It's a Saturday afternoon in early November and 15 men in red-and-black jerseys with rubber buttons are huddled at one end of a vast grassy expanse at the Schiller Woods Forest Preserve. This spot is the home field, or paddock, of the Chicago Griffins Rugby Football Club. Murray "Muzza" Roeske, a six-foot-two, 210-pound New Zealander with the visage of a Viking, is in the middle, offering a few encouraging phrases to his teammates. "Fack all the rest of the games, mates...fack all that--our season ends here! Let's leave it all on the facking paddock!...Let's get nut up!"
More than a hundred people are milling around on the home team's sideline, most with drinks in hand. Under a tent is a makeshift canteen, with two bartenders, a keg of beer, and bottles of rum and whiskey and vodka. There's a vat of hot chocolate with which to mix hot toddies. There are two portable heaters hooked up to propane tanks. Next to the tent, on a platform held up by ten feet of scaffolding, is a man with a video camera. A good friend of Griffins captain Brendan Brown, he records all the home matches so the team can study them later.
The only people on the sideline of the visiting club, the Pearl City RFC out of Muscatine, Iowa, are players and coaches.
Though it's been played in the States since at least the late 1800s, rugby still exists at the margins of American sport. It's a brutal but highly technical game, and Americans who do get hooked tend to do so late but fall hard, attracted to both the intense physical challenge and the beery camaraderie. Brown, like many players, got into it in college, at the University of Iowa. Now 31 and a freelance corporate writer, he dedicates up to 25 hours a week to the Griffins during the season, which runs from August to November, plus playoffs from March to June. His teammates include lawyers, construction workers, investment bankers, engineers, a house painter, and a college student, among others, and they all put in at least 15 hours a week. "It's hard to imagine what course my life would've taken if I hadn't found rugby," Brown says. "It's the only outlet I can imagine that provides that kind of physical test, and the framework to challenge yourself on a regular basis. I didn't play my first year out of college, and I always look at that as a year I can't get back."
Rugby in the States is governed by a single body called USA Rugby, which has four national club divisions for men who aren't in college--III, II, I, and the elite Super League. (There's also a national team, whose members are drawn from the club ranks.) There are 550 men's clubs in the country, comprising some 17,000 players. Division I has 70 teams, 3 of them in the Chicago area: the Griffins, the West Side Condors, and the South Side Irish. Super League teams often play "friendlies" with Division I clubs, and the Griffins have a history of winning these games handily. Last year they beat the Super League's Kansas City Blues 60-0, and this season they beat the Chicago Lions, the oldest rugby club in town, 23-13. For most of the match the Griffins were a man short--a player got red carded for punching one of the Lions.
If the Griffins win today's game against the Pearl City RFC, their final game of the regular season, they'll come out 10-0, guaranteeing them a top seed in the national playoffs this spring. In March the eight regions in Division I will hold round-robins, and the top 16 teams to emerge will meet in a single-elimination tournament that begins in April. The Griffins have been there before: they boast the longest streak of top-16 playoff appearances in Division I history--ten, including three in the Final Four. But that ultimate win has remained elusive.
A sign hanging from the ceiling of the canteen reads BLACK ROCK WEST, a reference to Griffins headquarters, a bar called the Black Rock on Damen just north of Addison. Named after a prominent Irish rugby club, the Black Rock is more than just a hangout for the Griffins. Four longtime team members--Terry Connors, Ed Giangiorgi, Jeff Melgard, and Jim Roth--own the bar and the building it occupies. All four started playing rugby in college, joined the team (founded in 1973) in the late 80s, and have remained close friends as they've gone on to careers in finance and commercial real estate. Now they're considered "old boys," a term for the aging alumni of a rugby club. An old boy may or may not play for his team, but he's still involved with the organization, often as a sponsor. In the Griffins' case, that sort of involvement is tax deductible: since 2001 the club has been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The old boys bought the Black Rock for $425,000 in 2000, and every dollar it generates in profit--about $30,000 a year, says Terry Connors--goes to help cover the $80,000 to $90,000 the Griffins rack up annually in travel and other expenses. Yet there's almost nothing in the front room of the bar--no team photographs, no jerseys behind glass--to suggest that the Black Rock's raison d'etre is a rugby team. Civilians tend to associate rugby with rowdy frat-boy behavior, the owners say, and because they want to make as much money for the team as possible, they don't want to scare away potential customers. The decor is all stained oak and flat-screen TVs, and about the only items that might betray the connection are a few plaques and trophy cups on a shelf behind the bar. From a distance they might as well have been awarded for darts.
That's not to say the players don't spend a lot of time at the bar. They gather religiously after practices, and parties where the home team hosts the visitors are as integral to postgame etiquette as shaking hands. A former player, Matt Golden, is a bartender and manager, and two players who live upstairs pretty much treat the Black Rock as their living room.
In fact part of the reason the old boys wanted a building to go along with their bar was to have a place to store their ringers. Although U.S. rugby clubs are mostly made up of amateurs, each is allowed to beef up its roster with five foreign players. They're often paid, and almost without exception they're imported from countries where rugby is a bigger deal: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, the UK. More than 20 such players have been through the Griffins' ranks through the years, and currently the club has 3: Murray "Muzza" Roeske, who's 27, fellow New Zealander Scot Puckett, 31, and 28-year-old Australian Ryan Westaway. Westaway has his own place and takes a salary; the other two live rent free in two apartments above the bar and get between $200 and $300 a week in walking-around money. Typically the club also covers their airfare. This year the Griffins spent about $20,000 on the ringers.
The ringers act as assistants to 36-year-old New Zealander Graham "Bush" Muir, recruited to coach and play for the Griffins in 2000, the same year the old boys bought the Black Rock. (He met his wife at the bar and still lives within walking distance.) Six-foot-two and 240 pounds, with narrow eyes and a bald head, Muir is half-Scottish and half-Maori. He grew up in a village called Taupo, in the Alpine region of the North Island. He hasn't been home for any extended period of time since leaving 16 years ago. Like many young people down under, he left not long after high school for his OE, or overseas experience. He used rugby to finance his travels, which have yet to end. He's played and coached in half a dozen countries, including Australia, Ireland, the UK, and Canada. Last year a torn Achilles tendon ended his career on the field, but he's still the winningest coach in Griffins history. Since he took over six years ago, they've gone an astonishing 92-9-1. This fall they destroyed teams: 41-17, 59-17, 83-8.
The final game of the regular season developed into another blowout: the Griffins won 46-10, and as the top midwestern seed they'll have home-field advantage when the playoffs start in March. But few were paying attention, even among the Griffins' boosters. The crowd under the tent, mostly friends and acquaintances of the players, had paid $10 apiece to get ferried by school bus from the Black Rock to the paddock. The ticket included drinks, and by the time the game's outcome was assured it was hard to tell if the hooch or the rugby was the bigger draw. At one point the Griffins scored on a beautifully orchestrated series of laterals. As the team's speedy ballcarriers broke tackle after tackle, the fans chatted among themselves.
Muir, his arms folded, turned to glance at a group of them standing nearby. "And the crowd erupts," he said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.