By Sal Bommarito, ’70
I attended the 60th year celebration of Notre Dame Rugby in South Bend, Indiana this past weekend. It was an opportunity to see fellow teammates from my rugby days, 1966 through 1970.
So many memories came to mind during the two-day event that culminated with a Notre Dame/Purdue football confrontation. Some team members I had not seen for over 50 years. Like all reunions, it’s pretty strange to see someone after many years. I was attached to six other guys and one wife for the events, which included the aforementioned football game, varsity and junior varsity rugby matches, a dinner and a tailgate party.
I spent most of my time with our former captain, “doughboy,” “metro” and his wife. When I first caught up with the group, we chatted about our spouses, children and grandchildren. Everyone is pretty much retired; we are all 72 or 73 years old.
Of course, we discussed our respective medical issues. You can’t put two or more old guys together and not discuss prostate and heart issues. Given that we all experienced some belly expansion and a lot of lines on our faces, the conversations were apropos.
Surprisingly, we didn’t spend much time reliving former victories and losses on the pitch. I seemed to remember far more game moments than the others, something that struck me as odd. By far the most talked about event was our trip to Ireland, where we played six matches against college level teams and a couple of pickup games. My recollection of these events are still vivid.
During our rugby days, scrimmaging everyday was the usual activity. It gave the younger players an opportunity to play against the first team. These sessions were brutal and much more violent than most of our matches with other college teams and rugby clubs. The competition was extraordinary. And, injuries were quite common.
Rugby was a year-round commitment. We had Fall and Spring matches, and we worked out together all winter in the football stadium underneath the stands and up and down the steps of the stadium in freezing weather. When the Indiana snow subsided, we took it to the rugby field and began the grueling intra-squad matches that would determine who started on the first and second teams. The starting teams were chosen by the captain and four or five starters. There was a tremendous amount of animosity during these sessions of team selections.
Rugby is a violent sport. Winston Churchill said, “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” I wouldn’t exactly call us gentlemen. Suffice it to say injuries were commonplace. I had my fair share, two concussions, many stitches, a broken hand, numerous other broken bones, etc.
Quite a few Notre Dame students played football in high school. I was one of them. I considered walking on and trying to make the football team, but it was a it was a losing proposition. The freshman football team had 30 plus scholarship players, some of the most fantastic athletes in the country. There was little need for walk-on support.
So, what does one do at ND if you can’t play football, you play rugby? We had all-state high school players on the team. We always had excellent players and won most of our matches. We did get our asses handed to us when we went West to play against Berkeley.
When I arrived at school, which was all men by the way, I went to a student fair where the clubs on campus recruited freshmen. I saw the rugby representative and was immediately seduced. Ultimately, I played and traveled for four years and had the best time given the lack of women on campus. We tried to schedule games in cities where the football team was playing, so we could see them live.
After a hard game on the pitch, ruggers are always ready to party. The rugby team was my “animal house.” There were no fraternities, so we mustered after each game with our opponents and tore the house down, literally. The school asked us to become a varsity sport, and we responded by asking them why we would give up the opportunity to have a beer and a cigarette at halftime.
The friendships that developed where longstanding. When I was a freshman, I got to know many of the older teammates who looked after me. I was 17 when I arrived at ND. Unfortunately, there were very few of the old timers at this reunion, which saddened me greatly.
It’s impossible to not circle back to our Irish tour in the spring of 1968. Notre Dame in Ireland was a real event for the natives. They loved the way we played rugby, like US football, and the way we partied and misbehaved when we were off the pitch. We were greeted in some towns by mayors, clergyman who prayed for our souls and party hounds just like ourselves. The more we misbehaved the more the locals loved us.
While traveling around the country, we stopped at a Guinness facility. The company was nice to give us an extended tour of the operation ending with a longer period of time to taste their beers. It was a cinch to drink two six packs in a 1/2 an hour, which all 30 of us accomplished. We preceded to get rowdy and were escorted off the premises. Someone, I can’t imagine who, stole the Guinness flag off the top of the factory.
The friendships we made were strong but not strong enough to ensure contact because of the Vietnam War and the formation of new families. We were all trying to achieve success and take care of our loved ones. In my case, 50 years streaked by before I made contact with my rugby buddies.
A half century changed the physical layout of the campus and turned all of us into old men with cherished memories. I’m glad metro talked me into participating in the 60th celebration.