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A FRIGID WIND SWEEPS across Manila Community Park, aligned with the shadows of a winter afternoon. The HSU Men's Rugby team is about to take the field against Humboldt Old Growth, which is made up of players from years past. In common parlance, it's schoolboys vs. old men.

As harsh as the weather is, players are minimally clad, some in skin-tight shorts and looking vaguely British in their striped jerseys. Team members are taping each other up, doing warm-ups and running through plays. The ball, oblong but fatter than a football, sits ready for action. At the center of the field, the referee levels his gaze at the twitching combatants. "I expect clean play," he says. "If you cheat, I'll know."

THE SCHOOLBOYS KICK OFF the game with their ritual chant, derived from a Maori war dance called a haka. It begins with a whispered call-and-response, then builds to a group wail.

The teams splay out across the field and the game is on. The ball is a tumbling blur as it flies from player to player, making its way down the field amid the mob of bodies. Here rugby's rhythms depart from the American sports standard of time-outs and interruptions. In rugby, there's no break in the action unless a penalty is called.

The schoolboys eventually beat the old men in this contest, 12 to 10. Battered, bruised but beaming, the Humboldt players leave the field in a flurry of handshakes and back-pats.

Contact and Camaraderie

Men's Rugby president Pat Bellefeuille, center, huddles with players during the pre-game chant, derived from a traditional Maori war dance. Bottom: Another oddball term: a "ruck" is the scramble for the ball after a player is tackled.

Simon Trapkus is a veteran of Humboldt Rugby's golden age, a period in the 1980s and 1990s when the small but spunky HSU team was known for feisty play, both on and off the field.

Like many rugby players, Trapkus had tried baseball, football, soccer – even wrestling and track – but wasn't satisfied. It wasn't until he fell in with the "wrong" crowd that he found the right way to go.

"I had some buddies, the kind you'd expect to be rugby players – maverick, outlaw types," he says. They talked him into trying rugby. "I didn't think it was going to be any fun," he says. "It wasn't mainstream, but I went out and played, and oh my gosh, it was fun. Once you've played, you're into it."

His experience is common among rugby players. "In one game I got to kick, I got to catch, I got to pass, I got to run and I got to tackle without having to change position at all," says veteran player Pat Bellefeuille, now president of the Humboldt Rugby Football Club. "I went from one little specialized thing to doing every single thing you could possibly do on the field. It's liberating."

Bellefeuille invokes the two c-words you hear a lot in talking to rugby players – contact and camaraderie. "It's a contact sport, but at the same time it's a gentleman's game," he says. "It's all about the camaraderie between the teams. It's kind of a culture."

That culture has flourished at HSU. Trapkus heard about it from his high school coaches. When he asked whether he should go to Chico, Davis or HSU, their sotto voce, insider-information reply was, ‘Go to Humboldt State. That is where the rugby tradition is thick.'

Founded in 1973, Humboldt men's rugby is a club team and was not affiliated with a league for its first decade. Only in 1984 did the team gain Division I status (from USA Rugby, not the NCAA, which does not officially recognize rugby). Then it started taking on powerhouse teams from UC Davis, Berkeley, Chico State and St. Mary's.

Humboldt's close-knit team hit 'em all hard and fast – and unexpectedly. "They were wondering why Berkeley was even playing Humboldt," says Mike Foget, an '80s HSU rugby vet. In one match with Berkeley, he recalls, the Humboldt team lost the game while scoring a monumental moral victory. "They won, but the score didn't tell the story. We came out and played them pretty close on their own field. They were nervous."

Experiences like that were frequent and eventually propelled the Humboldt team to the western regional playoffs. Several team members earned national prominence as All-Americans, including players like Trapkus, Kevin Miske, John Mitchell and Jim Morehouse.

Oddly, the Humboldt team's obscurity may have helped forge its unity. "We spent a lot of time on the road together traveling," Foget says. "That's how the remoteness of Humboldt helped to solidify that bond among the players."

Post-game Play

Clockwise from top left: Men's rugby practice is no less intense than full-blown matches | "We refer to it as a sisterhood," says women's co-coach Michelle Deutsch. "You protect each other." | Once the game is over, jerseys end up on the sidelines as players head off to celebrate | The ball is a blur as it flies from player to player | "When you're out on the field, you play hard," says women's co-coach Jon Mooney. "But when you step off the field, you invite the visiting team over, have a barbecue, sing songs." | Rugby is reserved for the tough and stubborn.

Another galvanizing force was the team's legendary Green House. Part residence, part clubhouse and ground zero for Humboldt rugby, the house featured bedrooms upstairs, a bar in the downstairs garage and lots of team memorabilia – photos, trophies, and random pieces of equipment.

"You'd walk in and there's the tradition," Trapkus remembers. "There's 1973, there's 1983 when Chris Carroll broke that guy's jaw from Cal and we won. Come over here, this is where we won the Reno tournament three years in a row."

"It was pretty amazing," says Jon Mooney, another Humboldt Rugby old hand who now coaches the women's rugby team. "It was well known all over the West Coast."

According to rugby tradition, the on-field fury is just a warm-up to another stage of the game: the social side. Visiting teams – even bitter rivals like Chico State – were invariably invited back to the Green House for a post-game party.

"When you're out on the field, you play hard, you want to win and you're not going to take it easy on that person," Mooney says. "But when you step off the field, you leave it all there. You invite the visiting team over, have a barbecue, sing songs."

The intersection of roguery and refinement is where you'll find rugby's raunchy salt-of-the-earthers. The perception of rugby players as slightly ruffian rogues isn't something they do anything to discourage, either in word or deed. For instance, while the men's team has a song (based on a burger chain's jingle), its lyrics are best left to the imagination. Even the title is more-or-less unmentionable.

Women's Rugby

Pioneer female player Erin Kate Springer, now a firefighter, wanted to play for Humboldt in the early '90s. There was no women's team, so she went ahead and joined the men's team.

Though outweighed by maybe 25 pounds, Springer didn't get any special treatment. As Trapkus says, "She hit; she got hit."

Springer also helped form the Humboldt women's rugby club team in 1997, and it's been going strong ever since.

Monday nights, the women practice in the recently refurbished Field House, part of the HSU Student Recreation Center. There, whoops ring out across the faux turf in the sprawling indoor field.

Seen from a distance, there's little to distinguish the players from their male counterparts. But while the play and the culture have similarities, there are differences.

Contact and camaraderie come up, but so do confidence and connectedness.

"We refer to it as a sisterhood," says Michelle Deutsch, who co-coaches the team with Mooney. "You protect each other."

Jessica "J.T." Turner ('09) tapes her pierced nose to ward off injuries.

As a college soccer player in Pennsylvania, Deutsch eyed the rugby practices across the field and then befriended a few players. "They were really fun, a lot more laid-back than other sports teams I've been on," Deutsch said. "We felt really connected to each other."

"I've played a lot of other sports and there's really nothing like it," she says. "It's so much more free-flowing than any other contact sport."

Deutsch says the rough-and-tumble, which men may be accustomed to, cuts women loose from ingrained constraints with a fresh sense of their own power.

"Suddenly, you're learning all these ways to use your body and your strength," says Deutsch. "Maybe you were told that you weren't as strong as a man and can't do the same things physically. But when you learn the ways you can use your body, it builds your confidence. You can play a rugby game, you can fix a car. It breaks gender-role stereotypes; the way you're ‘supposed to be' as a woman."

Rugby Culture

In 2000, the men's team switched to Division II status. Some see it as a setback, others a blessing.

"Honestly, I think it's a good thing," Mooney says. "We've competed strongly over the years, but when you go up against a school that's literally got 25,000 students to draw from, it's tough."

What hasn't changed is the fun and fellowship, nor the seasonal sporting and social events. The September alumni game is a big draw, and the men and women players get together for an annual Winter Formal.

All types of people can fit into the rugby family. "Rugby teams want more people to be in the rugby culture, so it's really easy to make a change from another sport," Deutsch says. "They're totally accepting of women who have played another sport and are willing to teach from the ground up."

In fact, the players take a certain pride in their marginal mindshare, and see themselves as a lifelong band of brothers and sisters, even after leaving the game.

"There is a certain pride in being part of an underground, alternative sport," Mooney says. "There are people all over the place who have played rugby. You just keep running into them."

Trapkus has never stopped living life by rugby rules. "It was such a painful sport to play," he says. "It's just ingrained in you that that's how you'll live the rest of your life." End Story