ever punched Nev before and in so doing this unaware hot head had dropped a bomb.
Fists flew and lips bled. I saw some of the best tackles a rugby pitch has ever seen and kicking that Beckham could never match. Everywhere you looked there was action, two on one here, one on one there; piles of bodies writhing and biting. Seeing a haymaker headed for a teammates head, I put my shoulder in that guys ribs and dropped him to the ground. Holding his face in the grass I was perfectly posed to be grabbed from behind in a headlock and pulled backwards. Flat on my back I had a great view of the player above me, kicking me in the chest. I also had a great view of Wayne executing a beautiful flying kick that crumpled my tormentor like a paper doll.
Usually when things like this begin, some sort of authority steps in and brings it to a close. I began to wonder how long this was going to continue as I bear hugged a very angry, but smaller, player from the other team. I held him immobile off to one side for what seemed like an eternity before I saw the other team sort of trickle off the pitch, gather their gear, and leave. I released my prey to join them and flopped onto the grass exhausted.
As I lay there Nev walked past and said, “Guess we are done for today.” The incident had lasted more than twenty minutes. I sat round the kava bowl with my roommate and some other players later that night. I was tired, achy, and confused. I had never seen anything like that before and nothing like it since. It was the sort of thing that didn’t get retold often because we tellers grew tired of being accused of exaggeration. Listeners would tire or ask questions I could not answer. Questions like “why did it finally end? How did the fighting stop?” As years passed I began to wonder the same thing. I never knew, till that evening, years later.
My cross-country co-worker told how this giant of a reff went from group to group, scuffle to scuffle, ordering people to stop, and they did. This player, new to the game, simply did what he was told; he stayed put. I doubt any one man has ever remained so cool amid such chaos, ever commanded such respect, or simply ever frightened so many people as Nev did that day.
I smiled at my new friend, raised my Shirley Temple in a silent toast, and the two of us sat bored as the rest of our cohorts got drunk.