New Mexico Rugby

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, March 2012

I wonder how long it would take for my fingers to go blue with frostbite. Then I wonder if it’s even possible to get frostbite in a dry, windy desert. But standing out in the middle of UNM’s Johnson Field on a cuttingly windy February night, scribbling down Patrick McBride’s words as we look out on a frenzied herd of men, half of whom are wearing shorts, I think, yes. I’m going to get frostbite while they’re playing keep away.

McBride’s rugby team, the Albuquerque Aardvarks, seems as though it’s staffed half by gladiators and half by woodland elves (the lean, muscular variety a la Lord of the Rings). Team coach Jonathan Gray runs over to shake my hand, and I can hardly wrap my fingers around his palm. He’s one of the guys wearing shorts, but because his broad shoulders tower over my head, it hardly seems strange. He must have gladiator blood. McBride, on the other hand, is slender and graceful in appearance, emphasized by his form-fitting black uniform. Gray looks like he could push over a rhinoceros, but McBride looks like he could run circles around one, and that’s kind of the point.

“Forwards are bigger, burlier guys,” says McBride, the team’s president. “Fullbacks are quicker, usually a little bit smaller.” While rugby teams are comprised of giants that bowl you over and gazelles that dart between them, there’s one crucial distinction that separates the sport from football, and it has nothing to do with gear. “In rugby, all the guys play both roles,” says McBride. While players still have positions in rugby (McBride is a fullback), they aren’t confined to those positions like players are in football. And because rugby’s 80-minute games feature continuous play (meaning no timeouts), not only do teams have to be in excellent shape, they have to be mentally dextrous as well.

“Rugby is a more sophisticated sport. The positions in rugby are more fluid,” says Elden Pennington, newly elected president of the Santa Fe Santos. “Every player on the field runs defense, runs the field, looks for weaknesses.” 

Pennington didn’t start playing rugby until he was 18, although he’s spent most of his life involved in some sort of team sport. He started with soccer when he was about 4 years old, and with a father who coached a Little League team, he soon started in baseball. He added football to the mix in high school, but his heart still belonged to baseball. Pennington realized he wouldn’t be able to continue in the sport in college around the same time he heard about the Santos, an adult rugby team, and he joined right away. That was 10 years ago. Now, as a 28-year-old criminal defense attorney, Pennington refers to his team as a family. “We all hang out on and off the field,” he says. “I know their kids.”

Many rugby players seem to find the sport for the same reason. “A lot of sports for adults are more recreational leagues,” says McBride. As adult rugby teams spread around the country, men and women who love sports and don’t want to stop playing them just because they’re grown-up are flocking to the field. “It’s the fastest-growing sport in the United States,” says Jordan Ryder, tournament director for the New Mexico Brujos. Ryder doesn’t play on the team, but her cousin does. When she moved to Albuquerque in 2009, she went to some games and loved them. As a marketing student, Ryder enjoyed the event planning involved in the team’s tournament and helped out, taking over as director this year.

The tournament the Brujos puts on every May—which hosted more than 40 teams and 500 players from five states last year—is about fun, not official league play. “We give away trophies and everything,” Ryder says. “Then there’s a big social afterwards.” The two-day event happens in conjunction with the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival and Highland Games at Balloon Fiesta Park, this year on May 19 and 20. The adult and high school teams take the field on Saturday, leaving room for youth teams on Sunday. 

While many teams put on similar, purely fun tournaments, the teams are also members of USA Rugby divisions. Official seasons occur twice a year, in spring from March through late May and fall from August to early November. New Mexico’s carved out a niche on the national stage. The Aardvarks placed second in the nation in 2009 and made the top 10 in 2011. “We have high hopes for this year,” says McBride. Additionally, New Mexico’s adult women’s team, the Atomic Sisters, went to nationals in 2011 for the second year in a row.

But prestige seems like an afterthought to players—although McBride and Pennington both reference their competitive streaks in life as well as on the field. Primarily, they play the game for another reason: love. It may sound cheesy and you certainly won’t hear it directly from their lips, but when asked why they play, McBride and Pennington say nothing about winning. It’s all about the love.

First, there’s the true bond between teammates, developed on and off the field. “Your buddies have got your back, and you need that,” Pennington says, speaking both literally and figuratively. “There are big guys on the other team who want to hurt me. But there are big guys on my team who don’t want that to happen. We all have a role, we support each other.” In the decade he’s been playing rugby, Pennington says his teammates, who range in age from 18 to 44, have become some of his closest friends. “We help each other get excited, get motivated,” he says. “These are your guys.”

McBride, meanwhile, was introduced to his wife and his career through rugby. The career bit came with a teammate who was in real estate. McBride started working with him part-time and become a broker soon after. “My wife, her cousin’s husband played rugby,” he says. They met at a social seven years ago, and now they’re expecting a baby within the month.

As players start families, they seldom drop out of the sport, even if they have to pull back, says Pennington. Although rugby has a reputation for being particularly tough, he says injuries are no more common than they are in any other sport. “Dislocated fingers happen all the time,” he says, adding that he once separated his shoulder and that players occasionally get ACL injuries. Still, “in 10 years I’ve only had one concussion,” he laughs. McBride’s walked away with plenty of bloody lips and black eyes, he says, and once he needed stitches in his forehead. “I’ve separated both my shoulders,” he adds—but, luckily, not at the same time.

Then there’s the love of the game itself. McBride says he enjoys “the mental challenge of it; also the physical exertion.” He remembers a semi-final match in Denver when the Aardvarks were down by 18 points. “At half time, all the guys managed to rally and come back,” he says. “There were close to 100 fans on our side, cheering our name. The opposing team was from Pennsylvania, and they were telling us we were rockstars.” That, he says, “feels really good.”

Members of adult teams have to be passionate about the sport, as my cold fingers can attest. “In an adult club, everyone works, so we have training at 6,” says Pennington. “We have to pay for the lights we use until Daylight Savings Time, and we can’t use the clubhouse until the ground thaws.” Practicing in the dark in the middle of winter could take its toll, but Pennington says it’s well worth it when a game approaches. 

“It starts Friday afternoon,” he says. “I think about how I want to play.” His nerves begin to tingle and he psychs himself up, and his excitement builds “until the whistle blows on Saturday.” Once he hits the field, all the pressure subsides and he’s simply in the game. “There are times,” he says, “when I’ve literally felt there’s nothing else in this world I’m thinking about then what’s going to happen next.” And that, he adds, is fun.